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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”