This week has seen the issue of corporation tax paid – or rather not paid – in the UK come to the boil, after simmering for several weeks with the articles of various MPs from various parties in various newspapers. It has now made the front page news and there has been an open harangue on three companies, Starbucks, Google and Amazon in the Public Accounts Committee by a group of British MPs headed up by Margaret Hodge.
The argument of the Committee is that these are companies who have made a good deal of turnover in the UK but they haven’t paid any tax. The way in which this has occurred is that they haven’t shown much by way of profits in the UK. They are now being told by Mrs Hodge that she doesn’t believe that they have not made profits in the UK given so much turnover, she thinks that profits are being salted away to other countries, like Luxembourg or Holland, using various techniques such as management charges, royalty fees, transfer prices, etc.
There are of course laws which are set up to determine whether profits in the UK are being assessed fairly – there is transfer pricing legislation and the Inland Revenue are able to investigate whether Transfer Pricing has been used. However, in the end what Mrs Hodge’s argument has boiled down to is the fallacious “argument from incredulity” – she cannot believe that the businesses have not made bigger profits (she seems to be oblivious to the fact that there is a recession going on out there and has been for some time, and that companies in all sectors and of all sized are bankrolling losses), and since she cannot believe it, it cannot be true.
In the case of Amazon a particular point was made – in addition to the insulting of Amazon’s spokesman Mr Andrew Cecil by accusing him of “gross ignorance” – namely when he pointed out that of course Amazon has paid taxes, only not corporation tax, they have paid VAT and employment taxes and created jobs – Hodge said that this argument was irrelevant because also the corner bookshops which would have sold those books would have created those jobs (fictional employment was always beloved by the left) and that Amazon, by making offshore structures involving Luxembourg, were making those little corner bookstores less competitive.
The fact is, however, that Amazon is not competing with little bookstores – it’s the Internet, new technology, which is competing with physical bookstores, but anyone with any kind of memory ought to be able to remember how a few large stores like WHSmiths and Waterstones already managed to put the corner shop bookstores out of business long before the Internet came along. Also if you look at markets like Poland or the Czech Republic, where they have online stores for books but not so much by way of the colossal physical bookstores the way the UK has, there the corner bookstore is alive and well. So Mrs Hodge has absolutely the wrong villain in her sights if she wishes to defend the corner store bookshop. But if she really was interested in championing them, then where was her voice railing against expansions by Waterstones and Smiths ten to fifteen years ago, which transformed that industry then just as much as the internet does now? Where is her voice against the Net Book Agreement, which makes it very hard in the UK for small businesses to deal in new books against larger companies? Tax is important, but it is only a thin layer of icing on that particular rather thick cake.
She admitted also that she wasn’t accusing Amazon of being illegal, only of being “immoral”. I am sorry, but is Luxembourg not another EU state in good standing? Is it now “immoral” to use the EU structures that were offered to us as the bait for getting us to sign up to the Single Market in the first place? Well, if there is any immorality in all of this, I can’t see it on the part of the private businesses. I see immorality and utter hypocrisy in the way these MPs, elected members of a government, blame business for their own failures. Failure in so many years of our being in the EU to sort out some kind of harmonisation in income taxes and corporate income taxes meaning that people are able to doing interesting kinds of arbitrage between EU legislations both in terms of their personal taxes and corporate profits taxes. They have had so many years and so many terms of office to sort this matter out.
In fact the answer in Amazon’s case is ridiculously simple – the UK has held a zero rate of VAT for books in order not to penalise reading, but bookselling companies paid the same profits taxes as any other kind of company. That means that book VAT in the UK isn’t even propely harmonised with the rest of the EU. VAT cannot easily be evaded, and even Margaret Hodge couldn’t deny that Amazon paid VAT, merely dismissed it as irrelevant. So what the government can do to produce a more level playing field is to put the general rate of VAT on books and reduce the profits tax for companies all of whose income comes from the sale of books. This would force booksellers who are in a lot of different businesses to be just in books in order to profit from the reduction, and it would mean that it would be of less worry who used corporate income tax reducing techniques, as they would be spending time and money reducing a smaller imposition anyway, and therefore would be less likely to do it.
Schools could be enabled to reclaim the input VAT, the students of university colleges also, therefore the impact on education would be minimised.
I wonder whether anyone in Government will consider this solution, or work towards the harmonisation of EU member state corporation taxes which we all believed back in 1993 was likely to happen before the turn of the Millennium, or whether they will continue, like Margaret Hodge, to blast other people in the private sector for doing their jobs properly while government continues to neglect its own job with impunity.
- Tax row: ‘pathetic’ Amazon man humiliated by MPs (theweek.co.uk)
- Amazon, Google and Starbucks accused of diverting UK profits (guardian.co.uk)
- Starbucks Boss Denies Making Money in Britain (sfluxe.com)
- MP Margaret Hodge calls for boycott of Starbucks, Amazon and Google over ‘tax avoidance’ (standard.co.uk)