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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”