Don't tax Amazon. Tax Amazon's shareholders

Corporations dodge tax. So go for their owners instead.

Tax avoidance is a problem which stubbornly refuses to be fixed. Even just defining our terms is problematic, with nearly every definition wide-ranging enough to cover all avoidance also including things which nobody finds objectionable.

And even if you could define it well, there's the fact that tax avoidance is, by its nature, legal. While some avoidance is truly, obviously, taking advantage of sloppy phrasing in statutes and judicial rulings, most of it exists in the grey area where it would be impossible to "tighten up" the law without also removing those deductions or exemptions which were supposed to be there in the first place. (For an example of this in action, look no further than the pasty tax debacle.)

The worst tax avoidance is undoubtedly in the corporate sector. While there are terrible examples of avoidance amongst individuals, like the New Yorker's examination of hedge-fund manager Julian Robertson's tax affairs, they are always hampered by the fact that actually offshoring personal income – the most effective form of avoidance, and the hardest to fight with the law – is tricky. People, after all, have a physical location. Some may become the infamous "non-doms", but to do that you have to spend half the year outside the country. That isn't something which can be achieved by just hiring a canny accountant.

While moralising can convince the worst corporate offenders to pay their fair share – as Starbucks finally agreed to do – it can't work every time. Some companies don't care about their image, others manage to hide their avoidance.

And so we come back to patching up the holes in the system. But with offshoring, some holes seem nearly unpatchable. For all the stirling work of campaigners like UK Uncut and Tax Research UK, the world is still no closer to agreeing on the best way to deal with multinationals which engage in creative "tax planning".

But there's one possibility: forget about them.

The reason why involves looking at the concept of tax incidence. If you accept that the only question of tax that matters is which people pay it, then corporation tax becomes a complicated issue. As a tax alters the bottom line of a company, one of two things will happen: either it will pass the costs on, or it won't. If it doesn't, then the actual people hit by the tax are the shareholders of the company, who see its profitability decline. (This is largely the intended outcome of campaigns against tax dodging.)

But if it does past the costs on, then either its customers and employees must bear the brunt, in the form of increased costs or decreased wages, or other businesses (such as suppliers or contractors) do, and the whole equation starts again.

(It is important to point out that the argument that all costs must be levied on a person at some point is not without its critics. After all, businesses have savings, assets, property and rights; who is to say that they can't be counted as people for the purpose of taxation? And the assumption at the heart of the argument is one which must be taken as faith. It's just as easy to argue, using the same logic, that the costs of all personal taxation must be borne at some point by businesses.)

Tax incidence varies business-to-business and over time. In the early 70s, when it was starting up in Washington state, Starbucks' tax incidence was almost certainly mostly upon its shareholders. Labour was expensive, coffee was a niche product, and investors in a small start-up were probably in for the long haul. Now that Starbucks has access to vast pools of low-wage labour and customers willing to pay up to $7 for a cup, it is far more likely that they will bear the brunt of much excess tax. (Although, of course, as John Elledge rightly points out, even then, it's not certain; and if there's anything we've learned from Lisa Pollack's investigation into the matter at the FT, it's that Starbucks' publicity machine holds a lot of sway within the company)

But here's the thing: if we want to tax just the shareholders of a company, we already have a way to do it. We tax dividends, and we tax capital gains. Increasing those taxes hits the people we hope would take the brunt of corporation taxes anyway.

So here's my proposal: scrap corporation tax, and whack up those two to make up the revenue gap.

There would be two big transfers inherent in this change: the first would be from shareholders in companies which pay little tax to shareholders in companies which pay a lot of tax. Since that's just another way to say "cracking down on tax avoidance", it need not upset us too much.

The other is more uncertain. By and large, international companies have international ownership. Those based in Britain with the majority of their shareholders overseas would be better off; those based overseas with the majority of their shareholders in Britain would be worse off. If the logic of the Conservatives, who have already cut corporation tax significantly, holds, we can expect that latter group to move headquarters here to take advantage of the rates; and if it doesn't, then we can expect the shareholders to sell up and buy into British companies.

There's a reason CGT and dividend taxes are so low, of course, which is to encourage investment. But since we would expect pre-tax shareholder income to go up, investment ought to still be compelling. It would just be targeted more effectively at companies which could actually make a profit, rather than those which could only make a profit if they were avoiding tax which their competitors were not.

If we can stop the biggest corporations avoiding tax, we ought to. But if trying to tax aggregations of people which can twist across country borders with ease is permanently difficult, perhaps we ought to stop trying it, and do something better instead.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.