So, it’s another week and another episode in the endless soap of the Public Accounts Committee’s (PAC) pursuit of what it sees as corporate tax dodgers and, this week, of Google in particular
For its part, Google is sticking resolutely to the line that it is doing nothing illegal in organising its affairs to take advantage of lower rates of corporation tax rates elsewhere. HMRC is, rightly, refusing to comment on the details of any particular case, while at the same time launching a stout defence of its record of investigating such large corporate “customers”. And once again, the Big Four are in the spotlight for their part in advising clients how to reduce tax bills. The view within the profession is that they no longer engage in the worst sort of egregious avoidance schemes, having already recognised the changing mood music in the country.
Overlaying all this scrutiny of one company’s affairs in one country is the broader international picture and the imminent arrival of the leaders of the G8, ostensibly to discuss changes to the global tax system above all else.
Reputation is not just about what people, corporations and politicians actually do. At least, and maybe more, important is what they are perceived to be doing
The potential difficulties in agreeing changes to the international tax system have already been highlighted with Bermuda refusing to play ball on an information-sharing deal for Britain’s Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies, and Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, refusing to agree to a proposed new deal on global tax. France has also refused to agree to a proposed EU-US free trade agreement unless it gets certain cultural exemptions. I suppose that’s in the nature of international discussion and diplomacy.
David Cameron likes to talk about the UK being in “a global race”, while his chancellor is keen to promote the UK as a low-tax destination for businesses. The government’s Corporation Tax Road Map sets out the ambition to use low taxes as a means of attracting inward investment. But this global tax race is inevitably a race to the bottom. Germany has already started to question the appropriateness of the UK’s patent box legislation, which offers tax breaks for companies investing in research and development activity in the UK.
A government that seeks to attract investment through lower taxes can’t attack corporations using low tax jurisdictions elsewhere with any sort of credibility. That is one reason that all the political criticism aimed at Google has thus far come from the PAC and the opposition. Indeed, David Cameron was happy to host Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt at a Downing Street meeting of his Business Advisory Group last month.
After a new round of lobbying scandals, trust in the political system (still only recovering from the expenses scandal) is low, while scepticism about the unhealthily close relationship between politicians and business leaders is sky high. Every move is watched and analysed by a media itself only recovering from its own scandals. It is an atmosphere in which speculation and conspiracy theories thrive.
So people can claim that Google gets “let off” taxes because it’s done a deal with David Cameron or speculate that HMRC lets big business get away without paying its fair share because its senior civil servants get well-paid jobs with the big accountancy firms when they leave. As with all such conspiracies there is little truth in most of this idle tittle-tattle. But reputation is not just about what people, corporations and politicians actually do. At least, and maybe more, important is what they are perceived to be doing.
Into this arena when, however much it frustrates practitioners, the tax debate has moved away from being a black and white legal issue to being a much less clear cut reputational risk issue, it was interesting to see the launch of the Fair Tax Mark. This is a far more effective and practical attempt to do something that was floated in this column in January.
It's hard to find many people who think the UK tax system is too simple
This is a good manifestation of the idea of Nudge economics, in which positive reinforcement for good behaviours is shown to have a greater effect than punishment of undesirable behaviours.
This was a theory former number 10 adviser Steve “Big Society” Hilton pushed David Cameron towards early on. So the PM should be keen to embrace the Fair Tax Mark. Perhaps unsurprisingly, PAC chairman Margaret Hodge has welcomed the move.
It’s hard to find many people who think the UK tax system is too simple. Tax in the UK (as it is in most countries) is a complicated matter, but it can be simplified.
While that process of actually simplifying the tax code is an extremely slow process, initiatives such as the Fair Tax Mark, which compares taxes actually paid against those that could have been paid and assesses the methods use to avoid tax, present the non-tax-literate public an immediately accessible way to judge a company’s tax behaviour.
It will be interesting what take-up the initiative gets with policymakers, accountants, and most crucial of all, with the public.
Richard Cree is editor of economia
Tax transparency plans go awry
Editor's view: Martin Sorrell, tax and ethics
Big Four grilled by MPs
Cameron's G8 tax intentions