"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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Brexit will hike energy prices - progressive campaigners should seize the opportunity

Winter is Coming. 

Friday 24th June 2016 was a beautiful day. Blue sky and highs of 22 degrees greeted Londoners as they awoke to the news that Britain had voted to leave the EU.  

Yet the sunny weather was at odds with the mood of the capital, which was largely in favour of Remain. And even more so with the prospect of an expensive, uncertain and potentially dirty energy future. 

For not only are prominent members of the Leave leadership well known climate sceptics - with Boris Johnson playing down human impact upon the weather, Nigel Farage admitting he doesn’t “have a clue” about global warming, and Owen Paterson advocating scrapping the Climate Change Act altogether - but Brexit looks set to harm more than just our plans to reduce emissions.

Far from delivering the Leave campaign’s promise of a cheaper and more secure energy supply, it is likely that the referendum’s outcome will cause bills to rise and investment in new infrastructure to delay -  regardless of whether or not we opt to stay within Europe’s internal energy market.

Here’s why: 

1. Rising cost of imports

With the UK importing around 50% of our gas supply, any fall in the value of sterling are likely to push up the wholesale price of fuel and drive up charges - offsetting Boris Johnson’s promise to remove VAT on energy bills.

2. Less funding for energy development

Pulling out of the EU will also require us to give up valuable funding. According to a Chatham House report, not only was the UK set to receive €1.9bn for climate change adaptation and risk prevention, but €1.6bn had also been earmarked to support the transition to a low carbon economy.

3.  Investment uncertainty & capital flight

EU countries currently account for over half of all foreign direct investment in UK energy infrastructure. And while the chairman of EDF energy, the French state giant that is building the planned nuclear plant at Hinkley Point, has said Brexit would have “no impact” on the project’s future, Angus Brendan MacNeil, chair of the energy and climate select committee, believes last week’s vote undermines all such certainty; “anything could happen”, he says.

4. Compromised security

According to a report by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (the IEEP), an independent UK stands less chance of securing favourable bilateral deals with non-EU countries. A situation that carries particular weight with regard to Russia, from whom the UK receives 16% of its energy imports.

5. A divided energy supply

Brexiteers have argued that leaving the EU will strengthen our indigenous energy sources. And is a belief supported by some industry officials: “leaving the EU could ultimately signal a more prosperous future for the UK North Sea”, said Peter Searle of Airswift, the global energy workforce provider, last Friday.

However, not only is North Sea oil and gas already a mature energy arena, but the renewed prospect of Scottish independence could yet throw the above optimism into free fall, with Scotland expected to secure the lion’s share of UK offshore reserves. On top of this, the prospect for protecting the UK’s nascent renewable industry is also looking rocky. “Dreadful” was the word Natalie Bennett used to describe the Conservative’s current record on green policy, while a special government audit committee agreed that UK environment policy was likely to be better off within the EU than without.

The Brexiteer’s promise to deliver, in Andrea Leadsom’s words, the “freedom to keep bills down”, thus looks likely to inflict financial pain on those least able to pay. And consumers could start to feel the effects by the Autumn, when the cold weather closes in and the Conservatives, perhaps appropriately, plan to begin Brexit negotiations in earnest.

Those pressing for full withdrawal from EU ties and trade, may write off price hikes as short term pain for long term gain. While those wishing to protect our place within EU markets may seize on them, as they did during referendum campaign, as an argument to maintain the status quo. Conservative secretary of state for energy and climate change, Amber Rudd, has already warned that leaving the internal energy market could cause energy costs “to rocket by at least half a billion pounds a year”.

But progressive forces might be able to use arguments on energy to do even more than this - to set out the case for an approach to energy policy in which economics is not automatically set against ideals.

Technological innovation could help. HSBC has predicted that plans for additional interconnectors to the continent and Ireland could lower the wholesale market price for baseload electricity by as much as 7% - a physical example of just how linked our international interests are. 

Closer to home, projects that prioritise reducing emission through tackling energy poverty -  from energy efficiency schemes to campaigns for publicly owned energy companies - may provide a means of helping heal the some of the deeper divides that the referendum campaign has exposed.

If the failure of Remain shows anything, it’s that economic arguments alone will not always win the day and that a sense of justice – or injustice – is still equally powerful. Luckily, if played right, the debate over energy and the environment might yet be able to win on both.

 

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.