Amazon's tax avoidance can only be solved at EU level

Little-Britainism won't help us here.

The revelation in The Guardian last week that Amazon pays no UK corporation tax has prompted much anguish. How can a company that is the UK's largest online retailer with annual sales in the UK of £3.3bn get away with this? Tim Waterstone, founder of the high street book store chain, weighed in with a column in the same paper bemoaning Amazon's "contemptuous, arrogant and subversive" approach.

Despite all the attention on Amazon's behaviour, few solutions to the Amazon problem have been proposed. It's not as if the multinational is going to easily be shamed into paying more tax, and as Waterstone admits, Amazon is acting within the letter of the law.

The solution is instead to look at how tax systems work within the European Union and – shock horror – solve these issues at EU level.

There is a general consensus in the United Kingdom that being part of the EU's single market is a good thing. It allows a UK bookseller to ship its products to Luxembourg, and a Luxembourg bookseller to ship to the UK. There are no cumbersome tariffs or customs procedures involved in doing this. As consumers we win. Yet as taxpayers we increasingly lose.

The first problem is with Value Added Tax (VAT). Paper books have zero-rate VAT in the UK, while e-books are defined as electronic products and are subject to VAT at 20 per cent. Luxembourg, following the lead of France, has reduced VAT on e-books to three per cent. So Kindle e-books sold by the Luxembourg-headquartered Amazon EU Sarl, have a 17 per cent price advantage over the same publication sold by a UK-based e-book seller, even when bought by a customer residing in the UK.

In 2015 the EU VAT rules are due to change, meaning the country of residence of the purchaser will determine the VAT rate, but in the fast-paced technology sector the next three years are going to be crucial - how many UK-based booksellers are going to even be left by 2015?

The second problem is with corporation tax, both the rate of corporation tax and how you define the profits on which it is levied. Ireland's low 12.5 per cent corporation tax rate is one of the reasons both Google and Apple have their EU headquarters there. However Luxembourg is not an especially low corporation tax regime – its headline rate of 28.59 per cent is higher than the UK's rates. The attraction of Luxembourg for Amazon is instead that the costs that can be offset against income are defined differently. This allows for Amazon to have a lower taxable income if based in Luxembourg rather than in the UK.

The European Commission has realised that this is a problem for more than a decade, having repeatedly attempted to work towards a common consolidated corporate tax base (CCCTB), yet so far to no avail. The idea is that the definition of profits eligible to be taxed in all EU countries would be the same, yet the actual corporation tax rate would continue to vary.

Tax matters at EU level require the unanimous agreement of all EU member states and the UK and Ireland, among others, have refused to be drawn on the corporation tax issue - neither the tax base nor corporation tax rates. British chancellors (both Labour and Conservative) have repeatedly stuck to the line that taxation is a matter of national sovereignty and that further EU-wide rules on corporation tax are unwelcome. Yet as as the Amazon case shows, sticking to a resolutely national position on taxation becomes less and less tenable in a globalised market where electronic as well as physical goods are increasingly traded across borders. 

Perhaps if you are George Osborne and you believe in a destructive race-to-the-bottom on tax rates all of this might be desirable, but it is high time that Labour revisited this issue in opposition. The only alternative to tax competition is tax harmonisation. An EU-wide agreement on the definition of an e-book for VAT purposes, and a commitment to a common consolidated corporate tax base are the very least Ed Balls should be demanding.

An Amazon employee walks the corridors of their warehouse. Credit: Getty

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation