General Election 2017: The big questions on tax

Although it’s already been dubbed the Brexit election, tax is likely to be as important as ever in the 2017 poll. So here are my initial thoughts on the main tax issues up for debate in the coming weeks.

No pre-election Budget

Governments usually use the Budget before an election campaign starts to stoke the feel-good factor and set the tax agenda. This time, there won’t be one. The Budget in March was something of a political non-event, except for the rise in national insurance that was so quickly reversed. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, didn’t lay out a long term strategy on tax, and the Prime Minister, Theresa May, has given few hints about her tax philosophy. The next Budget is due in the Autumn, although an immediate post-election Budget, as happened in 2010 and 2015, can’t be ruled out.

This means that the Conservatives will make their promises on tax without first having put them in context with a Budget. They won’t be able to present their new ideas as being part of a continuing strategy that is already being implemented. Furthermore, work has been going on in the background that was supposed to inform policy going forward. Matthew Taylor’s review of the rights for people working in the gig economy should have helped inform changes to national insurance. And during his Budget speech, Mr Hammond hinted at long-term plans to rebalance the tax treatment of online and bricks & mortar businesses. None of this work is complete enough to provide policies ready to go into the manifesto. This matters because future tax reform will be made more difficult if it part of the mandate given to the winners of the election campaign.

Conservative pledges

The Tories made wideranging promises in their 2015 general election manifesto. Mr Hammond’s plan to increase the national insurance contributions of the self-employed, which he announced in this year’s Budget, came a cropper as a result. Even though his proposal did not infringe the letter of the 2015 manifesto, he had to ditch the rise within days.

Simply abandoning all the promises they made last time would open the Tories up to accusations that they are planning to raise taxes. I think they would be wise to maintain their pledges not to increase the main rates of income tax, national insurance or, especially, VAT. However, they should include a specific promise to increase Class 4 NICs so that Hammond can do what he proposed in the Budget. Where the Tories are planning to increase taxes, honesty would be the best policy and burnish Mrs May’s no-nonsense image (which has been dented by the announcement of an election when she said there won’t be one).

The Conservatives should drop the ruinously expensive commitment to increase the rate of the income tax personal allowance to £12,500 by 2020. I suspect this pledge resonates much less with the public than the one on income tax rates. Help for the just-about-managing would be better targeted by cuts in employees’ national insurance as this would not cut the taxes of wealthy pensions with lots of investment income.

Labour tax rises?

Labour has already promised to impose VAT on private school fees to fund free school meals for primary school children. They are likely to propose further tax rises to pay for other aspects of their programme.

I expect a mansion tax, just like Labour proposed in 2015. The mansion tax generally works well in focus groups as most voters imagine they’d never have to pay it. However, the scope of any wealth tax (which is essentially what a mansion tax is) needs to be wide if it is to raise significant amounts of money. Additionally, any mansion tax would bite hard in London, which is one of the few parts of the country where Labour might hope to do well.

Other options include restoring the 50% income tax rate for income over £150,000. This could be popular because people support increases in taxes they won’t have to pay. Again, the money raised is likely to be negligible. Another option is a windfall tax on the energy companies, or some other unpopular sector of the economy. New Labour did this back in 1997. The problem is that a windfall tax must, by definition, be a one-off. Hikes in corporation tax also seem relatively painless in electoral terms (although they shouldn’t be, as corporation tax is levied on people as much as any other tax, just at a further remove from their wallets). Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has already declared that companies bidding for Government contracts would have to follow ‘best practice’ in tax compliance and multinationals will be forced to publish their tax returns. Neither measure would raise any new money. Mr McDonnell has also hinted at increases in capital gains tax and inheritance tax, which HMRC also don’t think would lead to significant tax receipts.

A final option for Labour is to go for a truly socialist manifesto, squeezing the rich till their pips squeak. Given the party is going to lose anyway, there seems little harm in its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, giving his leftwing instincts full reign. He could promise to increase the current 40% income tax rate (paid on all earnings over £45,000) to 50%. HMRC estimates that this would raise £12 billion and so deal with Labour’s fiscal credibility problem at a stroke. Of course, it would be poison with the electorate, as Labour found with a similar policy back in 1992, but this time it has nothing to lose.

Some brief notes on imposing VAT on private school fees

The Labour Party is proposing to impose VAT on private school fees. Here are a few notes on the technicalities of such a policy.

  • Education, including private tuition, is exempt from VAT. This is enshrined in the European Directive on VAT so couldn’t be changed until Brexit. However, once we have left the EU, the UK would be free to impose VAT at whatever rate it pleased, as long as our exit agreement allows us to. That Labour is suggesting a policy that contravenes EU law is, if nothing else, crossing a Rubicon of sorts.
  • The difference between exemption from VAT and zero-rating is important. Generally, where a taxpayer makes exempt supplies, like education, it has to pay VAT in full on things it buys. Where it makes zero-rated supplies, like food, it can claim back the VAT in incurs on its purchases. Thus imposing VAT on school fees is likely to mean private schools can reclaim the VAT they suf6fer on their purchases, reducing the net amount of VAT that the change will raise.
  • Many pupils at private schools are from abroad, some 200,000 by some accounts. University and school education of foreign students is treated as an export (as it is foreigners paying us for something we supply). Exports are outside the scope of VAT, since this is supposed to be a tax on domestic consumption. If we impose VAT on private education, we would also need to decide whether to charge VAT to foreign students as well. If we did, it would damage an important and growing export industry. If we didn’t, the yield from the tax would be lower and we would open a divide between UK and non-UK students.
  • It is unlikely that many parents will turn to the state system as a result of the VAT rise as private school usage appears to be quite inelastic on price. However, some parents will send their children to state schools, which will both increase the cost of providing state education and reduce the amount of VAT raised from private schools.

In summary, whatever the tax yield that Labour expect from imposing VAT on private school fees, the reality is likely to be a lot less.

Questions on Google’s UK tax bill

The financial statements of Google’s UK operations for the year ended 30 June 2016 show UK turnover of £1.03 billion, profits before tax of £149 million, and a UK corporation tax bill of £36.4 million on those profits. In addition, the financial statements show that Google is owed a £31 million tax refund from HMRC. This has led to much speculation in the media, notably the BBC and The Times, about whether Google is paying enough tax. This article is intended to shed some light on that question. I am a tax consultant of 24 years experience and a specialist in international tax. However, I have no inside knowledge or contact with Google whatsoever. If I did, I would not have written this article. My comments below are based on my general experience of international tax and publicly available information.

How much tax should Google have paid in the UK?

In short, it should have paid 20% of its UK taxable profits in corporation tax. Note that corporation tax is charged on profits. When you hear a journalist or politician comparing tax and turnover, rather than tax and profits, you can guarantee they have no idea what they are talking about.

Although profit before tax in the financial statements is not the same as taxable profits, they are often reasonably similar. In this case, the figures in Google’s UK accounts show an effective tax rate of 24%, or 17% after various deductions. This is fair enough, but not really the point. The controversial question is whether Google actually recognises enough of its profits in the UK.

So, how much profit should Google recognise in the UK?

If we have a look at the financial statements of Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc, we find that total UK sales are reported as being £6 billion (here). And yet, Google’s UK operations only show turnover of £1 billion. Where has the other £5 billion got to and should it be taxed in the UK?

An analogy might help to explain what is going on here. It is a basic principle of international tax that you pay tax where you have the people and know-how making the profits. You are not taxed where you happen to sell your products. For example, Mercedes sold about 170,000 cars in the UK in 2016, but paid all the tax on the profits from building them in Germany. The exception is the dealer networks, which are UK based (and, in any case, independent franchises). The profits they make buying cars from Germany and selling them to UK customers are UK profits subject to UK tax.

Google’s UK sales operation is not independent of Google, but the same principle applies. It should only pay UK tax on the stuff it actually does in the UK rather than on the basis of its overall sales here. Google says that the turnover attributable to its UK operations, being sales and marketing, is £1billion out of their £6billion UK sales. That is not an unreasonable figure and would be subject to serious scrutiny by HMRC.

Google recognises some of its turnover in Ireland and will make a proportion of its profits there. This should be based on work done by people actually based in Ireland. However, most of its profits will be attributable to the US where the ‘magic’ of Google is created. It is the search engine algorithm itself, not the sales people, which represents the true value of Google. Profits attributable to that should be taxed in the US.

So why does HMRC owe Google £31 million?

My guess is that this could well be Diverted Profits Tax (DPT) aka the Google tax. DPT was introduced in 2015 to catch profits that were being artificially diverted from the UK. Google was alleged to be doing this by booking sales in Ireland and ensuring the related profits were taxed there and not in the UK. It claims that it has changed its procedures and no longer does this.

The way DPT this works is as follows: HMRC gets to guess the tax bill it things a company owes and then the company has to pay the amount HMRC guessed. It is then up to the company to prove to HMRC that the guess is wrong. If, after going through all the documentation, HMRC agrees its guess is wide of the mark, it has to pay back some or all of the DPT to the company. It is possible that the amount HMRC is paying back to Google is the £31million in the accounts.

The UK Government introduced DPT to force international groups to come clean about their structures. That is why HMRC demands payment in advance and makes companies demonstrate that they should get it back. If DPT is a success, no one will actually pay it. Ideally, if all multinationals recognise the correct profits in the UK, they would be subject to corporation tax and not DPT. It is an anti-avoidance measure only.

So is Google avoiding taxes?

I can’t see much evidence that Google is avoiding material amounts of UK tax. That’s not meant as a defence of Google, but rather of HMRC and the UK tax system. We tax consultants spend a lot of time slagging off HMRC but, secretly, we rather admire them. The Government is also serious about fighting avoidance. HMRC asked for DPT to be introduced to give it the tool it needed to force multinationals to pay the right amount of tax in the UK. And the Government gave them exactly what it wanted.

However, Alphabet Inc’s financial statements suggest a very different picture in the US where most of Google’s profits should be taxed. We find that its effective tax rate is only 20%, far lower than the US corporate tax rate of 35%. It looks like it is paying a lot less US tax than expected. It is likely that Google has schemes in place so that the revenue they make outside the US is not remitted to its head office and so is not subject to US tax. These unremitted profits are probably contained in its ‘cash pile’ – a mountainous $86 billion according to Alphabet Inc’s financial statements. Much of this cash is held offshore and is not subject to US tax. The Trump tax reform plan is aimed at getting this money back to the US and taxing it (although at nothing like the full rate).

In summary, my best guess is that Google is not avoiding a material amount of UK taxes because our tax system is now robust enough to stop it. In contrast, there is evidence that it is avoiding vast amounts of US tax.