3 Dec 2012

Osborne’s plan to take on the tax dodgers

George Osborne orders Revenue & Customs officials to draft in an army of investigators to target tax avoiders and evaders, but after two years of cuts to HMRC the move has been met with criticism.

Chancellor George Osborne has unveiled a new £77m blitz on tax dodgers in a bid to draw billions of pounds back into the Treasury.

Mr Osborne has announced a “groundbreaking” new agreement with the US that will increase the amount of information on taxable income exchanged and enhance efforts to tackle offshore avoidance and evasion.

Marketers of aggressive tax avoidance schemes will now be targeted with the introduction of disclosure rules and HMRC sanctions for “cowboy advisers”.

The move comes as big names like Starbucks, Google and Amazon stand accused of “immorally” minimising their tax bills in a report by the Commons public accounts committee.

This is outrageous and an insult to British businesses and individuals who pay their fair share
Margaret Hodge

Mr Osborne said: “The government is clear that while most taxpayers are doing their bit to help us balance the books, it is unacceptable for a minority to avoid paying their fair share, sometimes by breaking the law.

“We are determined to tackle this problem and HMRC are making good progress, but we are giving them additional tools to bring in more. The action we are announcing today will help HMRC close in not only on those who seek to avoid or evade tax, but on the dubious ‘cowboy’ advisers who sell them the schemes and dodges they use to cheat the law-abiding majority.”

The public accounts committee has called on the government to set down rules limiting inter-company transactions used to reduce companies’ tax bills and work with other countries to limit profit-shifting across borders.

The PAC claimed HMRC needs a “change in mindset” in how it approaches collecting tax from multinational companies and warned of a “pervasive acceptance of the status quo” by top officials.

“Global companies with huge operations in the UK generating significant amounts of income are getting away with paying little or no corporation tax here,” said Margaret Hodge, who chairs the PAC.

“This is outrageous and an insult to British businesses and individuals who pay their fair share”.

Mrs Hodge has called for companies abusing the system to be “named and shamed” and urged the government to toughen up. The report called on HMRC to prosecute multinational companies who do not pay tax due in the UK and suggested that as much as £32bn is going uncollected.

In the spotlight

A number of companies have been put in the spotlight now for their tax arrangements with coffee giant Starbucks announcing yesterday that it would review its “tax approach”.

Starbucks reported to the public accounts committee that it made a loss for 14 of 15 years it has been in the UK, making a small profit in 2006. The company has generated more than £3bn in the UK since 1998 but paid less than 1 per cent in corporation tax.

Google’s UK operations paid just £6m in 2011 but makes £2.5bn from British advertising every year; the company says it pays “the right amount of tax as defined by the systems set up by politicians”.

The Treasury hopes the HMRC funding boost will raise an extra £2bn per year through the creation of a “centre of excellence” to focus expertise on tackling offshore evasion and avoidance.

However, Mr Osborne has cut funding to HMRC in recent years. A 2010 spending review proposed a 16.5 per cent drop in funding with 10,000 job cuts. Staff levels have fallen from 2005 levels of 97,073 to 66,992 in 2010 and are projected to reach 56,100 by 2015.

Labour shadow Treasury minister Catherine McKinnell has highlighted over £2bn of “deep cuts” to HMRC that she says George Osborne has pushed through as chancellor.

“If the government was serious about tackling tax avoidance, they’d rethink their plan to cut a further 10,000 HMRC staff, which risk being a false economy,” she stated.

Read: Companies 'immorally' minimised UK tax bills

A public accounts committee report earlier this year warned job cuts meant an extra £1.1bn in tax was going uncollected.

A spokesman for HMRC has said it ensures that multinationals pay the tax due “in accordance with UK tax law”, adding: “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, including £4.1bn in the last four years from transfer pricing enquiries alone.”

Wednesday’s autumn statement is expected to confirm that a general anti-abuse rule will come into force next year but campaign group War on Want have called for a general anti-avoidance principle to give HMRC a “powerful tool to tackle tax avoidance”.

Murray Worthy, War on Want’s tax justice campaigner, said: “This government’s tax plan is totally out of step with public opinion.”

“While the public, MPs and businesses are sending a clear message that tax dodgers must be stopped from exploiting the system, the government would rather cosy up to its multinational friends.”