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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.