Google, and why we need to make tax a bit simpler

A case for the Fair Tax Mark.

So, it’s another episode in the endless soap of the Public Accounts Committee’s (PAC) pursuit of what it sees as corporate tax dodgers and, last week, of Google in particular.

For its part, Google is sticking resolutely to the line that it is doing nothing illegal in organising its affairs to take advantage of lower rates of corporation tax rates elsewhere. HMRC is, rightly, refusing to comment on the details of any particular case, while at the same time launching a stout defence of its record of investigating such large corporate “customers”. And once again, the Big Four are in the spotlight for their part in advising clients how to reduce tax bills. The view within the profession is that they no longer engage in the worst sort of egregious avoidance schemes, having already recognised the changing mood music in the country. 

Overlaying all this scrutiny of one company’s affairs in one country is the broader international picture and the imminent arrival of the leaders of the G8, ostensibly to discuss changes to the global tax system above all else. The potential difficulties in agreeing changes to the international tax system have already been highlighted with Bermuda refusing to play ball on an information-sharing deal for Britain’s Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies, and Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, refusing to agree to a proposed new deal on global tax. France has also refused to agree to a proposed EU-US free trade agreement unless it gets certain cultural exemptions. I suppose that’s in the nature of international discussion and diplomacy.

David Cameron likes to talk about the UK being in “a global race”, while his chancellor is keen to promote the UK as a low-tax destination for businesses. The government’s Corporation Tax Road Map sets out the ambition to use low taxes as a means of attracting inward investment. But this global tax race is inevitably a race to the bottom. Germany has already started to question the appropriateness of the UK’s patent box legislation, which offers tax breaks for companies investing in research and development activity in the UK.

A government that seeks to attract investment through lower taxes can’t attack corporations using low tax jurisdictions elsewhere with any sort of credibility. That is one reason that all the political criticism aimed at Google has thus far come from the PAC and the opposition. Indeed, David Cameron was happy to host Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt at a Downing Street meeting of his Business Advisory Group last month.

After a new round of lobbying scandals, trust in the political system (still only recovering from the expenses scandal) is low, while scepticism about the unhealthily close relationship between politicians and business leaders is sky high. Every move is watched and analysed by a media itself only recovering from its own scandals. It is an atmosphere in which speculation and conspiracy theories thrive.

So people can claim that Google gets “let off” taxes because it’s done a deal with David Cameron or speculate that HMRC lets big business get away without paying its fair share because its senior civil servants get well-paid jobs with the big accountancy firms when they leave. As with all such conspiracies there is little truth in most of this idle tittle-tattle. But reputation is not just about what people, corporations and politicians actually do. At least, and maybe more, important is what they are perceived to be doing.

Into this arena when, however much it frustrates practitioners, the tax debate has moved away from being a black and white legal issue to being a much less clear cut reputational risk issue, it was interesting to see the launch of the Fair Tax Mark. This is a far more effective and practical attempt to do something that was floated in this column in January.

This is a good manifestation of the idea of Nudge economics, in which positive reinforcement for good behaviours is shown to have a greater effect than punishment of undesirable behaviours. This was a theory former number 10 adviser Steve “Big Society” Hilton pushed David Cameron towards early on. So the PM should be keen to embrace the Fair Tax Mark. Perhaps unsurprisingly, PAC chairman Margaret Hodge has welcomed the move.

It’s hard to find many people who think the UK tax system is too simple. Tax in the UK (as it is in most countries) is a complicated matter, but it can be simplified. While that process of actually simplifying the tax code is an extremely slow process, initiatives such as the Fair Tax Mark, which compares taxes actually paid against those that could have been paid and assesses the methods use to avoid tax, present the non-tax-literate public an immediately accessible way to judge a company’s tax behaviour. It will be interesting what take-up the initiative gets with policymakers, accountants, and most crucial of all, with the public.

So, it’s another week and another episode in the endless soap of the Public Accounts Committee’s (PAC) pursuit of what it sees as corporate tax dodgers and, this week, of Google in particular.

 

For its part, Google is sticking resolutely to the line that it is doing nothing illegal in organising its affairs to take advantage of lower rates of corporation tax rates elsewhere. HMRC is, rightly, refusing to comment on the details of any particular case, while at the same time launching a stout defence of its record of investigating such large corporate “customers”. And once again, the Big Four are in the spotlight for their part in advising clients how to reduce tax bills. The view within the profession is that they no longer engage in the worst sort of egregious avoidance schemes, having already recognised the changing mood music in the country. 

Overlaying all this scrutiny of one company’s affairs in one country is the broader international picture and the imminent arrival of the leaders of the G8, ostensibly to discuss changes to the global tax system above all else. The potential difficulties in agreeing changes to the international tax system have already been highlighted with Bermuda refusing to play ball on an information-sharing deal for Britain’s Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies, and Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, refusing to agree to a proposed new deal on global tax. France has also refused to agree to a proposed EU-US free trade agreement unless it gets certain cultural exemptions. I suppose that’s in the nature of international discussion and diplomacy.

 

Reputation is not just about what people, corporations and politicians actually do. At least, and maybe more, important is what they are perceived to be doing

David Cameron likes to talk about the UK being in “a global race”, while his chancellor is keen to promote the UK as a low-tax destination for businesses. The government’s Corporation Tax Road Map sets out the ambition to use low taxes as a means of attracting inward investment. But this global tax race is inevitably a race to the bottom. Germany has already started to question the appropriateness of the UK’s patent box legislation, which offers tax breaks for companies investing in research and development activity in the UK.

A government that seeks to attract investment through lower taxes can’t attack corporations using low tax jurisdictions elsewhere with any sort of credibility. That is one reason that all the political criticism aimed at Google has thus far come from the PAC and the opposition. Indeed, David Cameron was happy to host Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt at a Downing Street meeting of his Business Advisory Group last month.

After a new round of lobbying scandals, trust in the political system (still only recovering from the expenses scandal) is low, while scepticism about the unhealthily close relationship between politicians and business leaders is sky high. Every move is watched and analysed by a media itself only recovering from its own scandals. It is an atmosphere in which speculation and conspiracy theories thrive.

So people can claim that Google gets “let off” taxes because it’s done a deal with David Cameron or speculate that HMRC lets big business get away without paying its fair share because its senior civil servants get well-paid jobs with the big accountancy firms when they leave. As with all such conspiracies there is little truth in most of this idle tittle-tattle. But reputation is not just about what people, corporations and politicians actually do. At least, and maybe more, important is what they are perceived to be doing.

Into this arena when, however much it frustrates practitioners, the tax debate has moved away from being a black and white legal issue to being a much less clear cut reputational risk issue, it was interesting to see the launch of the Fair Tax Mark. This is a far more effective and practical attempt to do something that was floated in this column in January.

This is a good manifestation of the idea of Nudge economics, in which positive reinforcement for good behaviours is shown to have a greater effect than punishment of undesirable behaviours. This was a theory former number 10 adviser Steve “Big Society” Hilton pushed David Cameron towards early on. So the PM should be keen to embrace the Fair Tax Mark. Perhaps unsurprisingly, PAC chairman Margaret Hodge has welcomed the move.

It’s hard to find many people who think the UK tax system is too simple. Tax in the UK (as it is in most countries) is a complicated matter, but it can be simplified. While that process of actually simplifying the tax code is an extremely slow process, initiatives such as the Fair Tax Mark, which compares taxes actually paid against those that could have been paid and assesses the methods use to avoid tax, present the non-tax-literate public an immediately accessible way to judge a company’s tax behaviour. It will be interesting what take-up the initiative gets with policymakers, accountants, and most crucial of all, with the public.

- See more at: http://economia.icaew.com/opinion/june2013/editor-view-time-for-the-tax-...

Overlaying all this scrutiny of one company’s affairs in one country is the broader international picture and the imminent arrival of the leaders of the G8, ostensibly to discuss changes to the global tax system above all else. The potential difficulties in agreeing changes to the international tax system have already been highlighted with Bermuda refusing to play ball on an information-sharing deal for Britain’s Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies, and Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, refusing to agree to a proposed new deal on global tax. France has also refused to agree to a proposed EU-US free trade agreement unless it gets certain cultural exemptions. I suppose that’s in the nature of international discussion and diplomacy.

 

Reputation is not just about what people, corporations and politicians actually do. At least, and maybe more, important is what they are perceived to be doing

David Cameron likes to talk about the UK being in “a global race”, while his chancellor is keen to promote the UK as a low-tax destination for businesses. The government’s Corporation Tax Road Map sets out the ambition to use low taxes as a means of attracting inward investment. But this global tax race is inevitably a race to the bottom. Germany has already started to question the appropriateness of the UK’s patent box legislation, which offers tax breaks for companies investing in research and development activity in the UK.

A government that seeks to attract investment through lower taxes can’t attack corporations using low tax jurisdictions elsewhere with any sort of credibility. That is one reason that all the political criticism aimed at Google has thus far come from the PAC and the opposition. Indeed, David Cameron was happy to host Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt at a Downing Street meeting of his Business Advisory Group last month.

After a new round of lobbying scandals, trust in the political system (still only recovering from the expenses scandal) is low, while scepticism about the unhealthily close relationship between politicians and business leaders is sky high. Every move is watched and analysed by a media itself only recovering from its own scandals. It is an atmosphere in which speculation and conspiracy theories thrive.

So people can claim that Google gets “let off” taxes because it’s done a deal with David Cameron or speculate that HMRC lets big business get away without paying its fair share because its senior civil servants get well-paid jobs with the big accountancy firms when they leave. As with all such conspiracies there is little truth in most of this idle tittle-tattle. But reputation is not just about what people, corporations and politicians actually do. At least, and maybe more, important is what they are perceived to be doing.

Into this arena when, however much it frustrates practitioners, the tax debate has moved away from being a black and white legal issue to being a much less clear cut reputational risk issue, it was interesting to see the launch of the Fair Tax Mark. This is a far more effective and practical attempt to do something that was floated in this column in January.

This is a good manifestation of the idea of Nudge economics, in which positive reinforcement for good behaviours is shown to have a greater effect than punishment of undesirable behaviours. This was a theory former number 10 adviser Steve “Big Society” Hilton pushed David Cameron towards early on. So the PM should be keen to embrace the Fair Tax Mark. Perhaps unsurprisingly, PAC chairman Margaret Hodge has welcomed the move.

It’s hard to find many people who think the UK tax system is too simple. Tax in the UK (as it is in most countries) is a complicated matter, but it can be simplified. While that process of actually simplifying the tax code is an extremely slow process, initiatives such as the Fair Tax Mark, which compares taxes actually paid against those that could have been paid and assesses the methods use to avoid tax, present the non-tax-literate public an immediately accessible way to judge a company’s tax behaviour. It will be interesting what take-up the initiative gets with policymakers, accountants, and most crucial of all, with the public.

- See more at: http://economia.icaew.com/opinion/june2013/editor-view-time-for-the-tax-...

So, it’s another week and another episode in the endless soap of the Public Accounts Committee’s (PAC) pursuit of what it sees as corporate tax dodgers and, this week, of Google in particular.

 

For its part, Google is sticking resolutely to the line that it is doing nothing illegal in organising its affairs to take advantage of lower rates of corporation tax rates elsewhere. HMRC is, rightly, refusing to comment on the details of any particular case, while at the same time launching a stout defence of its record of investigating such large corporate “customers”. And once again, the Big Four are in the spotlight for their part in advising clients how to reduce tax bills. The view within the profession is that they no longer engage in the worst sort of egregious avoidance schemes, having already recognised the changing mood music in the country. 

Overlaying all this scrutiny of one company’s affairs in one country is the broader international picture and the imminent arrival of the leaders of the G8, ostensibly to discuss changes to the global tax system above all else. The potential difficulties in agreeing changes to the international tax system have already been highlighted with Bermuda refusing to play ball on an information-sharing deal for Britain’s Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies, and Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, refusing to agree to a proposed new deal on global tax. France has also refused to agree to a proposed EU-US free trade agreement unless it gets certain cultural exemptions. I suppose that’s in the nature of international discussion and diplomacy.

 

Reputation is not just about what people, corporations and politicians actually do. At least, and maybe more, important is what they are perceived to be doing

David Cameron likes to talk about the UK being in “a global race”, while his chancellor is keen to promote the UK as a low-tax destination for businesses. The government’s Corporation Tax Road Map sets out the ambition to use low taxes as a means of attracting inward investment. But this global tax race is inevitably a race to the bottom. Germany has already started to question the appropriateness of the UK’s patent box legislation, which offers tax breaks for companies investing in research and development activity in the UK.

A government that seeks to attract investment through lower taxes can’t attack corporations using low tax jurisdictions elsewhere with any sort of credibility. That is one reason that all the political criticism aimed at Google has thus far come from the PAC and the opposition. Indeed, David Cameron was happy to host Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt at a Downing Street meeting of his Business Advisory Group last month.

After a new round of lobbying scandals, trust in the political system (still only recovering from the expenses scandal) is low, while scepticism about the unhealthily close relationship between politicians and business leaders is sky high. Every move is watched and analysed by a media itself only recovering from its own scandals. It is an atmosphere in which speculation and conspiracy theories thrive.

So people can claim that Google gets “let off” taxes because it’s done a deal with David Cameron or speculate that HMRC lets big business get away without paying its fair share because its senior civil servants get well-paid jobs with the big accountancy firms when they leave. As with all such conspiracies there is little truth in most of this idle tittle-tattle. But reputation is not just about what people, corporations and politicians actually do. At least, and maybe more, important is what they are perceived to be doing.

Into this arena when, however much it frustrates practitioners, the tax debate has moved away from being a black and white legal issue to being a much less clear cut reputational risk issue, it was interesting to see the launch of the Fair Tax Mark. This is a far more effective and practical attempt to do something that was floated in this column in January.

This is a good manifestation of the idea of Nudge economics, in which positive reinforcement for good behaviours is shown to have a greater effect than punishment of undesirable behaviours. This was a theory former number 10 adviser Steve “Big Society” Hilton pushed David Cameron towards early on. So the PM should be keen to embrace the Fair Tax Mark. Perhaps unsurprisingly, PAC chairman Margaret Hodge has welcomed the move.

It’s hard to find many people who think the UK tax system is too simple. Tax in the UK (as it is in most countries) is a complicated matter, but it can be simplified. While that process of actually simplifying the tax code is an extremely slow process, initiatives such as the Fair Tax Mark, which compares taxes actually paid against those that could have been paid and assesses the methods use to avoid tax, present the non-tax-literate public an immediately accessible way to judge a company’s tax behaviour. It will be interesting what take-up the initiative gets with policymakers, accountants, and most crucial of all, with the public.

- See more at: http://economia.icaew.com/opinion/june2013/editor-view-time-for-the-tax-...

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.