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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.