Tax avoidance isn't a left or right issue, it's a cancer eating our democracy

Everything you need to know about tax.

I must confess, I am a tax-dodger. As I am a Tory, and you are a New Statesman reader, this may come as no surprise. My sin was grave - last night, on my way home from work I bought some biscuits on a two for one deal, thus avoiding several pennies of VAT. We all avoid tax to a certain extent; many people pay accountants to reduce their tax bills - indeed, anti-tax crusader Richard Murphy has written articles advising people on how to minimise their tax liability.

However, it's clear that, despite the frantic attempts of assorted people to claim otherwise, there is no moral equivalence between cutting your bill by a few hundred pounds and offshoring your entire income to cut your tax by 99 per cent while chortling about it into a cigar. One is prudence; the other smacks of outrageous dishonesty, no matter how "legal and completely above board" it may technically be. However, the debate is massively clouded by where you personally draw the line between the two. To paraphrase Justice Potter Stuart, hard-core tax avoidance is hard to define, but we know it when we see it.

Of course, once you start looking into this issue, you realise there is a titanic gulf between what you can avoid as an ordinary citizen and what you can avoid as a millionaire. Equally, millionaires look with envy at the truly astounding skyscrapers of tax evasion (sorry, "avoidance") carried out by multinational corporations and billionaires.

However, this truly shocking behavior has been partially obscured by a huge smokescreen of partisan rumour and innuendo that activism & counter-activism has built up around the issue. For example, Philip Green is widely held to be the biggest tax villain of all time, whereas, in fact, by the standards of the super-rich, he's actually very scrupulous indeed. That, and other surprising facts about personal and business taxation, are what I'm going to break down in an attempt to shed some light on the topic.

Billionaires and Us

In 2006 (when figures were last available) James Dyson contributed the bulk of the income tax paid by the 54 billionaires then resident in the UK. Out of £14.7m paid by all 54, he contributed £9m. That's a whopping 61 per cent of the total tax take from billionaires. Current figures are not available, but it is widely agreed in the tax accounting community that JK Rowling and James Dyson are the only UK billionaires who pay a tax rate even remotely proportional to their income. So, on average, your grandma pays tax at a rate roughly 250 times that of the richest people in Britain.

But presumably, the HMRC goes after all these billionaire tax-evaders, right?

No. Mostly because there is a difference between the theoretically legal "avoidance" and the illegal "evasion".

However, even high end evasion is hardly seen as a priority. Over the last few years HMRC spent £633,000 on publicity around tackling high-end tax evasion, compared to £17.5m on publicity around tackling benefit fraud. By that crude measure, HMRC considers tackling benefit fraud about 27 times more important than tackling high end evasion.

When HMRC does go after tax avoiders and evaders, it often attacks low earners with irregular incomes - see this Guardian article for a typical but absolutely shocking case.

Ah, but Willard, what about all our consumption taxes - surely VAT on high-spenders is also not ignored - that does affect non-doms. If you spend £1.1m on a sports car from a swish Park Lane garage you'll pay more VAT than I'll pay income tax in a decade, right?

No.

Very few sports cars, yachts & £1m-pound plus mansions pay a penny of VAT or stamp duty. Indeed, flyers at the motor show, the boat show and so on occasionally boast of this fact. The way the tax is avoided is the cars/houses/yachts are transferred as assets to a paper company, the company directors value them at zero pounds (usually by applying depreciation over 10 years straight away), then the company is sold, usually for a token amount.

Many choose to buy their sports cars in the Emirates and have them flown in, because it saves money. They then fly them out before they would be due to pay any importation duty. This adds up and becomes irrational over time, but for some people, tax avoidance has become a competition to see how little you can pay; some would rather spend more money than give a penny to the government.

Millionaires and us

By setting up a limited company and taking a dividend as a shareholder rather than earnings, high earners are often taxed at a lower rate than any other employee. Once you are earning over around £60,000, your tax rate can drop sharply if you so choose.  Once you hit an income of about £150,000, paying tax at a higher rate than corporation tax becomes essentially optional, as the accountant is always cheaper than the tax bill.

The idea behind this is to encourage entrepreneurial activity, by compensating you for the risk involved in running a small business - but in fact it's just turned into a huge tax dodge. For example, almost all hedge fund managers pay a 10 per cent tax rate on their income; it's estimated there are 15,000 earning more than a million a year, but they pay a lower tax rate than their cleaners. This is due to income from private equity and hedge funds being classed as "carried interest", a change brought in by Gordon Brown in 2002. This is why the 50p tax rate is a charade - for most people it isn't a factor, as they don't technically earn income.

How did this happen?

The UK’s tax code is now the longest and most complex in the world, according to Lexis Nexis. This makes avoidance incredibly easy. And the UK tax code has become tremendously more complex since 1999.

The complete Tolley’s Tax Guide – the handbook of tax legislation – is now 11,520 pages long, more than double the 4,998 pages filled by the 1997 edition.

Reading it out loud would take over 120 hours. Assuming eight hours per day, that’s over fifteen working days or three weeks. And that’s just to read it, of course, at top speed – not to understand it. That would take more than a lifetime, especially given that hundreds (if not thousands) of new pages are added every single year.

This illustrates the tax system’s absurdity. Nobody understands it, not even HMRC or any individual accountant. You would need a team of dozens of professionals to start to be able to navigate it properly in its entirety. Ordinary people and employers don’t stand a chance.

The section on corporation tax alone is now 1,897 pages, 185 per cent longer than it was in 1999-2000. The income tax chapter is 1,801 pages, 54 per cent longer; the capital gains tax guide is 1,463 pages long, 70 per cent longer; the inheritance tax guide is 958 pages long, 63 per cent longer. With every revision of the rules, high level avoidance has become easier.

But really, what does this mean to me? I mean, I might do it if I was minted.

It does affect you, because the more money that leeches out of the state in avoidance, the more you have to pay. Britain's most affluent determine where most of their earnings go, while we ordinary taxpayers often pour a much larger chunk of our cash into the communal pot. Nicholas Shaxon puts it brilliantly in his book, Treasure Islands:

Imagine you are in a supermarket and you see well-dressed individuals passing through a special checkout. There is also a large item added to your bill, extra expenses, which subsidises their purchases. Sorry, says the Supermarket manager, if we didn't charge you more they would shop elsewhere. Now, pay up.

Frankie Boyle put it more succinctly on Twitter this morning:

If you're rich, don't look at it as tax avoidance, look at it as a children's hospital buying you a pool table.

Corporate Tax Avoidance

Corporate Tax Avoidance in the UK is scandalous. Let's just take one example - bananas

In 2006, Dole, Chiquita and Del Monte sold £350m worth of bananas in the UK. That's a lot of bananas, I'm sure you'll agree. On that £350,000,000 of turnover, they paid less than £235,000 in tax.

Why?

First off, you only pay tax on profits. This means that it's possible to structure your company so, on paper, you are making almost nothing. This is incredibly widespread. For example, according to the National Audit Office, one third of Britain's 700 top businesses paid no tax at all in 2007 - and bear in mind that was at the end of a seven-year long boom. Indeed, many were net recievers of government money.

For example, how much tax do you think Debenhams paid in 2007?

It received around £9m of taxpayers' money, and paid zero pounds, zero pence.

It did this by having a complex chain of ownership, structured to take account of "liabilities" which its owners control. So, it can always make a loss, because the private equity firms that own it can juggle the interest rate on the loans which it bought the firm with. Other firms do it by having chains of ownership which stretch all around the world, but many of which end up in the British Channel Islands - a sleepy archipelago with 90,000 inhabitants but 800,000 registered firms.

There are estimated to be 400,000 corporations registered in Jersey alone, and around a trillion pounds worth of assets, all untaxed by the UK. Some Jersey lawyers "sit" on the boards of over 500 companies to grant them these exceptions. Plenty of perfectly ordinary buildings in St Helier are "home" to hundreds of businesses. For example, the New Raj Tandoori St Helier is home to around 800 UK businesses; next door is an office block which "houses" defence giant BAE systems and 1,108 other firms.

Oh, that's what all this UK Uncut stuff if about, isn't it? Philip Green, Topshop and all that.

Actually, no. Topshop pays 140 times as much tax as Google, despite being a smaller and less profitable business.

Arcadia, Green's retail business, is one of the most highly taxed and responsible companies in the UK. It's paid £290m pounds in corporation tax since 2006, paying at full rate - it is scheduled to pay £80m this year.

Green's personal tax affairs (where he took a £1.5bn dividend and paid no tax due to his wife's residence in Monaco) are of course open to criticism, but he is on the record as saying he made a conscious choice to pay business tax, but not personal taxes. In fact, the UK's biggest tax avoider is internet search giant Google. The UK represents 28 per cent of Google's earnings and is Google's second biggest market after the US. However, in 2009, it paid only £600,000 in tax, on £1.25bn of UK income; an effective tax rate of 3.2 per cent.

Google's European arm has a huge base in London - it has thousands of UK employees and uses local services and infrastructure. However, it pays its tax through a convoluted chain of foreign dependencies known in the trade as "the double Irish", where profits are siphoned between Ireland and Holland to get this low rate. The reality is, the more tax that companies like Google avoid, the more the tax burden falls on the rest of the public.

But HMRC cracks down on this, right?

No. In fact, last year, HMRC spent the bulk of its investigation budget investigating 20,000 small firms, none of which had a turnover of over £2m, to make sure they had at least seven years of paperwork for their taxes, and prosecuting those who could not produce it. It is unknown how many small firms were bankrupted arguing these cases, but Tory MP Priti Patel estimates it to be in the hundreds.

But there's another problem...

If Topshop pays 140 times as much tax as Google, despite being a smaller and less profitable business, then that creates a huge business problem.

It creates a situation where there is a race to the bottom - a UK-based business that doesn't avoid tax will be far less profitable, and far less able to expand and invest than a competitor who is cheating. Thus, honest businesses are forced into the tax evasion game.

Of course, because of access to international tax havens, and ever more sophisticated means of avoiding tax, this means that globalised multinationals have a titanic advantage in terms of taxation over their domestic rivals, stifling innovation and competition even more.

In conclusion, this isn't a left-wing problem or a right-wing problem - it's a huge cancer eating at our democracy, our business community and our ability to pay down the deficit.

Our tax code is fundamentally broken, easily abused by the unscrupulous, and HMRC is absolutely not fit for purpose. These are crucial national problems that can't be swept under the rug with a wave of the hand and saying "well, I'd do it too if I had the money".

If, like me, you're a Tory, and even if you don't think much of the crusty jugglers of UK Uncut, the next time you look at a Google doodle, remember, some poor bloke slogging in the heat of Afghanistan would be better equipped if they actually paid the same rate of tax as your greengrocer.

This article draws heavily on facts and figures from Robert Peston's book 'Who Runs Britain?' and Nick Shaxon's 'Treasure Islands'. If you want the complications of Britain's tax nexus explained, I cannot recommend a better place to start. 

Update: this article was edited at 17.46 on 21 June 2012.

Police guard the entrance to HMRC during a demonstration against corporate tax avoidance in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

Beijing smog. Getty
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China’s battle to breathe

Why smog is causing social unrest.

This is a war where you can’t even see your own enemy.” These are the words of the Chinese journalist Chai Jing in her documentary about air pollution, Under the Dome. Released in February 2015, the film was viewed online more than 150 million times in three days before it was removed by the government.

The enemy that provoked such a reaction was PM2.5, a microscopic particulate in the air that can penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream. It can cause health problems, including heart disease and lung cancer. Air pollution is a problem around the world but is particularly bad in China, where, as a result of rapid industrialisation (fuelled partly by Western demand for cheap products), concentration levels of PM2.5 are dangerously high. In March 2014, after nearly a decade of worsening air quality, the government declared a “war against pollution”.

The air quality index (AQI) in Beijing hit an average 130 in January this year, and it often exceeds 300 (although year-on-year levels have fallen slightly). The World Health Organisation recommends below 20 as healthy.

Recently, this near-invisible enemy has taken tangible form. The annual National People’s Congress, the parliamentary gathering attended by nearly 3,000 regional delegates from across China, will open in Beijing on 5 March. Smog will be at the top of its agenda. There are three reasons for this: the public health issue, international environmental commitments and the threat that toxic air poses to China’s political stability.

Last December, a group of artists fitted smog masks on statues in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, in south-western China, to draw attention to rising air pollution. Riot police were sent in, eight artists were arrested, the central Tianfu Square was blockaded and shopkeepers were told to alert the police to anyone buying large quantities of masks. Unauthorised protests are banned in China, but as one artist told the BBC: “There is no regulation that bans citizens from walking while wearing masks.”

For the inhabitants of China’s cities, there is no alternative if you want to minimise the harm done by breathing in PM2.5. The smog is an inescapable fact of daily life and one that undermines the rising living standards that have so effectively kept city-dwellers from voicing discontent with the government. Besides the events in Chengdu, there were protests in the city of Xi’an in the north-west and lawsuits against other local governments for failing to tackle the problem. A meme on Weibo, one of the most popular Chinese social media platforms, shows a panda wearing a smog mask bearing the slogan: “Chengdu, let me breathe!”

Citizens are starting to expect the government to do more to clean up the air. “People in the West . . . assume that dissatisfactions [in China] are about things like censorship and lack of political freedoms,” Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine, said by Skype. “But what really can motivate people are much more tangible things that affect their daily life.”

As a friend, a gallery assistant from Beijing who did not want to be named because of her fears about Western media, told me: “Worrying about the air and the water is just always occupying a part of your mind. You can’t forget about it.” She said she hopes that the smog will at least force the government to act.

Clean air is increasingly becoming a commodity. High-end air purifiers can cost £1,300-plus and an air quality monitor can sell for more than £100. Yann Boquillod, the founder of AirVisual, a Beijing-based start-up that produces tools to monitor air quality, told me that government red alerts about the smog are great for business, increasing demand for his products.

The government only started to publish information on air quality in 2012. Jennifer Turner, the director of the China Environment Forum at the US think tank the Woodrow Wilson Centre, describes this change as an element of the “most innovative policymaking in China”. “It was a risky action on the part of the government but, at the same time, the people were getting upset. The government is making efforts to show accountability,” she told me. However, more recently there have been reports of officials ordering forecasters to stop issuing smog warnings.

With or without a warning, you can feel it when the air quality is bad. The likes of Zhao Hui, a wealthy businessman, send their children to school abroad, where “clean air and safe food are just as important as education”. Yet, for most people, foreign education isn’t an option, and anger about inequality can make the discontent all the more potent. “[The smog] affects everywhere, but it doesn’t affect everyone equally,” Wasserstrom said. “This is part of what makes the government anxious about these protests. There’s more of this feeling of this being part of a national conversation.”

“Everyone knows it, hates it and makes ironic jokes,” Badiucao, a Chinese political cartoonist, told me in an email. His smog cartoons are particularly popular, he thinks, because they are considered “not directly political . . . hence less risky to share”. But he also believes that, for the Chinese, the health of their children is “the last red line”.

For those who can’t afford to send their children abroad, dissatisfaction with the state is rising and they are making their voices heard. The Beijing Municipal Education Commission recently agreed to instal air purifiers in schools in response to complaints by parents, having rejected similar calls a year ago. In addition to the official channels, social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat (an online messaging service) allow people to voice discontent instantly and loudly.

The Chinese government is acutely aware of how combustible the situation has become. There is a saying that goes, “Zhi bao bu zhu huo” – “Paper cannot wrap fire.” Air purifiers and censorship can only do so much. No number of riot police can change one simple fact: that all over China, people can’t breathe. 

Amy Hawkins is a freelance journalist based in Beijing. You can follow her on Twitter @DHawkins93.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit