"This is a ridiculous conflict of interest which should be banned"

Margaret Hodge on "unhealthily cosy" Big Four/Treasury staff relationships.

The Big Four’s relationship with government is "unhealthily cosy" and detrimental to the public good, according to a damning report into tax avoidance from the Public Affairs Committee.

The PAC conclusions paint a picture of an HMRC that is too woefully under-resourced to tackle tax avoidance, and a group of the largest accountancy firms that are looking to exploit the Revenue's weaknesses to help reduce their clients’ tax payments.

The report says HMRC cannot hope to compete with the resources the Big Four has and says in the example of transfer pricing alone, there are four times as many staff working for the four firms then in the Revenue. This imbalance of resources means HMRC is “not able to defend the public interest effectively”, says the PAC.

The report is particularly critical of Big Four staff being placed on secondment at the Revenue, saying it is not acceptable that tax experts help government devise tax law while at the same time advise clients on how to avoid paying these taxes. It says, “the four firms appear to use their insider knowledge of legislation to sell clients advice on how to use those rules to pay less tax.” The cross-party committee of MPs call up the example of KPMG, which it says seconded staff to advise government on tax legislation including the development of Patent Box rules, and then produced marketing brochures relating to these rules and suggesting it is a business opportunity to reduce UK tax.

The report is also very critical of the Big Four willingness to create schemes for clients, which HMRC will likely disagree with.

The Revenue is portrayed as being overwhelmed by tax avoidance in the report, and is engaged in a ‘cat and mouse game’ with tax avoiders. The Big Four accountancy firms, which earned over £2bn from tax work in the UK last year, are heavily criticised for seconding experts to government to advise on tax making, before then advising their clients on how to avoid those same tax rules.

“We have seen what look like cases of poacher, turned gamekeeper, turned poacher again, whereby individuals who advise government go back to their firms and advise their clients on how they can use those laws to reduce the amount of tax they pay,” the report reads.

"The large accountancy firms are in a powerful position in the tax world and have an unhealthily cosy relationship with government," said PAC chair Margaret Hodge. "They second staff to the Treasury to advise on formulating tax legislation. When those staff return to their firms, they have the very inside knowledge and insight to be able to identify loopholes in the new legislation, and advise their clients on how to take advantage of them.

"This is a ridiculous conflict of interest which should be banned."

The report goes on to suggest the Treasury should introduce a code of conduct for tax advisors, “setting out what it and HMRC consider acceptable in terms of tax planning”. Compliance with this code could determine whether or not the firms are able to work on government or other public sector work.

The report says that although the four firms insisted they no longer sell the very aggressive avoidance schemes that they sold ten years ago, “we believe they have simply move on to advising on other forms of tax avoidance that are profitable for their clients.”

“The firms declare that their focus is now on acceptable tax planning and not aggressive tax avoidance,” PAC chair Margaret Hodge said. “These protestations of innocence fly in the face of the fact that the firms continue to sell complex tax avoidance schemes with as little as 50% chance of succeeding if challenged in court.”

The UK’s tax system overall is too complex and outdated, and should be radically simplified, the PAC concludes. “HMRC appears to be fighting a battle it cannot win in tackling tax avoidance,” says the report. “There is a large market for advising companies on how to take advantage of international tax law, and on the tax implications of different global structures."

The report calls for clarity over the line between acceptable tax planning and aggressive tax avoidance.

The Office of Tax Simplification is held up as a useful step in the right direction, but the PAC says it is "disappointing" that the department has fewer than six full time staff, and has therefore been unable to take a “radical approach to simplifying tax law.”

The PAC also urges the UK to take the lead in demanding urgent reform of international tax law.

The PAC held a series of committee hearings in November and December 2012 with representatives from the big accounting firms, government and different companies to assess the challenges of tax avoidance. The investigation into tax payments came about in response to controversially low tax payments from several high-profile companies, including Starbucks, Google and Amazon.

“All four firms said they discussed reputational risks with their clients, and that there was no longer any appetite for schemes where the sole purpose was to reduce tax. It is difficult to square this with some companies’ tax practices, for example those we heard about in our hearing with Google, Amazon and Starbucks,” today's report concludes.

However, HMRC has insisted it is "winning the battle against tax avoidance" and the numbers of secondees within the department is very small.

This story originally appeared on economia

Photograph: Getty Images

Helen Roxburgh is the online editor of Economia

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.