At a time when tech giants are too powerful by far, Google's creative interpretation of UK tax laws gives it an unfair advantage over smaller tech start-ups
A committee of MPs have said that Google should face a comprehensive inquiry into its tax affairs, calling the internet company’s tax arrangements ‘deeply unconvincing’ — which is quite an understatement. In the five years to 2011, Google enjoyed £11.5 billion in revenues and paid £10 million in corporation tax.
Google executives, of course, have always maintained that its tax arrangements are lawful — its brainy accountants probably follow the letter of the law with utmost care, their job depends on it. Whether they follow the spirit of the law — or indeed the spirit of Google’s own ‘don’t be evil’ motto — is quite another matter.
The government’s sweetheart tax deals admittedly send out mixed messages, but I’m quite sure that the dry wording of the UK’s corporate tax codes doesn’t exactly say: ‘The standard rate of corporation tax in the UK is 23-30 per cent, but if you want to employ some of this country's most expensive brains to set up super-complex networks of branches and shell companies to process profits on tropical islands (or indeed, in Ireland) that’s cool too!’
No other area of law offers such great rewards — or indeed makes so many allowances — for individuals to twist its meaning.
The figure that’s often circulated in this context is that the UK’s tax gap stands at £32 billion (which includes tax avoidance by individuals as well as companies.) This is high enough, but tax evasion or avoidance by big corporations has a second cost: it penalises smaller companies that aren’t able to employ genius accountants to set up complex international structures to avoid tax. How are small tech start-ups meant to compete with the likes of Apple, Google and Amazon when the latter are able to pay virtually no tax?
You can be both pro-business and anti-corporate tax avoidance, especially if you’d like to see more innovative, exciting new firms challenge today’s internet giants, whose power has allowed them to show a casual disregard to the privacy and rights of the customers they purport to serve.
The challenge MPs will face when trying to hold Google to account is that the tax affairs of international companies require international tax solutions — and these will take time and will need near-unprecedented international co-ordination. But that doesn’t mean we should take the pressure off the likes of Google.