Is tax just a question of ethics?

In the wake of Starbucks’ tax U-turn, we need to acknowledge that multinationals already choose whether to pay tax or not - and make them pay their fair share.

So Starbucks is paying up.

Whether or not they will ever pay back all the tax they’ve allegedly avoided is still unclear. But the company’s announcement yesterday that they will “pay or pre-pay” around £20m to the Exchequer in the next two years is hugely significant for all sorts of other reasons. It proves the power of consumer democracy, showing that damage to a brand can reverse a company’s behaviour in a matter of weeks. It moves tax from the backroom of a tax negotiation to the heart of a corporation’s public responsibility to the countries and communities where it does business. And it throws the gauntlet down to other multinationals which use exactly the same kind of intra-company payments to shrink their tax bills, not just in the UK but around the world.

But some are already raising concerns that Starbuck’s back-down heralds a worrying new age of voluntary tax: at best, companies claiming that paying tax is philanthropy rather than legal duty, at worst a sort of ‘tax by mob rule’. The New Statesman’s Martha Gill argues that we’re approaching “a tax system which relies on public pressure to a few high profile firms” rather than changing the rules themselves.

Of course we need to change the rules, and we can’t rely simply on companies behaving themselves. Nor should we be replacing clear, certain tax laws with judicial or media activism. But the unappetising truth is that we are already living in an age of voluntary corporate tax for large multinationals, and have been for some time. If this is true in the UK, where online businesses can effectively choose whether to book their profits from UK sales in the UK itself or in a tax haven, then this is even more the case across Africa, Asia and Latin America, where countries lack our armour of anti-avoidance legislation, and whose tax inspectors are far more overstretched than even cuts-threatened HMRC.

In this environment, it’s gone largely unremarked that a few multinationals are already taking a different tack in complying with the "letter of the law". Financial services firm Hargreaves Lansdown, for example, has no tax haven subsidiaries, despite operating within a sector no stranger to "offshore". Legal and General explicitly aims to be categorised within the "low risk" category of HMRC’s risk rating. This is not to endorse these companies’ business practices, or even their tax affairs, but to point out that companies already make active choices, all the time, about their tax structuring. Starbucks’ announcement may go further than the others, and beyond the existing rules. But ironically, their corporate spin on their "voluntary" tax payments is actually a refreshing shot of reality: it calls a spade a spade, acknowledging that the rules are currently so wide that companies can indeed choose whether to pay tax. That’s an ethical choice, whether we like it or not.

Changing the rules to stop corporate tax being just “a bit of a bonus”, to be paid as and when companies choose, will ultimately require international action. To take just one slightly technical example: stopping companies booking their "UK" profits through Irish or Luxembourgish subsidiaries may arguably require strengthening the tax-law definition of a "permanent establishment", to allow national tax authorities to tax profits actually generated in a given country by a low-tax affiliate company registered elsewhere, and prevent that company’s profits floating free like a pirate ship in international waters. A change that will need to be written into both domestic laws and dozens of international tax treaties. And far more far-reaching reform is needed than that.

Next year offers a raft of vital opportunities at the G8 and elsewhere to start changing the international rules in earnest. Like all international action, it will take some time. In the meantime, countries all around the world, including the poorest, are haemorrhaging revenues into tax havens faster than they receive aid. While we wait for the rules to be changed, other multinationals need to explain why they now can’t or shouldn’t start paying their fair share of taxes: companies like Grolsch and Peroni owner SABMiller, whose perfectly legal Starbucks-type transactions we estimate have deprived African and Asian countries of enough revenues to put a quarter of a million children in school. It’s right that consumers should put these questions to companies. And that governments too should use their purchasing power to stop buying from tax avoiders, as a quiet announcement tucked away at the back of yesterday’s Autumn Statement suggests the UK government is mulling. At stake is not just a guilt-free cup of coffee, but revenues that are needed – right now – in the UK and some of the world’s poorest places.

Starbucks. Photograph: Getty Images

Mike Lewis is a tax justice campaigner at ActionAid

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On civil liberties, David Davis has become a complete hypocrite – and I'm not sure he even knows it

The Brexit minster's stance shows a man not overly burdened with self-awareness.

In 2005, David Davis ran for the Tory leadership. He was widely assumed to be the front-runner and, as frontrunners in Tory leadership campaigns have done so enthusiastically throughout modern history, he lost.

The reason I bring up this ancient history is because it gives me an excuse to remind you of this spectacularly ill-judged photoshoot:


“And you're sure this doesn't make me look a bit sexist?”
Image: Getty

Obviously it’s distressing to learn that, as recently as October 2005, an ostensibly serious politician could have thought that drawing attention to someone else’s boobs was a viable electoral strategy. (Going, one assumes, for that all important teenage boy vote.)

But what really strikes me about that photo is quite how pleased with himself Davis looks. Not only is he not thinking to himself, “Is it possible that this whole thing was a bad idea?” You get the distinct impression that he’s never had that thought in his life.

This impression is not dispelled by the interview he gave to the Telegraph‘s Alice Thompson and Rachel Sylvester three months earlier. (Hat tip to Tom Hamilton for bringing it to my attention.) It’s an amazing piece of work – I’ve read it twice, and I’m still not sure if the interviewers are in on the joke – so worth reading in its entirety. But to give you a flavour, here are some highlights:

He has a climbing wall in his barn and an ice-axe leaning against his desk. Next to a drinks tray in his office there is a picture of him jumping out of a helicopter. Although his nose has been broken five times, he still somehow manages to look debonair. (...)

To an aide, he shouts: “Call X - he’ll be at MI5,” then tells us: “You didn’t hear that. I know lots of spooks.” (...)

At 56, he comes – as he puts it – from “an older generation”. He did not change nappies, opting instead to teach his children to ski and scuba-dive to make them brave. (...)

“I make all the important decisions about World War Three, she makes the unimportant ones about where we’re going to live.”

And my personal favourite:

When he was demoted by IDS, he hit back, saying darkly: “If you’re hunting big game, you must make sure you kill with the first shot.”

All this, I think, tells us two things. One is that David Davis is not a man who is overly burdened with self-doubt. The other is that he probably should be once in a while, because bloody hell, he looks ridiculous, and it’s clear no one around him has the heart to tell him.

Which brings us to this week’s mess. On Monday, we learned that those EU citizens who choose to remain in Britain will need to apply for a listing on a new – this is in no way creepy – “settled status” register. The proposals, as reported the Guardian, “could entail an identity card backed up by entry on a Home Office central database or register”. As Brexit secretary, David Davis is the man tasked with negotiating and delivering this exciting new list of the foreign.

This is odd, because Davis has historically been a resolute opponent of this sort of nonsense. Back in June 2008, he resigned from the Tory front bench and forced a by-election in his Haltemprice & Howden constituency, in protest against the Labour government’s creeping authoritarianism.

Three months later, when Labour was pushing ID cards of its own, he warned that the party was creating a database state. Here’s the killer quote:

“It is typical of this government to kickstart their misguided and intrusive ID scheme with students and foreigners – those who have no choice but to accept the cards – and it marks the start of the introduction of compulsory ID cards for all by stealth.”

The David Davis of 2017 better hope that the David Davis of 2008 doesn’t find out what he’s up to, otherwise he’s really for it.

The Brexit secretary has denied, of course, that the government’s plan this week has anything in common with the Labour version he so despised. “It’s not an ID card,” he told the Commons. “What we are talking about here is documentation to prove you have got a right to a job, a right to residence, the rest of it.” To put it another way, this new scheme involves neither an ID card nor the rise of a database state. It’s simply a card, which proves your identity, as registered on a database. Maintained by the state.

Does he realise what he’s doing? Does the man who once quit the front bench to defend the principle of civil liberties not see that he’s now become what he hates the most? That if he continues with this policy – a seemingly inevitable result of the Brexit for which he so enthusiastically campaigned – then he’ll go down in history not as a campaigner for civil liberties, but as a bloody hypocrite?

I doubt he does, somehow. Remember that photoshoot; remember the interview. With any other politician, I’d assume a certain degree of inner turmoil must be underway. But Davis does not strike me as one who is overly prone to that, either.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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