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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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.