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

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.