Tax: what's a fair share?

The Public Accounts Committee is back on the tax trail.

And so the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is back on the tax trail. Although did it ever really stop? Certainly, despite the upbeat assessments of the economy made by outgoing Bank of England governor Sir Mervyn King, the pressures on public and private purses haven’t eased. This explains the strength of public feeling that everyone should contribute a fair share of income in taxation. The tricky bit, as the PAC is discovering, is that working out exactly what constitutes a fair share isn’t as straightforward as it might seem.

Having previously called in the tax partners of the Big Four accountancy firms and the heads of companies already publicly called out for not coughing up as much to Treasury coffers as they might (step forward the apparently unholy trinity of Google, Amazon and Starbucks), this round of committee sessions will see some of the same faces hauled back in to answer many of the same questions.

Earlier this week I was at an event where one senior member of the committee was less than positive about the current direction the committee is taking.

He didn’t seem to agree that this fixation on the effective corporation tax rates of firms who decide to base their head quarters overseas was the best use of the committee’s time and resources.

Elsewhere this week tax campaigners UK Uncut Legal Challenge failed in their bid to bring HMRC to book for what UK Uncut claimed was an unlawful deal struck between HMRC and Goldman Sachs.

In dismissing the case the judge agreed that the deal had not been HMRC’s finest hour but he found nothing unlawful about it. To some extent UK Uncut has achieved some of its objectives by bringing the issue of the way big business deals with HMRC into the spotlight and raising the profile of the Goldman’s case in particular. For its part, HMRC continues to deny claims that it is soft on big business.

But getting money out of most large organisations and wealthy individuals is tougher than it should be. And it is certainly tougher than chasing small business owners. In reality, striking a deal with wealthy corporations or individuals might end up being the quickest, simplest and most cost-effective approach to collecting revenues. Ideally this agreement would be one that displeases the entity paying tax more than it does HMRC (although one that displeases both sides a little is probably the most likely outcome). While such an approach may well be cost effective, without the disinfectant of greater transparency such deals will always stink a bit.

Two phrases that have been bandied around so much in the last 18 months that they are rapidly becoming cliché are that we need greater transparency, and that we need a simpler tax system.

Whether Google, Amazon, Goldman Sachs or anyone else with tax affairs complex enough to involve a potential settlement with HMRC has anything to hide or not, the mere fact that details are kept out of the public eye raises suspicions.

The tax affairs of individuals and corporates are between them and HMRC, but if they opt out of the system that the small business owner or the proverbial hard-working family has to settle for then they should do so in the knowledge that the details of the settlement will be made public.

This article first appeared on economia

Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

0800 7318496