Amazon pays no UK corporation tax

The company attributes nearly all its income to its Luxembourg branch.

The Guardian has a major story today on the tax affairs of Amazon UK. The online retailer, Britain's biggest, pays no corporation tax in the UK, despite having between £2bn and £3bn sales here in 2010. The company avoids paying anything by registering the vast majority of its turnover in its Luxembourg office, which reported income of €7.5bn in 2010, despite having just 134 employees. The British office, which employed 2,265 people, reported a turnover of £147m.

The paper explains:

The UK operation avoids tax as the ownership of the main Amazon.co.uk business was transferred to a Luxembourg company in 2006. The UK business is now owned by Amazon EU Sarl and the UK operation is classed only as an "order fulfilment" business. All payments for books, DVDs and other goods go directly to Luxembourg. The UK business is simply a delivery organisation.

This arrangement saves them millions in tax:

At first glance, the corporation tax rates in Luxembourg and the UK are similar, but the Luxembourg authorities have a different view of costs that can be offset against income, which reduces taxable profit. So Amazon EU Sarl's €7.5bn of income in 2010 was almost entirely offset by €7.4bn of charges, enabling it to disclose a tax charge of just €5.5m. The charges are defined by the company as the "cost of product sales and other ongoing costs related to the operations of the company"…

This is in stark contrast to the performance of the UK fulfilment business which filed its 2011 accounts last month. For the first time since 2006, Amazon.co.uk Limited posted an after-tax profit of £1.2m, much better than the £3m after-tax loss reported a year earlier. The accounts show its turnover was £208m, a big improvement on the £147m recorded in 2010 but dwarfed by the £3.3bn of UK sales passed to Luxembourg.

The company still pays a fair amount of UK tax, because VAT is charged based on the location of the recipient, not the business. But a significant proportion of Amazon's sales are books, which are zero-rated for VAT; they also don't have to pay British sales tax on downloads, instead paying Luxembourgish rates. For ebooks, this is 3 per cent, rather than the 20 per cent they would be paying in the UK. Until last Sunday, the company also managed to not pay VAT on almost every sale under £18. It used a loophole, originally designed to protect flower sales, which allowed low-cost goods to be imported from the Channel Islands VAT-free.

Richard Murphy, the tax campaigning accountant, suggested how a revised tax code could more accurately assess the company's holdings:

First split the profit in three. One third is then allocated between the UK and Luxembourg based on where the sales really are. Well, all these sales are to UK customers so that ratio is 100% to the UK and 0% to Luxembourg. So that £125 divided by three = £41.66 million of profit allocated to the UK.

Then we split the next third on the basis of where the people are. That’s 2,265 here and 10 in Luxembourg. £41.66 million x 2,265/2,275 = £41.5 million to the UK and £166,000 to Luxembourg.

And then let’s do assets – admittedly the one I have had to guess. The guess is £100 million here and £5 million in Luxembourg so that is £41.66 million x 100/105 = £39.7 million of profit here and £1.96 million to Luxembourg.

Add it up and near enough £122.8 million of profit would be in the UK and £2.2 in Luxembourg. Instinctively that feels right of course - because that is exactly how the economics really are. Glaringly obviously, as Amazon’s accounts admit, the market is here in the UK, not in Luxembourg. But the game of abuse that is being played means that almost all the profit goes to Luxembourg on this one – and almost none to us.

Implementing such a change would be a massive undertaking, though, as well as being difficult to get through EU law. For now, the news is likely to remain just bad PR for Amazon.

The Amazon warehouse in Swansea, in the run-up to Christmas. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.