Coca Cola decides to pay their Olympic taxes

Coca Cola takes a lead from McDonald's.

Internet petitions have, for once, proved effective, as Olympic sponsor Coca Cola have joined McDonald's in announcing they will not be partaking in their allowed tax break during the Games. Since HMRC pronounced Stratford the latest haven in tax dodging, the internet has exploded with complaints that corporations sponsoring London 2012 such as Lloyds TSB, Visa and Adidas should not partake in the tax exemption they are offered. The legislation not only forgives sponsors from paying tax on the fortunes they will earn during the Games, but also any foreign nationals working in the UK for the purpose; this includes journalists, judges and the athletes themselves. While the amounts the individuals will rake in from three weeks of income and UK corporation tax concessions may not be huge, it will cost the UK tens of millions of pounds to lose, as estimated by Richard Murphy from the Tax Justice Network.

The petition was started on the 38 Degrees website and has now over 160 000 signatures. On Wednesday McDonald's bowed to furious online petitioners, saying that the revenue from the games would only make up 0.1 per cent of annual sales in the UK. Hours later, Coca Cola also conceded and made a statement on their website to pay their fair share of tax during the Games. Perhaps this is the first of many escape routes from the somewhat Orwellian laws of copyright the Olympics have influenced in this country. I refer to the legislation that vendors within 100 metres of Olympic venues are forbidden from violating sponsorship agreements, by which I mean selling chips. Except in the joyful loophole that fish with chips is allowed, selling chips alone which are not McDonald's branded will result in a hefty fine. Likewise with soft drinks other than Coca Cola and beer other than Heineken. Considering this it is less surprising that McDonald's and Coca Cola don't mind paying their taxes as it will hardly compromise the billions of pounds they will be earning. However, the decision to ignore the tax exemption still shows the corporations in a good light, and until the other sponsors back down the petition at 38 Degrees will continue to go strong to break them, or die in the attempt.

To the taxpayer the decision to pay the usual requirement of taxes seems only fair; the UK has already been proven to be riddled with tax evaders, with the Barclays scandal still hanging stagnant in the air along with dozens of other bankers' tax avoidance accusations. However, tax exemption is far from unknown in the Olympic world; in fact, such legislations have long since been endemic to the Games for years. Usain Bolt is just one of the big-name athletes who has pushed tax exemption rules to be adopted by hosting countries. So is tax just seen as something optional to be dropped when it comes to big publicity situations? No, it's worse than that; “tax” has become a poisonous word that evokes feelings of horror and misery the moment it's spat off the tongue. In a world where dropping tax is seen as a reward (though why big names should be rewarded for having logos on the side of the stadium needs further explanation) and paying tax is a punishment, how can we expect so much of large corporations? We seem to be forgetting the purpose of tax: to help people who can't help themselves, and provide the public with those mildly useful luxuries we occasionally need, such as hospitals and schools. Sometimes our tax isn't used very wisely by the government, no. But shockingly enough, it is a democracy that we live in, and we can use our power to vote or to sign petitions online towards the hope that whoever is in charge will make a loose majority of decent choices. Organisations like the Olympics promote the idea that only the losers pay tax and the winners, be they competing athletes or corporations that get brownie points for monopolising industries, are lucky enough to get out of helping their country function. As long as we keep this mentality it's inevitable that McDonald's and Coca Cola deciding to pay tax will be something of a shock to us. Thankfully, the fact that they have done so can contribute to a new mentality. It might even promote the aim to do good over earn money. One can only hope.

Olympic sponsor Coca Cola presents the torch relay in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images
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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.