Claire Smith: Tax can’t be fixed over coffee

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THIS week, a friend confided she had received a bill from HM Revenue & Customs asking for repayment of several thousands pounds worth of tax.

The bill was from a period of self employment. My friend told me she had spent several sleepless nights worrying over it.

It could have been a mistake made by her accountant, it could have been a mistake made by HMRC. However, it certainly wasn’t any kind of tax dodging on her part.

I thought of her this week when George Osborne announced in his Autumn Statement that prosecutions for tax evasions were up 80 per cent.

You can bet your life that most were people like my friend – who had inadvertently filed what looked like a problematic tax return – and who was being driven to despair by the notion she might be accused of fraud.

In the same week the megalithic coffee giant Starbucks announced it was “voluntarily” going to pay £10 million in corporation tax.

It is the equivalent of my friend negotiating an end to her worry and sleepless nights by offering to bung HMRCa £20 note.

Anyone who has ever been self employed will know HMRC is not known for its readiness to negotiate.

And people are getting more and more impatient with the way multinational companies are playing fast and loose with the UK tax system.

At a time when ordinary citzens are being battered and services are being cut in the name of austerity, it seems companies like Amazon, Google and Ebay are able to interpret tax laws to suit themselves.

The encouraging news is that consumer pressure is pushing change. Starbucks made its £10m offer following calls for a boycott of its shops.

And it ain’t over yet. Today, the direct action group UK Uncut will stage demonstrations at Starbucks up and down the country, calling the coffee giant to make a fairer contribution to public funds.

Starbucks may have managed to pacify the government with the equivalent of a £20m payment – but it won’t wash with the rest of us.