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.

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.