Comment: Domestic firms also minimising their tax costs

Martin Flanagan
Martin Flanagan
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AND we fondly thought it was just an imported American disease. The likes of Amazon, Google and Starbucks sparked outrage when it appeared they were paying no, or nominal, corporate taxes in Britain despite generating big sales.

But a new analysis of official data is a reality check. Large businesses in Britain apparently now pay less tax than they did 12 years ago despite their general profitability rising sharply from the turn of the millennium.

Tax avoidance, often looking immoral although legal, also appears to be flourishing among our indigenous companies, according to the numbers from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, crunched by the Thomson Reuters financial organisation.

They may not be employing the same brass-necked tax “efficiencies” as some of the cross-border American monoliths, but the underlying theme of the latest data shows that corporate efforts to pay the minimum to the Treasury is clearly not confined to Johnny Foreigner.

Large British companies’ payment of corporation tax was down a fifth, at £21 billion, in the 2011-12 tax year compared to 2000-1.

This is over a period when the gross – before tax – operating surplus of all companies in Britain has jumped two-thirds to £329bn, and personal income tax and small companies’ income tax have grown higher.

It looks to have been the downside of the trade‑off between the desire of successive British governments, of varying stripes, to keep businesses domiciled here and attract new ones.

Much to the delight of the CBI, British corporation tax has come down steadily over the past decade from 30 per cent to 24 per cent now, and to a promised 21 per cent in 2014.

But the flipside is that putting big business tax receipts under pressure in this way becomes the price paid for cutting the cost of doing business in the UK to promote the perceived wider economic good.

Then add in a five-year economic downturn and some nifty work by the accountants and you have all the ingredients for business, homegrown as well as foreign multi-nationals, being able to sidestep a more onerous tax burden.

As the ratios of corporation tax to profits are set in stone, the only way the British companies are likely to have got away with this – like the American giants mentioned above – is to book the profits elsewhere.

That, and perhaps some corporate finessing and hocus-pocus in areas like special tax treatment for R&D investment.

In short, British companies seem as alive to many of the tax avoidance possibilities as some of their lambasted American cousins. Glass houses and thrown stones come to mind.

Welcome link between banking and ethics

GIVEN the scandal-spattered year the industry has had, it is good that the British Bankers Association has set up a consumer panel and an advisory panel.

As BBA chief executive Anthony Browne seems to acknowledge, the banking industry, through a series of unethical and possibly illegal practices, has become detached from society.

It feels a parallel universe of avarice and cavalier incompetence to many people.

Broadening the non-banking input to the trade body cannot hurt in trying to re-establish better understanding between bankers and the banked. Welcome.