"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

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.