The government's "patent box" is the tax avoidance package companies have been begging for

It might incentivise innovation, but it definitely incentivises paying far less tax.

The Conservative party back-benches are seething with rebellion. Not only do ministers deplore David Cameron for an un-Tory like attitude toward gay marriage, in recent weeks he has further upset them with a positively radical spiel directed against those super-corporations the conservative leader suspects of tax avoidance:

Any businesses who think that they can carry on dodging their fair share ... need to wake up and smell the coffee.

However. Refreshing though the rhetoric certainly is, the actions of the Government seem to tell a different story. Corporation tax will have fallen from 28 per cent to 21 per cent toward the end of the Government’s first term in 2014 — and this will translate into a loss of roughly £5 billion in tax revenues each year as those cuts are enacted (according to 2011 estimations by the Treasury).

The buck doesn’t stop there. In order to better facilitate corporate needs, HM Revenue and Customs is set to introduce a new form of tax relief for businesses due to begin in April this year. It’s called the Patent Box. Ostensibly, it means that a company which shows sufficient innovative nous by patenting innovations will be entitled to a tax break of 13 per cent, applied to the value of the product. In theory this should provide impetus for companies to conceive fabulous new technologies, and give a spurt to growth and development thereby. Right?

Well not quite. The first problem is that said companies are not actually required to own the patent themselves in order to attain the tax break. They can simply lease a patent from the original patent owner; consequently there is no real incentive to invent stuff creatively and in-house, so to speak. But the most salient fact about the Patent Box is that it does not apply to the patent in isolation. A company could, for instance, produce a tractor, and if that tractor was possessed of a patented right view mirror, the revenue from the whole vehicle itself — not only the mirror — would be subject to same overall and significantly larger cut in tax.

In other words, a measure which appears to contain a degree of legitimacy, in fact becomes yet another way for big corporations to achieve massive, unwarranted tax slashes on their products. And this is ironic. The Conservatives always pride themselves on encouraging small business development, perhaps because this provides a highly effective propaganda sheen — allowing their PR initiatives to be expressed in terms of hard working individuals and entrepreneurs rather than faceless corporate monoliths. But the Patent Box will only serve the latter. Small businesses do not have the purchasing power to buy in bulk the products which will benefit from the tax cut, nor can they afford to gamble with new technological innovations, nor can they divert money into buying up the patents of others.

Part of the whole problem lies in the way in which the government develops Controlled Foreign Companies (CFCs) regulations. One of the lead advisors who helped the government to devise the Patent Box was one Jonathan Bridges — a tax advisor for KPMG, an accountancy company which has no remit outside ensuring the lowest tax returns for its corporate clientèle; it has, therefore, no commitment to any notional "national interest".

The use of the representatives of corporate power to provide advice on the means by which that power should be channelled in socially effective ways makes about as much sense as employing a local war lord to advise on the committee of Amnesty International. But despite its connotations, the practise of employing huge corporations to help devise precisely the laws which are supposed to regulate them is one which both the current and the previous Government have engaged in. At the time of the transition to the coalition government, Labour had already set up working groups for consultations regarding CFC reforms; panels which included representatives of HSBC, Vodafone and Shell — all major multi-nationals and all involved in controversies regarding tax evasion.

The current Government has an objective rationale for its position which isn’t simply an expression of neo-liberal ideology and partisan politics. These super-companies have genuine power — and the ability to decamp to another country taking thousands of jobs with them. Like petulant, spoiled children, they are always on the verge of tantrum, should their desires not at once be met. In the midst of an economic crisis there is a cogent argument that any single Government must of necessity make their tax rates as favourable as possible in order to attract those companies and secure those jobs.

But the problem with such an argument lies in its generalisation. If every government follows suit, slashing corporate tax over and over in order to remain competitive, and if all governments adhere to the strictures of such competition, we are at once locked into a downward spiral, a race to the bottom in which the benefits gained from corporation tax are increasingly illusory.

And it is important to recognise that this is exactly the type of cycle which got us here in the first place. We were sold on the need to slash regulations in the finance industry, and look what happened. By playing this game the government are not responding pro-actively to the crisis, they are adopting the very logic which led to it.

How can these companies be regulated? By people putting pressure on their governments for sure. But also by directly targeting the companies themselves through grass-roots activity and customer boycotts. Following mass protest, Starbucks was recently "persuaded" to agree to pay £10m in corporation tax in the UK for each of the next two years. A drop in the ocean certainly. But nevertheless an indication that, ultimately, it is the consumer who has the ability to make or break a company.

Innovate on the mirror, profit on the tractor. Photograph: Getty Images
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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.