Spendthrifts and tax dodgers
Six years on from the bank-induced recession, governments in the G8 are in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland to consider problems that they have failed to solve since the invention of taxation. While not as old as Enniskillen’s oldest building, built by Hugh “the hospitable” Maguire (who died in 1428), it is high time serious politicians acted.
Large sovereign deficits (spendthrifts pre-2007 and financial system saviours post-2007) and the inability of Finance Ministers to take more tax from their citizens has caused some nations to focus their attention after hundreds of years on the anomalies of the corporate tax system. This system enables companies (tax dodgers) to shift their tax burden offshore – away from where they make their money – through transfer prices, royalties and the like to places where the tax burden shrinks to almost nothing.
Margaret Hodge (the chair of the UK Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee – PAC) has pursued a fierce campaign against large companies that have, in her view, not paid their due corporate taxes in the UK.
The HMRC (the UK’s tax collectors) have, for many years, decided to be “pragmatic” and reach deals with those same companies on the basis that tax law is insufficient to compel the larger companies to pay reasonable rates of taxation – and the companies have more and better (and better paid) tax lawyers and accountants than the HMRC could dream of.
The PAC has not accused companies of illegality but has stated often that they should pay tax where they earn profits and has cast doubt on the companies’ honesty and morality. Google claims its sales take place in low tax / tax haven Ireland despite the reality of closing the deals in England – as the PAC has claimed and has brought forth witnesses who have testified to this.
What the debate between public and private sectors have shown is clear (to most of us). It is that corporate taxation is very hard to collect currently and that companies believe they are duty bound to reduce their tax to the minimum possible. For there is no social heart in a company – it is not really a person (even if it is granted that status in law), it has to meet the demands of the legal system and its shareholders (while ensuring its customers are satisfied on the way).
Tax-dodging Companies Have No Afterlife
There is a misinterpretation that great companies can find a soul but we should understand that, while they are all made up of real people, companies (especially large ones) take on a life of their own and are propelled by the dynamics of corporatism. A company knows that it has but one existence – there are no stories of “good” companies going to heaven.
Companies that pursue good CSR (corporate social responsibility) do often have good people working for them but the CSR is there because civil society (which includes a lot of customers – real people) demands it. Sustainability is best developed with a good understanding of the society around the company. This means understanding social responsibility where it is seen to be legally needed or where it will benefit the company in the medium term.
This rarely stretches to paying more tax than is needed. For every Starbucks (frightened by bad publicity to throw money in the direction of HMRC) there are 1,000 Googles and Amazons and Apples. Tax is not for sale and paying tax not required by law does not gain a company angel’s wings.
The Spendthrifts’ dilemma
However, since 2007, there have arisen massive deficits in many sovereign nations’ coffers. Suddenly, there is a need to fill those cavernous holes and the substantial drift in the share of income from individual wage earners to high net worth individuals and companies (companies don’t have a vote – outside of the city of London and there are not that many rich people – even if they control most of the wealth) means that the attention of government has shifted in times of recession.
Angel Gurria, Secretary General of the OECD, said recently that taxing the “man on the street” wasn’t economically desirable or even politically possible, so for many finance ministers the only option was “to cut, cut, cut more, rather than have a proper balance between revenue and the expense”.
He said this while overseeing the signing by more countries of automatic exchange of tax information – Austria, Switzerland and Singapore coming to the table.
However, other than austerity, which is now causing huge unemployment in countries such as Greece and Spain, the only target is corporate. This may be a turning point after hundreds of years – a Clause 4 moment – or it may be just rhetoric.
Spendthrifts chasing tax-dodgers – Tax Havens and Beneficial Ownership
Linking this to the G8 and David Cameron is obvious. Companies are able to avoid tax if they can somehow show that their profits are made outside of the higher tax areas. This can only be done if there are places with very low taxation that will accommodate them – these are the tax havens. Nicholas Shaxson’s excellent book “Treasure Islands” tells the story of these tax havens extremely well and also the appalling impact that they have on the poorest countries of the world.
Developing nations are rife with corruption and the corrupt are big users of tax havens – really, they are laundering their money. Today’s Sunday Times article on the use of Latvians as front Directors for companies operating scams tells this story.
This is possible because of the secrecy that exists in most jurisdictions. If there was transparency and the only issue was lower taxation, then we would have a real competitive environment. Unfortunately, that is not the situation – although it is changing quietly with projects like the one above. If transparency becomes the norm, then the corrupt and criminal (whether they are terrorists or drug barons) will have far fewer places to go. There is no better place to learn about beneficial ownership than at Global Witness – which has driven this issue from the start – see their “Idiot’s Guide to Money Laundering.” It’s so easy anyone can do it – trouble is, most are!
This is why transparency is so critical and why politicians are attempting to use transparency to open up tax havens – at last – and the end to ownership secrecy.
Once there is transparency, then the next step is to determine where profits are legitimately made. This means that the policing of royalties and transfer pricing cannot be at the whim of large corporates but there has to be international agreements that specify what is allowable. International tax laws should not predetermine rates of tax, but double taxation should not equate to zero taxation – it has to mean that tax is payable in the countries where the business is done.
The final requirement is to ensure that beneficial owners of companies are known by the taxation authorities. Why companies and trusts are allowed to be secret is beyond the comprehension of almost all of us. As Richard Murphy (Tax Research UK) has written, over 500,000 companies in the UK are struck off each year. Around a third never file accounts. He estimates that the tax lost as a result could be upwards of £16bn per year from companies that trade but do not file accounts or tax returns.
That is in the UK alone.
Can’t Spend, can’t stop spending
Can’t tax, can’t stop taxing
The dilemma of western Governments that find austerity too much, too soon and who (outside of those in serious trouble like Greece, Cyprus and Spain) are unwilling to torment their citizens with mass unemployment and soup kitchens is great. This means that the deficiencies that have been all too apparent in corporate taxation for so long are seen as the final option. The 2007 banking-induced calamity has made such huge financial contortions in countries such as the UK and the USA that even the precious not-to-be-disturbed tax havens and secrecy laws are under pressure.
The G8, chaired by the UK and in Northern Ireland (rather than one of the many UK protectorates that operate as tax havens), does provide an opportunity to generate support for the ending of the nonsense that the current corporate tax system provides. Gleneagles (eight years ago) was all about international development and led to significant and positive change (even if not all the promises have been fulfilled). The same pressure and openness about tax havens and secrecy in international finance could lead to more sensible and pragmatic tax systems and, eventually (if pursued vigorously) to far less exporting of illicit funds from developing nations (such funds leave developing countries at a faster rate than aid money is put in). At least $50bn a year is lost to developing nations in Africa alone every year.
This is a great time for Enniskillen – ancient home of Hugh the Hospitable – to be remembered for its lack of hospitality to tax dodgers.