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.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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