David Cameron is an astute politician and he understands that, at last, there is a popular movement for equity in taxation. This equity includes companies paying a reasonable share of profits. Ian Birrell in The Independent sees this as the start of a movement but this is a campaign that people like Richard Murphy have waged for many years.
True, much of the publicity around his work and that of organisations like the Tax Justice Network and Action Aid have revolved around tax and the developing world. This is where multinationals – especially in the energy and mining sectors – have often connived with governments with a corrupt result that siphoned off hundreds of billions of dollars from the state into the pockets of individuals, elite groups and corporates.
The Dodd-Frank Act – and its focus on country-by-country reporting of tax in such areas – was aimed at opening up governments and companies payments.
However, the taxation effects of tax havens, low tax jurisdictions and multinationals with expertise in moving their tax affairs wherever they want has also created the opportunity for such multinationals to pay if they want, where they want. Organisations like the Institute of Directors, whose members are mainly smaller companies with less multinational options, have recently come out in favour of zero corporate tax rates – on the basis that it is people that should pay tax, not companies.
What’s a Company for?
There are many who believe that a company should not pay taxes – that the market economy needs to ensure that companies are free (within the law) to grow and prosper and that their assumption of human qualities (they are seen as entities under the law) is a fiction. It is people that need to be taxed – not companies and the IoD, for example, in its paper “How to get rid of Corporation Tax” (written following a similar paper from the 2020 Tax Commission) strongly advocates the elimination of all corporation tax as the company is a mere conduit for shareholders, staff etc who should pay all the tax on disbursements from the company.
This begs the question about the essential qualities of a company in a market economy – what is it that makes a company different from an individual – why shouldn’t it pay tax?
Limited liability provides individuals with the scope to take risks. It is a formula from which individuals seeking to build a business can bring in investment knowing that the only requirement to repay (if managing a legally proper business) is limited to the value of the shares as well as any loans taken out. It is limited liability that was fully developed in the Netherlands in1602 when stock was tradable on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange that gave the push to enterprise in Europe. Taken up by the British, it heralded the industrial revolution.
Joint stock companies (having limited liability) were the original, defining force that differentiated companies from individuals pursuing business opportunities. Now, most business is done with limited liability. Governments have lost track of the ability of such joint stock companies to register in whatever jurisdiction they want and to appoint Directors that have nothing to do with the business – often purely there to hide ownership.
Clearly, companies have a huge presence. Their marketing ability is as the company – not the individuals that are behind it. Advertising and brand management is aimed at providing the public with an identifiable face. A company relies on its customers seeing it as a tangible and identifiable organization with which customers can do business. It has a legal basis (and can take action as such and be actioned against as a result) as well as a moral requirement – the advent of CSR is merely a tangible outcome of the way that companies are seen to be real and impact the environment and society in many ways.
If it quacks…..
We all know that companies are the centre of entrepreneurship and product and service creativity. In a market economy, the rise of joint stock corporations have worked to de-risk investments so that competition has been developed and economic growth maintained since the early 1800’s. This growth has developed some enormous corporations in businesses as wide as energy, food, utilities, construction, defence and aerospace, pharmaceuticals and beyond. Every area of opportunity is mined by the evolution of companies across the globe. Governments have progressively sought to assist business but, under pressure from society (people) laws have been passed which inhibit them to what society believes are proper norms.
These laws include health and safety and employment laws but also include tax laws. As a result, companies make decisions on where to locate – although this often includes where it needs to sell as much as where it can find skilled staff or suppliers.
Apart from rogue traders, set up with the need to hide its affairs within foreign jurisdictions and behind false Directors, many MNC’s (multinational corporations) are able to move their profits around by manipulation of licensing and other features. Rather than pay tax on profits in the areas in which they make the money, accountants can provide companies with boltholes in which the rates of tax are very low.
The IoD and others believe that companies are not real – that Governments should give up on them and rely on the payments they make to people on which tax should be paid.
The question arises: if a company is a distinct entity in law; if it can be held responsible for its impact on the environment, its impact on people, its duty of care to customers – why, oh why, should it not pay taxes? Why should society not look to some repayment from the company itself – which benefits hugely from joint stock activities as well and huge benefits that are introduced for companies such in terms of infrastructure, government regulations, and a myriad of other incentives – rather than (in this instance only) having to seek tax purely from receivers of income from companies. Taxing companies is, in principle, correct as it is the company that derives the income from a location.
If tax is to be separated, then the long-term outcome for companies would be potentially the loss of other benefits (such as joint-stock arrangements) as the legal distinction becomes blurred. Not just the thin end of the wedge – but a potentially disastrous change.
Companies have to play their part
If companies exist in law as distinct entities, which they do worldwide, then it is reasonable that they face up to the reasonable demands of the society in which they operate. Company law, however, may set up companies as distinct but the reality is that the company has no moral code except that which society imposes. People have moral codes, companies (which are organisations of people) do not. CSR is reactive to society, not pro-active and while companies have a need to become sustainable (in terms not just of resources but sustainable in terms of the relationship with its customers and the societies in which they operate) it is extremely rare for them to lead – to take such societal risks.
This is true in most areas. Health and safety leaders in companies were years ahead of the legal changes in places such as California but were reacting, quite properly, to likely long-term changes. Those that did so were ahead of the game when laws changed in areas such as environmental restrictions.
This reactive ability (changing as the environment changes in an evolutionary way) makes the best companies resilient – sustainable. It shows they are real entities as much of society as any other organizational form or the individuals that self-organise around them and within them. Companies are a part of society and should contribute to society as a key part of it. This means that opting out of a crucial element of the system – taxation – is ludicrous on grounds of the companies’ relationship with society – whether that opting out is legal or not.
The dangers are obvious. The crack in society would be potentially dramatic – companies would be seen to have no fiscal contract with society. This may well be the case for MNC’s now but the public backlash is starting to inhibit their ability to prosper in this environment. Companies that properly pay their tax are now selling this proposition to their customers – companies such as J Sainsbury whose pride in paying proper company tax in the UK is seen in distinct contrast to those MNC’s like Amazon, Starbucks and similar. The latter is threatening to disentangle itself from future investment in the UK if David Cameron (and his “time to smell the coffee remarks”) persists in trying to get them to pay tax where they trade rather than using licensing and royalties to hid their true profits.
Companies are a key part of society. They have to act as such and not just contribute to society solely through CSR documents. They have to be seen to contribute and tax is one of the most obvious manifestations of that contribution.
Let tax be paid where the trade is made
Let’s end the notion that companies should not pay corporation tax and let’s get on to the next step of the ladder – working out how to ensure that royalties, tax havens, tax schemes, fake Directors and the like are no longer tolerated and that tax is paid where the trade is made.
See: Do Companies Exist – Part II