BIG companies in the UK are paying less tax than they did 12 years ago, despite a big jump in profits, while smaller firms have seen their tax bill almost treble.
Campaigners say it the clearest signal yet that tax avoidance has blossomed under a more business-friendly strategy at tax authority Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC).
Opposition parties in Scotland say it heaps more pressure on First Minister Alex Salmond, who has “hailed” firms such as Amazon which, along with Google and Starbucks, has been at the centre of tax avoidance claims.
The SNP also wants control of corporation tax in Scotland so it can be cut below the UK level in a bid to attract more firms north.
But ministers say they have been “very clear” firms should not shift profits across national borders to escape tax, while HMRC insists it has been successful in tackling avoidance.
HMRC figures analysed by Reuters show large companies’ corporation tax payments were £21 billion in 2011-12, down £5bn, or 21 per cent, since 2000-01, when the UK Labour government embarked on a more collaborative approach to big business.
At the same time, the gross operating surplus for all UK companies rose 65 per cent, to £329bn. The tax bill for smaller firms nearly trebled, from £4.4bn billion to £12.1bn, over the same period.
Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie said: “These figures support what Greens have long argued – true prosperity cannot be achieved by sucking up to corporate interests. Sadly, in Scotland, we’ve seen our First Minister hail companies like Amazon when they clearly don’t pay their way and, in fact, push independent Scottish businesses to the wall.”
The Greens have been urging finance secretary John Swinney to use the proposed new Revenue Scotland tax body to tackle tax avoidance, which he has pledged to do. But Mr Harvie said: “His SNP colleagues have yet to show any sign of giving up on their dream of slashing tax for big business and aviation.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We are very clear that measures should be put in place to make sure that multinational companies do not shift their profits from one jurisdiction to another for tax avoidance purposes.
“It is important all companies operating in Scotland should be transparent and accountable for the tax due on their economic activity.”
HMRC and the finance ministry denied the figures showed an increase in tax avoidance – legal tactics used by multinationals such as Google, Amazon and Starbucks.
But John Christensen, of campaign group Tax Justice Network, said the figures showed successive governments’ attempts to create a more business-friendly administration – including a policy known as “enhanced relationship”, based on mutual trust – had encouraged companies to use such tactics.
“These figures tell a more powerful story than any figures I have seen so far,” he said, adding senior HMRC staff had told him they were “alarmed” at the drop in payments from large companies. HMRC defines these as firms with an annual profit of more than £1.5 million.
A spokeswoman for HMRC said: “We have been very successful in reducing tax avoidance by large businesses in recent years.
“We relentlessly challenge those that persist in avoiding tax and have recovered £29bn additional revenues from large businesses in the last six years.
“Corporation tax receipts are dependent on the wider economy and the corporation tax rate set by parliament, which was reduced by two percentage points for 2011-12.”