Google, Amazon and Starbucks have been chief whipping boys in an excoriating grilling by the powerful parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, headed by former Labour government minister Margaret Hodge. They are but the frontline of a phalanx of household multinational names – eBay and Ikea being prominent in the second rank – being prepped for humiliation in the court of public opinion. And behind the PAC’s bullying is a fully complicit Treasury – its head, George Osborne, desperately aware that falling corporation tax is contributing to the ruin of his re-election strategy.
Of course, what these brands are up to is hardly ethically defensible. To quote but a few examples, and bearing in mind that UK corporation tax on larger companies is currently levied at 24 per cent of profits: Google claims to have a global profit margin of 33 per cent but its UK unit paid only £3.4m in tax last year; Starbucks paid just £8.6m on 13-year UK turnover of £3.1bn; Amazon’s UK tax bill last year was £1.8m on reported sales of £207m; and in 2010 eBay paid £1.2m in tax on UK sales of £800m.
Not the stuff of sincere corporate citizenry, and – consumer brands being peculiarly vulnerable to criticism – these companies are deservedly squirming as the rock is lifted from their unedifying activities.
But because we don’t like their behaviour that doesn’t make it illegal. Tax avoidance is something we would all get up to, if we had an army of tax accountants at our disposal. And maximising profits is one of the fundamental tenets of capitalism, as germane to the micro-entrepreneur as the multinational corporation. What hurts is the unfairness of it all. We small folk must contend with HMRC harassment, escalating fines and a brutal bailiff when we don’t pay our tax bills; big corporations, by contrast, merely cut a highly advantageous deal with the UK tax authorities who, to all appearances, are sycophantically grateful for anything they are given.
So, what politicians are doing here is stoking the politics of envy: pitting the grievance of the many against the privilege of the few. It’s an easy populist game to play and amounts to a form of blackmail. You, Amazon, Starbucks et al, pay up or we will whip up a consumer boycott against you. Already, Osborne’s deputy, Danny Alexander, is “abstaining” from Starbucks coffee (although, in fact, admitting to only drinking tea) and Hodge (left) has knocked Amazon off her Christmas shopping list. How they’re going to hit Google in the googlies I’m not too sure, but the elements of a national campaign are there. Starbucks, for one, is already buckling and (in the words of the inevitable headline) waking up and smelling the coffee.
But wait. Enormously satisfying though this condign corporate punishment may be, could it not become a little, well, counter-productive if the trend really takes wing? Corporation tax, even if levied at the notional statutory level, makes – or would make – a fairly small contribution to the Exchequer when weighed against the other, less high-profile, benefits these companies bring to the national economy. Profitable companies create jobs, and the people who occupy these jobs pay income tax and national insurance contributions, which are of vastly greater importance as tax receipts. Though no economist, I’m tolerably certain that anyone who did the modelling would find that “zero-tolerance” enforcement of higher-level corporation tax is inversely related to job creation.
As for stirring up a consumer boycott, it’s merely killing the goose that lays the golden egg. Politicians, have a care.