Google tax: why there should be an inquiry

The "not evil" solution.

A committee of MPs have said that Google should face a comprehensive inquiry into its tax affairs, calling the internet company’s tax arrangements "deeply unconvincing" — which is quite an understatement. In the five years to 2011, Google enjoyed £11.5 billion in revenues and paid £10 million in corporation tax.

Google executives, of course, have always maintained that its tax arrangements are lawful — its brainy accountants probably follow the letter of the law with utmost care, their job depends on it. Whether they follow the spirit of the law — or indeed the spirit of Google’s own "don’t be evil" motto — is quite another matter. 

The government’s sweetheart tax deals admittedly send out mixed messages, but I’m quite sure that the dry wording of the UK’s corporate tax codes doesn’t exactly say: ‘The standard rate of corporation tax in the UK is 23-30 per cent, but if you want to employ some of this country's most expensive brains to set up super-complex networks of branches and shell companies to process profits on tropical islands (or indeed, in Ireland) that’s cool too!’

No other area of law offers such great rewards — or indeed makes so many allowances — for individuals to twist its meaning.

The figure that’s often circulated in this context is that the UK’s tax gap stands at £32 billion (which includes tax avoidance by individuals as well as companies.) This is high enough, but tax evasion or avoidance by big corporations has a second cost: it penalises smaller companies that aren’t able to employ genius accountants to set up complex international structures to avoid tax. How are small tech start-ups meant to compete with the likes of Apple, Google and Amazon when the latter are able to pay virtually no tax? 

You can be both pro-business and anti-corporate tax avoidance, especially if you’d like to see more innovative, exciting new firms challenge today’s internet giants, whose power has allowed them to show a casual disregard to the privacy and rights of the customers they purport to serve. 

The challenge MPs will face when trying to hold Google to account is that the tax affairs of international companies require international tax solutions — and these will take time and will need near-unprecedented international co-ordination. But that doesn’t mean we should take the pressure off the likes of Google.

This article first appeared on Spears magazine

Google CEO Larry Page. Photograph: Getty Images

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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