The tax dodging activities of companies has come under a lot of scrutiny, but we could do more to tackle this abuse in Scotland with existing powers. Companies who want to bid for taxpayer funded contracts should pay all their taxes.
The recent focus has been on Google, following a deal with HMRC to pay £130m in back taxes and bear a greater tax burden in future. This constitutes a 3% tax rate, something small and medium size business across Scotland can only dream of. As Richard Murphy of Tax research put it: “George Osborne is not getting the deal the UK tax payer will be expecting. It is a special rate of tax that would not be available to anyone else.”
Even the EU has been shocked over the methods used by multinationals minimise their tax liabilities in Europe. We have had the Luxleaks revelations, media exposure of how hundreds of global companies including Pepsi, Ikea and FedEx had secured secret sweetheart tax deals with Luxembourg, allowing them to save billions of euros in taxes. Before that it was transfer pricing and investment loopholes that allow big companies to pay less tax.
This abuse also has an impact on global poverty. Just 62 billionaires own the same wealth as half the world’s population – that's 3.6 billion people. This extreme inequality is being fuelled by a global network of tax dodging. Poor countries are losing at least $170 billion a year to tax havens – money that is desperately needed for vital services like healthcare and education.
We don’t tend to think of Scotland when tax havens are discussed. However, as the Sunday Herald recently reported, Scotland is being advertised as a tax haven across Eastern Europe. As one advert proclaims; "Having registered a company in Scotland, by using offshore rules, you do not need to carry out any audits and, furthermore, there is no requirement to provide financial reports."
The number of limited partnerships in Scotland has more than doubled from just over 6,000 to nearly 15,000 since 2009. We now have more of these firms than England and Wales put together.
Scottish Labour raised questions about this last summer after an international investigation into the alleged fraud of three Moldovan banks uncovered that some of the companies used were in Scotland. Labour's Jackie Baillie said: "It is extraordinary that Scotland is being described as an offshore tax zone. Somebody should be looking long and hard at how to close this loophole."
The Scottish Government has urged Westminster to simplify the UK tax system and abandon what it claims is; “the unnecessary complexity which creates opportunities for tax avoidance through countless exemptions, reliefs, deductions and allowances”. The House of Commons Treasury Committee has launched an investigation, with the Chair making similar observations about complexity.
Nicola Sturgeon has described tax dodging as “obscene, immoral and downright wrong”. In response to a question on Amazon from Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie she said: “All companies should pay the tax that they are due to pay. The Scottish Government, with the limited tax responsibilities that we have, takes tax avoidance very seriously.”
The Scottish Government’s tax avoidance measure used by Revenue Scotland is better than the UK approach. However, the same cannot be said of procurement. The public sector spends some £11bn each year in the private sector and this should be used as part of stronger efforts to tackle tax dodging and tax avoidance. It is entirely wrong that companies seeking to avoid paying their fair share of tax should be awarded public contracts.
The Public Contracts (Scotland) Regulations 2015 were considered by the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee last week. UNISON’s briefing to MSPs questioned why the Scottish Government is not using powers that it has for mandatory, rather than discretionary, exclusion of companies that have not met their tax obligations and /or breached environmental, social and labour laws, and to exclude companies involved in aggressive tax avoidance? If we had these provisions in place, Anglian Water, or almost any of the privatised UK water companies, would be highly unlikely to have even bid for the public sector water contract.
Dave Stewart MSP highlighted this to the committee last week, he said: “there is a big gap in that there is no reference to or substantial action on tax dodging. I support the moves by Christian Aid, the Scottish Trades Union Congress, Unison and others to restrict from Government procurement companies that avoid paying tax.”
We have demonstrated how this can be done (including a 2014 proposed amendment to the Procurement Bill). It has been argued that it is too complex for procurement managers. The solution is to require companies to sign up to the Fair Tax Mark. A Scottish firm, SSE was the first company to do so.
Given the Scottish Government’s rhetoric on tax dodging and the practical steps in the Revenue Scotland and Tax Powers Act, I am at a loss to understand why they are not taking action on procurement. Local and regional authorities across Europe are taking a stronger line than Scotland.
The bottom line should be – companies who take the taxpayers pound, should pay their taxes in full.