Tax paid by some global firms in UK 'an insult'

Image caption,
Multinational companies such as Starbucks, Amazon and Google have complicated tax systems - all say they operate within the law

Global firms in the UK that pay little or no tax are an "insult" to British businesses, a committee of MPs says.

Public Accounts Committee chairwoman Margaret Hodge said HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) needed to be "more aggressive and assertive in confronting corporate tax avoidance".

Multinationals such as Starbucks and Amazon have come under fire for paying little or no corporation tax.

They generate UK sales of hundreds of millions of pounds.

Starbucks, for example, sold nearly £400m worth of goods in the UK last year, but paid no corporation tax at all, because it transferred some of the money to a sister company in the Netherlands in the form of royalty payments, bought its coffee beans from Switzerland and paid high interest rates to borrow money from other parts of the business.

HMRC said it already ensured that international companies paid the tax due "in accordance with UK tax law".

The Treasury said it would provide HMRC with £77m in new money to help it track down wealthy individuals and companies who tried to avoid paying tax.

The Treasury said it expected to recoup £2bn a year as a result of the measures announced.

Downing Street also confirmed that Chancellor George Osborne planned to introduce a general anti-avoidance rule and hold talks with other G8 developed countries about clamping down on tax avoidance.

But the spokesman rejected calls to name and shame companies involved in tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance.

UK-based companies pay corporation tax on their taxable profits wherever they are made. Foreign companies must pay tax in the UK on profits made in this country.

The Public Accounts Committee's report came after it heard evidence in November from executives from Starbucks, Google and Amazon about the amount of corporation tax the companies had paid in the UK.

'Evasive evidence'

Margaret Hodge told the BBC that there was a danger corporation tax was becoming "voluntary" and that this had to change.

"These global companies are making money in the UK. All we are saying is that if you have economic activities in the UK you are making profits and tax is payable on that," she said.

It emerged on Sunday that coffee shop chain Starbucks is in talks with HMRC about the amount of tax it pays.

In the report, Mrs Hodge said the level of tax taken from multinational firms with large UK operations was, "outrageous and an insult to British businesses and individuals who pay their fair share".

"The inescapable conclusion is that multinationals are using structures and exploiting current tax legislation to move offshore profits that are clearly generated from economic activity in the UK.

Media caption,
George Osborne and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander say tax avoiders will be pursued

"HMRC should be challenging this, but its response so far to these big businesses and their aggressive tax planning has lacked determination and looks way too lenient. Policing the tax system must be at the heart of what HMRC does."

An HMRC spokesman said: "We relentlessly challenge those that persist in avoiding tax and have recovered £29bn additional revenues from large businesses in the last six years, including £4.1bn in the last four years from transfer pricing enquiries alone."

'Breathtaking hypocrisy'

In a statement to coincide with the committee's report, Amazon said it paid all applicable taxes in every jurisdiction in which it operated: "We have a single European headquarters in Luxembourg with hundreds of employees to manage this complex operation," it said.

Starbucks said in a statement: "We have listened to feedback from our customers and employees, and understand that to maintain and further build public trust we need to do more.

"As part of this we are looking at our tax approach in the UK. The company has been in discussions with HMRC for some time and is also in talks with the Treasury."

'Small fry'

The War on Want charity, which is campaigning for more to be done to tackle tax avoidance, accused the government of "breathtaking hypocrisy".

It said: "Osborne and Cameron are happy to talk tough on tax. But, in reality, their plans will only go after the small fry on the fringes, while giving a green light to multinationals like Amazon, Google and Starbucks to continue avoiding billions in tax."

Heather Self, a tax expert, told the BBC assessing tax for major companies was not simple.

"If you buy a book from Amazon you are actually buying from a Luxembourg company," she said. "It decides how many books to buy and at what price they sell them for. All you have in the UK is a warehouse, a very big warehouse that employs a lot of people but that is all it does. The risk is taken in Luxembourg.

"Profits paid here are for the activities it undertakes here and that is not highly profitable. It is not as simple a situation as the Public Accounts Committee likes to make out sometimes."

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