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 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, 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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.