By paying extra tax Starbucks is doing exactly the wrong thing

A "moral taxation" system would be deeply weird.

So Starbucks has caved to public pressure and opted to pay more tax. It doesn't have to - it has paid its legal dues - but is chosing to, as a moral gesture, in order to appease public anger. It is also trying to appease MPs, who have been keen to tap into this public anger by declaring tax avoidance "morally repugnant".

Good thought, but any "moral repugnance" is in the tax laws they themselves continue to approve. No actual changes in legislation have been planned. Instead the government has opted to pressure companies not staying within the "spirit of the law" in a £77m crackdown.

This is odd. When government spots something "immoral" going on that is not yet illegal, common practice is to change the law (rather than simply moralise). It's also common practice for companies make money by working out how they can cut costs while staying within the letter of the law.

If these practices are abandoned, a deeply strange system starts to emerge. Namely, a tax system which relies on public pressure to a few high profile firms. This looks unappetisingly vague and inconsistent to outsiders. As Alex Henderson from PWC told City AM:

"It is important that we have stability and simplicity in the tax regime if the UK is to attract foreign firms - if there is uncertainty in the system that is concerning."

Admittedly, there are a few places where simply urging people to keep to the "spirit of the law" works - places like China, where laws are occasionally kept vague (but with huge penalties) to scare people into behaving extra well. It may not work so well here.

Starbucks. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May's U-Turn may have just traded one problem for another

The problems of the policy have been moved, not eradicated. 

That didn’t take long. Theresa May has U-Turned on her plan to make people personally liable for the costs of social care until they have just £100,000 worth of assets, including property, left.

As the average home is valued at £317,000, in practice, that meant that most property owners would have to remortgage their house in order to pay for the cost of their social care. That upwards of 75 per cent of baby boomers – the largest group in the UK, both in terms of raw numbers and their higher tendency to vote – own their homes made the proposal politically toxic.

(The political pain is more acute when you remember that, on the whole, the properties owned by the elderly are worth more than those owned by the young. Why? Because most first-time buyers purchase small flats and most retirees are in large family homes.)

The proposal would have meant that while people who in old age fall foul of long-term degenerative illnesses like Alzheimers would in practice face an inheritance tax threshold of £100,000, people who die suddenly would face one of £1m, ten times higher than that paid by those requiring longer-term care. Small wonder the proposal was swiftly dubbed a “dementia tax”.

The Conservatives are now proposing “an absolute limit on the amount people have to pay for their care costs”. The actual amount is TBD, and will be the subject of a consultation should the Tories win the election. May went further, laying out the following guarantees:

“We are proposing the right funding model for social care.  We will make sure nobody has to sell their family home to pay for care.  We will make sure there’s an absolute limit on what people need to pay. And you will never have to go below £100,000 of your savings, so you will always have something to pass on to your family.”

There are a couple of problems here. The proposed policy already had a cap of sorts –on the amount you were allowed to have left over from meeting your own care costs, ie, under £100,000. Although the system – effectively an inheritance tax by lottery – displeased practically everyone and spooked elderly voters, it was at least progressive, in that the lottery was paid by people with assets above £100,000.

Under the new proposal, the lottery remains in place – if you die quickly or don’t require expensive social care, you get to keep all your assets, large or small – but the losers are the poorest pensioners. (Put simply, if there is a cap on costs at £25,000, then people with assets below that in value will see them swallowed up, but people with assets above that value will have them protected.)  That is compounded still further if home-owners are allowed to retain their homes.

So it’s still a dementia tax – it’s just a regressive dementia tax.

It also means that the Conservatives have traded going into the election’s final weeks facing accusations that they will force people to sell their own homes for going into the election facing questions over what a “reasonable” cap on care costs is, and you don’t have to be very imaginative to see how that could cause them trouble.

They’ve U-Turned alright, but they may simply have swerved away from one collision into another.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496