Robert Palmer: To support the levelling up agenda, the Government should follow Biden’s plan to tackle corporate tax avoidance

19 Apr

Robert Palmer is the Executive Director of Tax Justice UK.

Few issues annoy Conservative voters more than Facebook, Google and other global companies paying ultra-low levels of tax in the UK.

Whether it’s pensioners, Brexiteers, Red Wallers, people with degrees or those who failed to get a single GCSE, polling shows that they all unite in frustration at companies that avoid their obligations on tax.

Conservatives like Kevin Hollinrake, the MP for Thirsk and Malton, and Anthony Browne, who represents South Cambridgeshire, understand these frustrations. Companies like Netflix have been hauled over the coals in parliament, with MPs across parties demanding it explain why it paid so little UK tax.

Netflix, famous for box sets like The Crown, hit boom times during the pandemic. Even before Covid, the entertainment tech giant booked £860 million in subscriptions from UK customers alone via its Amsterdam-based subsidiary, but paid very little tax here. MPs are understandably concerned to make sure the likes of Netflix pay a fair share in the UK.

In a parliamentary debate last year, Browne said: “What any fair-minded person objects to is aggressive tax avoidance which results in companies or people paying less tax than is clearly their fair share.”

In its 2019 manifesto, the Conservative Party pledged to continue to lead “the international fight against aggressive tax avoidance and offshore tax havens”.

Last week President Joe Biden announced a plan that could end the “race to the bottom” on corporate tax. It comes just a month after Rishi Sunak pledged in the March Budget to increase corporation tax to 25 per cent by 2023.

The US President is proposing that companies should pay at least 21 per cent on their profits as part of a package of global reforms. This would make it much harder for global companies, like Amazon, to get away with paying very low rates of tax by stashing their profits in offshore tax havens.

Far from stifling UK businesses, the Biden plan would give companies a chance to compete fairly against the global giants and their clever accounting.

Areas of the UK that lost out under globalisation, could reap the rewards from the overdue reform of the way global multinationals are taxed. There’s nothing buccaneering about keeping our antiquated global tax system in place.

Research shows that the plan for a global minimum corporation tax could raise £13.5 billion a year in the UK.

Raising corporation tax is popular among Conservative voters and the rest of the voting population. Bringing in more money from companies is also compatible with the levelling up agenda.

The centre-right think tank Onward, recently called for the Government to level up the tax system. Its research highlights that corporation tax receipts are concentrated in the wealthy South East of the country. This is partly skewed by the fact that many companies are headquartered in London. However, even with this factored in, over the last decade the corporate tax take has declined in the North and Scotland, while it has risen in the South.

Red Wall voters are desperate to see investment in their communities. The £13.5 billion that could be raised through adopting Biden’s plan, much of it likely to be paid by tech giants, would help us invest in things like broadband to bridge the gap between rural and urban areas.

It’s clear that the Conservatives’ new electoral coalition is more left wing on economic issues. This is in part driven by increasing support in the Red Wall constituencies in the North and Midlands. These voters want to see higher levels of public investment and support tax increase to help deliver this.

So far there’s been some indication that the UK government is interested in the idea of a global minimum corporate tax rate, but won’t yet sign up to Biden’s proposed 21 per cent rate.

On Wednesday, the Treasury Minister Lord Agnew responded to a question in the House of Lords about Biden’s plan from the Green Party’s Baroness Bennett. The Minister said that “the UK was at the forefront of initiating global action on international tax”. He backed global efforts to reform the global corporate tax rules and said that the Treasury was looking at the US proposals.

In June, Johnson will show leadership to the world as the UK plays host to the world’s richest countries at the G7 summit. Getting global agreement for a global minimum corporation tax will be near the top of the agenda for the US President.

The 2013 G8 summit in Northern Ireland saw a Conservative-led government push through a global agreement to tackle tax evasion and avoidance. Those changes have made a real difference and ended some of the more egregious practices.

A G7 summit in our own backyard will be front page news in the UK. It’s in this government’s interests to support President Biden’s plans to tackle corporate tax avoidance. This would be good politics given the popularity of cracking down on tax loopholes and the billions that could be raised to support levelling up.