There's a darker story behind the tax scandal

Need for transparency.

Until recently, tax has rarely been tabloid fodder. Apart from the occasional scandal, tax is just not particularly sexy or newsworthy. Or at least it wasn’t. If you’ve turned on the TV or looked at a newspaper recently, you will have noticed that while it still may lack something in the sex department, austerity has placed tax at the top of the business, political and news agendas.

Governments everywhere are keen to chase every potential pound of revenue and most are equally keen to reinforce the idea that this means everyone bearing an equal share of the burden. The chorus in the UK (and elsewhere) remains that we are “all in it together”. This in turn has led to a sharper focus on fairness and more scrutiny of the contribution made by wealthy individuals and big business.

Even though the vast majority of tax revenue comes from these sources (large firms contribute the bulk of corporation tax and the wealthiest few contribute more income tax than anyone else), there is still a feeling that those wealthy enough to be able to invest in legal means of minimising tax are not contributing as much as they should.

In such an atmosphere, it has been easy to find support for campaigns to “expose” those playing by the rules but not perhaps the spirit of all being in it together. The problem is that such schemes jar with prevailing public notions of the impacts of austerity, fairness and morality. Popular campaign groups, the press and even several senior politicians (most surprisingly including the business secretary) have weighed in to the debate with a wave of naming and shaming businesses in the same way that wealthy individuals were picked out for attention by the Times earlier in the year.

This approach led to the Public Accounts Committee summoning companies such as Starbucks, Amazon and Google to face tough questions about alleged tax avoidance with the result that all potentially face reputational damage. The potential for financial harm through subsequent lost sales has apparently been enough to push Starbucks to make the extremely unusual announcement of a voluntary £10m contribution this year with another £10m next year. This will be seen by some commentators as a capitulation to blackmail and by others as a poor attempt to buy back public favour. Conor Delaney, tax lawyer at Milestone International Tax Partners says the coffee giant has been “publicly embarrassed and blackmailed” into the payments.

So it is into this lively arena that PwC has launched a new report into the total tax contribution made by businesses at the smaller end of the spectrum. Produced on behalf of Prelude Group, an entrepreneurial support and training business that has been described as a “do tank rather than a think tank”, it uses PwC’s Total Tax Contribution methodology to work out the long-term contribution of seven fast-growth businesses.

The unsung heroes of business: entrepreneurs and their total tax contribution, highlights just how much these businesses contribute to the UK economy, through a combination of direct and indirect tax payments. Importantly it also dismisses the increasingly popular notion that all businesses and all entrepreneurs are obsessed with avoiding tax. As Alex Cheatle, co-founder of lifestyle management business Ten Group, and one of the entrepreneurs who opened his books for the report, says, “Like most entrepreneurs I am obsessed with creating high quality products and services and building a team; I am not obsessed with reducing the rate of corporation tax”.

He claims that £34 of every £120 he gets from a customer goes in tax. According to calculations in the report, over the last five years his business has made a tax contribution of equivalent to 789 entry-level nurses, while Instant Offices (another business featured) has contributed the equivalent of 920, and (appropriately enough) Health Management has contributed the equivalent of 1,170. All together the seven businesses analysed in this report have generated a total tax contribution of £104.2m over the last five years.

This report represents a laudable attempt to place a more positive spin on the contribution made by business. And it is essential that the message gets out that just as the vast majority of individual taxpayers at all income levels are paying their way, so most businesses make a huge contribution to the wealth of the economy.

But there is a darker, unspoken story here. None of the entrepreneurs mention it, but surely they must baulk at the fact that they are not operating on a level playing field when it comes to tax. Those with the international operations and the resources to do so can apparently avail themselves of systematic, informal tax breaks, those that don’t have the wherewithal can’t. While many business owners appreciate the government’s efforts to reduce the UK’s corporation tax rate to one of the lowest in Europe, many more would appreciate greater resource being given to HMRC and greater emphasis on closing loopholes.

The Starbucks case shows the importance of business reputation, but what it really highlights is the need for greater tax transparency.

Starbucks was “publicly embarrassed and blackmailed”. Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.