Dishonesty in debates on tax law

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Despite Starbucks’ announcement that it intends to start paying corporation tax in the UK, I’m finding the current debate on tax law frustrating. There is a lack of honesty on all sides.

The debate as presented at the moment is a triangle. In one corner, policymakers who hope that moral outrage will make people and companies choose to pay more tax because they feel a bit bad.

In the second corner, some sleek, patronising analyst-type (a lawyer or accountant) who implies that anything you try to tax will evaporate into the sort of jet-set ether where the super-rich and capital flows just sort of float around. And in the third corner is a ‘campaigner’ who blames all public sector cuts on tax-dodging businesses.

Bang in the centre is a moderating journalist who fails to notice when someone accused of supporting tax ‘avoidance’ decides they have been accused of backing tax ‘evasion’ instead, and comes over all ‘how very dare you’.

This triangular debate could have been had in 2005, which I find surprising. The terrain has radically altered since then that has created the possibility for a new settlement between these sides possible – if only more people could spot it.

Let’s look behind the analyst-type first. Their argument is essentially that the super-rich, talent, money, company headquarters and factories drift unhindered across borders to wherever deigns to tax them least.

What I don’t understand is how this is supposed to apply generically to all businesses and individuals. Policymakers, for example, like spending on construction and infrastructure because the results basically can’t leave the country.

And as it’s in the news, let’s think about consumer goods – specifically my coffee. Going to Luxemburg, Monaco or Grand Cayman for that espresso isn’t an option. (I don’t understand why a ‘latte’ is normally used in illustrations, but that’s a rant for another time and place.)

And the rich are, at the very least, nervous about the sorts of places they were used to putting their money in the past.

HRMC and the Treasury seem to have little idea of the panic that was created in these circles by the Alan Stanford and Bernard Madoff frauds, and by bank collapses.

Hence a flight by family offices in 2008 to the low returns of gold – and this year away from Asian hedge funds to safer vehicles. ‘Hot money’ isn’t headed for, say, Iceland or Dublin. Private client lawyers and accountants know that much.

So at one level, folk who would like to collect more tax - two corners of this triangle - could be pushing at an open door, or at least a door that no longer has the deadlock across. That’s not quite check-mate in favour of tax collectors though.

What the authorities and policymakers (in corner ‘one’) seem to be held back by is an inability to provide individuals, families or corporate entities with either the certainty or the delicacy needed to (great euphemism this) ‘regularise’ their tax affairs. Chancellor George Osborne seems to half appreciate this point when talking about a ‘settlement’ to be reached with folk who should be paying more tax.

But family offices and the like, and their legal advisers, complain - this time with some reason - that the authorities seem unable to conclude exactly how settlement or compliance would work, if it would be a fresh start, and if the different tax authorities across jurisdictions are able to work with one another in a way that is in any way consistent.

But of course that latter issue points towards, among other things, an EU answer. And this is not a government that likes EU answers. Hence a preference for moral outrage and, when it comes to individuals, domestic solutions of variable efficacy.

The context of this debate over tax and the flightiness of capital suggests a new tax settlement, for individuals and companies, could be reached.

What I doubt is whether the current participants can get there.

Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor

Follow Eduardo on Twitter

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