Another Public Accounts Committee report, another sad indictment of the probity of our governance. This time it was HMRC, who, by the sounds of it, appear to be publicly funded tax accountants working devilishly hard to minimise the contributions of our corporate giants. At this rate, the “big 4” accountancy cartel will be suing the government for loss of earnings. Perhaps, in a fit of Big Society zeal, George Osborne will simply outsource HMRC’s work to PricewaterhouseCoopers and cut out the middle man. But there are other ways of approaching the “tax gap” problem than simply calling it a day over a glass of wine on the Goldman’s expenses card.
Both Prem Sikka and Richard Murphy argue for a simple yet effective measure to help stem the flow of lost tax: corporate tax returns should be made publicly available. Avoiding the privacy issues of individuals, there is little reason why this cannot be done as it already is in Scandinavia. As Murphy says, “such disclosure [should be] a corollary of the right to limited liability — which demands transparency in exchange for the privileges granted”. In unprecedented economic times it is no longer tenable that corporations can be protected from the full liabilities of their actions whilst simultaneously hiding their contributions; it’s all take and no give.
In his Code of Conduct for tax, published today, Murphy makes a number of important suggestions as to what a sound, democratic tax structure should look like — a structure that would, for that very reason, be strongly resisted by both the City and the CBI. One of the key proposals is a lighter touch approach to auditing for those firms signing up to the code:
Any taxpayer or agent wishing to comply with the Code may do so. A State should presume that a person professing compliance with the Code has done so when dealing with any tax return they submit. In consequence the administrative burdens imposed upon that person should be reduced. In the event of evidence of non-compliance being found any consequential penalty imposed should be doubled… Those not signing up should expect the consequences. And we’d need to know who is who.
Public information is the critical issue. Murphy cites the Financial Times’s concerns over public disclosure of corporate returns; namely that due to the complexity of the issue public access may be ineffective. Firstly, the FT understate the growing resources of the public in holding firms to account, whether through UkUncut, Murphy’s own Tax Research UK site, the impact and popularity of Nick Shaxson’s Treasure Islands, and the recently formed Tackle Tax Havens project. The public is mobilizing; not just in the UK, but across the Western world. Online tax returns would not escape scrutiny.
But there is a limit to how far the general consumer will acquaint themselves with the returns published and the problem of “we need to know” would, to a lesser degree, still remain. What seems to be needed, in conjunction with public returns, is a simple, visible indicator of tax probity at the transaction level. The “green, amber, red” nutritional information provided on food packaging could potentially be adapted for tax purposes for all firms over a certain size and/or all publicly listed companies. If firms lack a physical good for packaging, they can be required to display their tax rating prominently on all literature and websites. We already have substantial amounts of compulsory information we require UK firms to provide. Costs of implementation, both to the state and the firm, would be relatively miniscule in comparison to the scale of tax lost — currently estimated at around £25bn a year, or around 15 per cent of the deficit (the figure is just for avoidance, not evasion). There is no reason why only food producers should have to show consumers the information they would rather hide.
In the land of market efficiency, knowledge is king, and those who purport to uphold free-market principles should recognise the importance of tax knowledge; consumers have a right to know who they are dealing with if they are to arrive at rational outcomes for their purchases. For we don’t simply rely on the goods and services we purchase — we rely also, to a great extent, on citizens and firms contributing to the collective costs of running a civilized society. More than ever, we need transparency and knowledge to empower the public to make the right choices on which firms to do business with.
Oliver Huitson is associate editor of OurKingdom, the UK branch of OpenDemocracy.net