As GSK is exposed, the government must clamp down on tax dodging

Panorama adds another company to the list of tax-dodgers

The BBC’s Panorama tonight will add to a long list of allegations of corporate tax dodging. Companies like GlaxoSmithKline, which Panorama claims has used complex offshore structures to avoid millions in UK tax, now join Barclays, Vodafone, Amazon, Apple, Boots, SABMiller and Topshop (amongst others), accused of aggressive tax avoidance.  In a time of austerity, public anger continues to grow against those companies believed to be operating under different rules to the rest of us. 

In an interview last year, GSK’s own chief executive Andrew Witty lamented that:

one of the reasons we've seen an erosion of trust, broadly, in big companies is they've allowed themselves to be seen as being detached from society and they will float in and out of societies according to what the tax regime is. I think that's completely wrong.

Recent polling by ActionAid supports this view (pdf): 79 per cent of UK citizens want to see tougher action from government against tax avoidance. This is an issue that unites voters from all parties; 74 per centof Conservative voters, 83 per cent of Labour voters and 87 per cent of Liberal Democrat voters want to see tax loopholes for big multinationals closed.

Rhetorically at least, the government has responded. George Osborne branded aggressive tax avoidance "morally repugnant" in this year’s Budget speech.  But at the very same time, tucked away in the technical detail of the Budget, are changes that would actually water down the UK’s anti-avoidance rules for multinationals, making it easier for them to avoid taxes. 

These "Controlled Foreign Company Rules" have protected the UK tax base for the last 25 years, making it less lucrative for companies to siphon profits into tax havens, as HMRC have simply topped up the company’s overall tax rate to match the standard UK rate.

While some have inevitably found loopholes in these rules, they’ve been an important tool to discourage profit shifting into tax havens. Not only have they helped protect the UK tax base – they’ve also protected developing countries from tax avoidance by UK companies.

The Government's new proposals in the Finance Bill, currently being scrutinised in parliament, will radically alter this. The Treasury's own figures show they’ll lose revenues of almost £1bn as a result.

Developing countries, meanwhile, could lose as much as £4bn a year – almost half the UK aid budget. The OECD estimates that developing countries currently lose three times more to tax havens than they receive in aid.  This means less money that can be invested in schools, hospitals and roads, keeping countries locked in the cycle of poverty. With the government staunchly (and rightly) defending its decision to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on aid, it seems nonsensical to be making it harder for developing countries to reduce their dependency on aid by raising their own revenues.

One chink of light is an amendment to the Finance Bill tabled by the Liberal Democrats and supported by Labour, that the changes are not made without a proper impact assessment (recommended by the IMF and World Bank), and measures to mitigate the damage. Hopefully the Conservatives on the Bill Committee will join this emerging consensus.  

Another important remedy would be to open up tax haven operations to scrutiny.  Low headline tax rates – like those in Luxembourg that Panorama claims UK companies have exploited - are just one of the attractions of tax havens for tax dodging (over half of FTSE100 companies have a total of 336 subsidiaries registered in Luxembourg). The other is secrecy. As with impenetrable Swiss bank accounts, this veil of secrecy prevents effective scrutiny of deals done in tax havens. Indeed, ActionAid research has shown that 98 of the FTSE100 use tax havens, where they locate almost 40 per cent of all their overseas subsidiaries. 82 also have operations in the developing world.

If the government is serious about tacking tax avoidance, and serious about sustainably ending poverty, it needs to be putting its weight behind international efforts to break tax haven secrecy, making multinationals publish accounts of their tax haven subsidiaries. 

Right now, though, it should urgently rethink its plans to water down the UK’s anti-tax haven rules. It should be making it harder – not easier – for British multinationals to siphon their profits into tax havens, and make sure they pay their tax bills right around the world. 

Update: Response from GlaxoSmithKline

A spokesperson for GlaxoSmithKline responded to Panorama's investigation with the following statement:

GSK is very disappointed with this programme which was extremely misleading and lacking in context.  Specifically, the programme’s selective use of facts led to a misrepresentation of GSK’s actions and a failure to recognize GSK’s significant UK tax contribution.

GSK strongly refutes any allegation of wrongdoing. At all times the company proactively disclosed its tax transactions to the relevant authorities and both the UK and Luxembourg tax authorities are agreed that GSK paid all the taxes due.

GSK is a global company with 95% of its sales outside the UK however 20% of the company’s tax bill is in the UK. In total, over the period covered in the broadcast, GSK paid around £1billion in UK corporation and business taxes, plus an additional £1.3bn through income taxes of its UK employees.

The difference between UK and EU laws in this area has always created uncertainty for global organisations like GSK. GSK supports the new Controlled Foreign Company tax rules developed by the UK government related to the taxation of overseas earnings which will provide greater certainty despite the fact that they will increase the company’s UK tax bill.”

Treasure Island: Grand Cayman, which has no income tax or corporation tax. Photograph: Getty Images

Mike Lewis is a tax justice campaigner at ActionAid

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder