And so the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is back on the tax trail. Although did it ever really stop? Certainly, despite the upbeat assessments of the economy made by outgoing Bank of England governor Sir Mervyn King, the pressures on public and private purses haven’t eased. This explains the strength of public feeling that everyone should contribute a fair share of income in taxation. The tricky bit, as the PAC is discovering, is that working out exactly what constitutes a fair share isn’t as straightforward as it might seem.
Having previously called in the tax partners of the Big Four accountancy firms and the heads of companies already publicly called out for not coughing up as much to Treasury coffers as they might (step forward the apparently unholy trinity of Google, Amazon and Starbucks), this round of committee sessions will see some of the same faces hauled back in to answer many of the same questions.
Earlier this week I was at an event where one senior member of the committee was less than positive about the current direction the committee is taking.
In reality, striking a deal with wealthy corporations or individuals might end up being the quickest approach
He didn’t seem to agree that this fixation on the effective corporation tax rates of firms who decide to base their head quarters overseas was the best use of the committee’s time and resources.
Elsewhere this week tax campaigners UK Uncut Legal Challenge failed in their bid to bring HMRC to book for what UK Uncut claimed was an unlawful deal struck between HMRC and Goldman Sachs.
In dismissing the case the judge agreed that the deal had not been HMRC’s finest hour but he found nothing unlawful about it. To some extent UK Uncut has achieved some of its objectives by bringing the issue of the way big business deals with HMRC into the spotlight and raising the profile of the Goldman’s case in particular. For its part, HMRC continues to deny claims that it is soft on big business.
But getting money out of most large organisations and wealthy individuals is tougher than it should be. And it is certainly tougher than chasing small business owners. In reality, striking a deal with wealthy corporations or individuals might end up being the quickest, simplest and most cost-effective approach to collecting revenues. Ideally this agreement would be one that displeases the entity paying tax more than it does HMRC (although one that displeases both sides a little is probably the most likely outcome). While such an approach may well be cost effective, without the disinfectant of greater transparency such deals will always stink a bit.
Two phrases that have been bandied around so much in the last 18 months that they are rapidly becoming cliché are that we need greater transparency, and that we need a simpler tax system.
Whether Google, Amazon, Goldman Sachs or anyone else with tax affairs complex enough to involve a potential settlement with HMRC has anything to hide or not, the mere fact that details are kept out of the public eye raises suspicions.
The tax affairs of individuals and corporates are between them and HMRC, but if they opt out of the system that the small business owner or the proverbial hard-working family has to settle for then they should do so in the knowledge that the details of the settlement will be made public.
Richard Cree is editor of economia