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

Blogger on EU affairs.

DebateTech
Show Hide image

Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.