Twelve steps to stop tax avoidance

Tax avoidance is now endemic, with companies and the wealthy often paying derisory amounts of tax. Public anger has so far met with hollow rhetoric, handwringing and vested interest rationalisations. Robust steps to stamp it out are needed.

Today's tax avoidance goes far beyond loopholes and clever schemes. An elaborate, interlocking system for "legitimately" not paying tax allows vast amounts of money to trample over "official" tax and the economy.  

Tax revenues are being cored out. Britain is losing out on £60-85bn in company and personal taxes across the spectrum from "legitimate" avoidance, through "offshore" wealth, to outright evasion. Each £10bn lost is equivalent to the income taxes from two million average households.

Meanwhile taxes on company profits and returns from wealth (unearned income, capital gains etc) make disproportionately small contributions to the public purse. 

Avoidance gives larger, multi-national and "offshore" companies illegitimate market and competitive advantages. And gives overseas companies and offshore/avoidance "finance" all the cards in acquiring, running or asset stripping companies and markets. The effects feed down the entire tax, supply and value chains, distorting the economy and compounding the coring out of British jobs and businesses.  

And it's corrosive. Companies and people succeed for detrimental reasons, and everyone else comes under pressure to do the same. Those avoiding tax wrap themselves in the letter of the law and their "duty” to take advantage, even while, under threat of even more disappearing down the rabbit-hole, governments are pressured into reducing taxes even further. 

Endemic avoidance relies on means legitimated by the tax system:

  • Using companies, trusts and partnerships to shelter earnings or assets.
  • Overseas residency of people or companies, particularly in tax havens. 
  • Exploiting tax differences within the tax regime and between jurisdictions.
  • "Offshore" supply, production or ownership of companies or trade.
  • Transfer pricing; moving sales, costs or profits between subsidiaries or jurisdictions.

Criteria, rules and enforcement are then permissive. Nominal compliance requirements work hand-in-glove with opaque, fragmented financial reporting to subvert any rationale or constraints. And we permit, even encourage, a network of banks, tax havens, secrecy regimes, accountants and lawyers acting as the systems pro-active facilitators and cheerleaders. 

The Government's present “biggest ever crackdown” continues the tradition of curbing loopholes and avoidance only in the narrow "abuse" sense. Legitimated avoidance has been reaffirmed and extended (in parallel to cutting official corporation tax for large companies by a third). Indeed, changes to taxing earnings from overseas subsidiaries are an open license.

But international consensus that action is urgently needed is growing. In July all G20 countries, including Britain, endorsed the OECD's preliminary plan for tackling avoidance. This identified key problems but needs translating into concrete policies and action on the ground by national governments.

Curtailing British avoidance needs to simultaneously cut away its legitimating means, limit its advantages, make it harder to disguise and significantly strengthen enforcement. Specifically:

  1. Limit or remove the legal standing of – blacklist – companies or ownership from jurisdictions with cannibalistic tax and secrecy regimes (with "restricted" and "banned" categories).
  2. Restrict qualifying criteria for offshore and residency statuses.  Overseas ("offshore") ownership should be substantive not nominal; "non-domicile" status limited and finite in time; and "non-resident" status exclude those with lives, businesses or wealth in essence in or derived from the UK.  
  3. Curtail the benefits and permissiveness of offshore, ownership and residency statuses.  Non-domicile, non-resident, trusts and partnership advantages all need cutting back. Similarly, reverse the preferential treatment of "overseas" profits and firewall between remitted and non-remitted earnings.   
  4. Increase the costs and disadvantages of ownership or residency statuses. Tax charges can be increased, in particular made more progressive. Possibly (re)introduce an exit tax for British companies or citizens taking overseas residency, relocating or emigrating. 
  5. Require companies (and appropriate individuals) to provide transparent country-by-country accounts. Furthermore, the accounting and tax presumption for the assessment and validity of inter-group or cross-border charges would be strict apportionment of national sales and actual costs.
  6. If it exists, happens or is owned here, it's taxed here and taxed the same. For instance, tax UK on-line/remote sales where the sale is made; rather than as at present often "supplied" from "overseas" to avoid VAT and/or "booked" in another country to avoid company taxes.   
  7. Inhibit cross-jurisdiction costs, charges and tax exemptions that can be deducted for tax purposes, particularly between associated companies. These must be necessary, substantive and proportionate; with specific limitations on inter-group costs, debt, intellectual property and goodwill charges.
  8. Automatic information exchanges with other countries; not just existing by-request arrangements (where the number of UK requests is miniscule). Joining the existing European network is a good start.  
  9. Confront avoidance facilitators and promoters. Bar banks licensed or operating in Britain from operating in or providing facilities to British citizens or companies from "restricted jurisdictions". Require UK financial companies to automatically disclose all offshore accounts and holdings. And make advisory firms directly liable for tax penalties from avoidance they have promoted or facilitated. 
  10. Vigorous, properly empowered enforcement. Enact robust general anti-avoidance provisions. Significantly enhance HMRC's assessment powers, resources and personnel. And increase tax avoidance penalties, with both principals and intermediaries liable.  
  11. Major tax reform. Avoidance inducing disparities of tax treatment join improving economic performance, major fiscal problems and greater fairness in making reform long overdue. Today's complexity of taxes and rates needs replacing with consistent, equal treatment of all types of earnings – employment, unearned incomes, company profits and capital gains – while rebalancing between over-taxing of work and under-taxing big companies, wealth and "finance".
  12. Change the permissive and fatalistic culture. Given the corrosive damage being done, leaders and government can and should be taking vigorous action. Not paying proper taxes and mediating avoidance should cause explicit censure and sanctions. This includes recognising the City's complicity in wholesale tax avoidance from other countries as well as Britain.

But needed most is the political will and determination to take on the powerful vested interests that influence and lobby remorselessly to protect and extend today"s pernicious system. 

Photograph: Getty Images

One time Barrister, economist and media and technology entrepreneur, Chris Nicholas now writes and lectures on economic policy and political economy.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.