Cameron's tax crackdown undermined as Lawson accuses him of "prancing around"

The former Tory chancellor says that the government is "getting nowhere slowly" on reducing tax avoidance by multinationals.

David Cameron has long sought to present reducing tax avoidance as a priority of the coalition. While cutting taxes for high-earners (with the reduction in the top rate of inncome tax from 50p to 45p) and reducing corporation tax to the joint lowest level in the G20 (it will stand at 20% in 2015, down from 28% in 2010), he argues that the government is committed to ensuring that all pay their fair share. By ending the mass avoidance (and evasion) that existed under Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems claim that they can raise more revenue from lower rates. 

Cameron will return to this theme today with the announcement of a new public register designed to reveal the true owners of the anonymous "shell" companies associated with tax evasion. "For too long a small minority have hidden their business dealings behind a complicated web of shell companies," he will tell the Open Government Partnership in London. 

But the PM's anti-avoidance drive has been undermined by an unlikely source. In a debate in the House of Lords last night, Nigel Lawson accused the coalition of "prancing around", rather than making the changes needed to ensure that large corporations pay their dues. The former Tory chancellor warned that multinationals "shift their profits and their intangible assets around the world in such a way that they pay little or in some cases no UK corporation tax at all", while "small and medium-sized enterprises" face "the full rigour of corporation tax". 

He went on:

It is a totally inequitable system. So what is the government doing? Just prancing around saying we are talking about with our opposite numbers from other OECD countries and other European countries and goodness knows what.

They love going to these conferences and they happily make statements that they have reached a great understanding and a great agreement but the problem is just the same, it hasn’t gone away.

Lawson proposed that the government should introduce a new system with separate taxes on profits and sales to ensure that companies like Starbucks, Google and Amazon make some contribution. He said: "God forbid that the United Kingdom should take a lead and introduce a sensible tax system of its own which would probably comprise a very low level of corporation tax - tax on corporate profits - and perhaps a low level of corporate sales tax, because sales are where they are and sales in this country are sales here which we can tax here.

"But more than anything else we should be taking a lead. I have to say to the government that you are not even getting nowhere fast - you are getting nowhere slowly."

Labour, meanwhile, has welcomed the announcement of a public register, while highlighting the rise in uncollected tax to £35bn and the failure of the government's Swiss tax deal to raise anything close to the promised amount. After George Osborne booked £3.1bn from the agreement, it has so far raised just £440m. 

Nigel Lawson said of ministers and tax avoidance: "they love going to these conferences and they happily make statements". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Debunking Boris Johnson's claim that energy bills will be lower if we leave the EU

Why the Brexiteers' energy policy is less power to the people and more electric shock.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have promised that they will end VAT on domestic energy bills if the country votes to leave in the EU referendum. This would save Britain £2bn, or "over £60" per household, they claimed in The Sun this morning.

They are right that this is not something that could be done without leaving the Union. But is such a promise responsible? Might Brexit in fact cost us much more in increased energy bills than an end to VAT could ever hope to save? Quite probably.

Let’s do the maths...

In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, the UK imported 46 per cent of our total energy supply. Over 20 other countries helped us keep our lights on, from Russian coal to Norwegian gas. And according to Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, this trend is only set to continue (regardless of the potential for domestic fracking), thanks to our declining reserves of North Sea gas and oil.


Click to enlarge.

The reliance on imports makes the UK highly vulnerable to fluctuations in the value of the pound: the lower its value, the more we have to pay for anything we import. This is a situation that could spell disaster in the case of a Brexit, with the Treasury estimating that a vote to leave could cause the pound to fall by 12 per cent.

So what does this mean for our energy bills? According to December’s figures from the Office of National Statistics, the average UK household spends £25.80 a week on gas, electricity and other fuels, which adds up to £35.7bn a year across the UK. And if roughly 45 per cent (£16.4bn) of that amount is based on imports, then a devaluation of the pound could cause their cost to rise 12 per cent – to £18.4bn.

This would represent a 5.6 per cent increase in our total spending on domestic energy, bringing the annual cost up to £37.7bn, and resulting in a £75 a year rise per average household. That’s £11 more than the Brexiteers have promised removing VAT would reduce bills by. 

This is a rough estimate – and adjustments would have to be made to account for the varying exchange rates of the countries we trade with, as well as the proportion of the energy imports that are allocated to domestic use – but it makes a start at holding Johnson and Gove’s latest figures to account.

Here are five other ways in which leaving the EU could risk soaring energy prices:

We would have less control over EU energy policy

A new report from Chatham House argues that the deeply integrated nature of the UK’s energy system means that we couldn’t simply switch-off the  relationship with the EU. “It would be neither possible nor desirable to ‘unplug’ the UK from Europe’s energy networks,” they argue. “A degree of continued adherence to EU market, environmental and governance rules would be inevitable.”

Exclusion from Europe’s Internal Energy Market could have a long-term negative impact

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd said that a Brexit was likely to produce an “electric shock” for UK energy customers – with costs spiralling upwards “by at least half a billion pounds a year”. This claim was based on Vivid Economic’s report for the National Grid, which warned that if Britain was excluded from the IEM, the potential impact “could be up to £500m per year by the early 2020s”.

Brexit could make our energy supply less secure

Rudd has also stressed  the risks to energy security that a vote to Leave could entail. In a speech made last Thursday, she pointed her finger particularly in the direction of Vladamir Putin and his ability to bloc gas supplies to the UK: “As a bloc of 500 million people we have the power to force Putin’s hand. We can coordinate our response to a crisis.”

It could also choke investment into British energy infrastructure

£45bn was invested in Britain’s energy system from elsewhere in the EU in 2014. But the German industrial conglomerate Siemens, who makes hundreds of the turbines used the UK’s offshore windfarms, has warned that Brexit “could make the UK a less attractive place to do business”.

Petrol costs would also rise

The AA has warned that leaving the EU could cause petrol prices to rise by as much 19p a litre. That’s an extra £10 every time you fill up the family car. More cautious estimates, such as that from the RAC, still see pump prices rising by £2 per tank.

The EU is an invaluable ally in the fight against Climate Change

At a speech at a solar farm in Lincolnshire last Friday, Jeremy Corbyn argued that the need for co-orinated energy policy is now greater than ever “Climate change is one of the greatest fights of our generation and, at a time when the Government has scrapped funding for green projects, it is vital that we remain in the EU so we can keep accessing valuable funding streams to protect our environment.”

Corbyn’s statement builds upon those made by Green Party MEP, Keith Taylor, whose consultations with research groups have stressed the importance of maintaining the EU’s energy efficiency directive: “Outside the EU, the government’s zeal for deregulation will put a kibosh on the progress made on energy efficiency in Britain.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.