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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A global marketplace: the internet represents exporting’s biggest opportunity

The advent of the internet age has made the whole world a single marketplace. Selling goods online through digital means offers British businesses huge opportunities for international growth. The UK was one of the earliest adopters of online retail platforms, and UK online sales revenues are growing at around 20 per cent each year, not just driving wider economic growth, but promoting the British brand to an enthusiastic audience.

Global e-commerce turnover grew at a similar rate in 2014-15 to over $2.2trln. The Asia-Pacific region, for example, is embracing e-marketplaces with 28 per cent growth in 2015 to over $1trln of sales. This demonstrates the massive opportunities for UK exporters to sell their goods more easily to the world’s largest consumer markets. My department, the Department for International Trade, is committed to being a leader in promoting these opportunities. We are supporting UK businesses in identifying these markets, and are providing access to services and support to exploit this dramatic growth in digital commerce.

With the UK leading innovation, it is one of the responsibilities of government to demonstrate just what can be done. My department is investing more in digital services to reach and support many more businesses, and last November we launched our new digital trade hub: www.great.gov.uk. Working with partners such as Lloyds Banking Group, the new site will make it easier for UK businesses to access overseas business opportunities and to take those first steps to exporting.

The ‘Selling Online Overseas Tool’ within the hub was launched in collaboration with 37 e-marketplaces including Amazon and Rakuten, who collectively represent over 2bn online consumers across the globe. The first government service of its kind, the tool allows UK exporters to apply to some of the world’s leading overseas e-marketplaces in order to sell their products to customers they otherwise would not have reached. Companies can also access thousands of pounds’ worth of discounts, including waived commission and special marketing packages, created exclusively for Department for International Trade clients and the e-exporting programme team plans to deliver additional online promotions with some of the world’s leading e-marketplaces across priority markets.

We are also working with over 50 private sector partners to promote our Exporting is GREAT campaign, and to support the development and launch of our digital trade platform. The government’s Exporting is GREAT campaign is targeting potential partners across the world as our export trade hub launches in key international markets to open direct export opportunities for UK businesses. Overseas buyers will now be able to access our new ‘Find a Supplier’ service on the website which will match them with exporters across the UK who have created profiles and will be able to meet their needs.

With Lloyds in particular we are pleased that our partnership last year helped over 6,000 UK businesses to start trading overseas, and are proud of our association with the International Trade Portal. Digital marketplaces have revolutionised retail in the UK, and are now connecting consumers across the world. UK businesses need to seize this opportunity to offer their products to potentially billions of buyers and we, along with partners like Lloyds, will do all we can to help them do just that.

Taken from the New Statesman roundtable supplement Going Digital, Going Global: How digital skills can help any business trade internationally

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