Tax avoidance: time for a FairTax logo to reward the good guys | Michael White

HMRC will never name and shame tax avoiders so what about a FairTrade-style labelling system to reward those who can pay and will pay

After I bought a book on Amazon the other day I got an email asking if I had been satisfied with the service provided. With the firm's recent tax-avoiding activities still on my mind, I tried to find a way of telling Amazon that I will be trying to buy online books elsewhere in future. The Guardian's Patrick Collinson made the same point here.

Needless to say the Amazon questionnaire did not allow me that option. But it set me thinking. Amazon, Starbucks, Apple, Google, Boots, the list of legal-but-shabby tax avoidance is long and growing. The Guardian's exposé of offshore companies with sham nominee directors this week merely underlines the unsatisfactory state of affairs which can't – and won't – last.

Here's today's instalment. I'm afraid it gives the lie to the old adage that property is easy to tax because you can't hide bricks and mortar. The way the Land Registry now functions it seems that you can – and that ministers have failed to close the loophole for a decade. Baffling.

The French Socialist government is talking tough – see its latest attack on Lakshmi Mittal, the steel baron here – promising to send back tax bills to the likes of Amazon and Google. But governments usually talk tougher than they act – Tony Blair and Gordon Brown for example – even in France, where public rhetoric is far more anti-capitalist than Britain's, reflecting deep-rooted hostility to free trade over four centuries. Let's see how it works out, François.

But what should we do as individuals? Shifting from Starbucks to Costa – which does pay its share of UK tax – will be no hardship for many. It's lousy coffee anyway. Boycotting Caffé Nero which paid no corporation tax on £40m of profits last year – it defends its conduct here would herald a greater sacrifice.

The ethical consumer lobby makes a useful contribution to the debate here. These corporate rascals need to suffer in the place where it hurts them: their corporate wallet. They're shallow fellows, who labour under the illusion that they can take it with them and open up anonymous offshore accounts in hell when the big day comes.

Meanwhile, they like to shift the burden of protecting their wealth, their empty untaxed homes in Mayfair, their street lighting and the roads to Heathrow, to be paid for by the rest of us. They're like those people who shift the risk on to other people by buying ever-larger 4x4s, built like tanks and designed to make the car they hit suffer more.

But this week's floods have shown the illusion: the idiots think their 4x4 allows them to drive through flooded roads with impunity but have had to be rescued by taxpayer-funded emergency services.

The Treasury – via its tax-collecting arm, the HMRC, formerly the Inland Revenue – goes to some lengths to protect its dodgier customers from public ignominy. No putting them in the stocks, I'm afraid. In response to public pressure and anger over sweetheart tax deals with big firms HMRC is now threatening to adopt a " name and shame" policy. I'll believe it when it happens.

I simply wish more of a fuss was made – by both ministers and officials – of rich people who pay up without a fuss. Step forward David Harding, founder of Winton Capital, who paid £34m - 39% of his income – last year. There are plenty like him, alas not enough.

But if we want to adopt a positive approach, praising the innocent if we can't name the guilty, perhaps we might take a leaf out of the FairTrade campaign's approach. No one sticks UnFairTrade labels on supermarket bananas or coffee harvested by under-paid labour in foul conditions, but they do encourage labelling the good guys as FairTrade.

I'm sure plenty of people have thought about a FairTax campaign, though when I Googled – whoops, there I go again – FairTax what I got was a conservative campaign in the US to abolish most taxes and stick the burden of funding the state on a sales tax. We can all see the crafty flaw in that one. It will cut the rich boys taxes again.

But a FairTax – or "Tax Compliant" – sticker for those firms and traders whom HMRC regards as paying their fair share may be feasible. Not everyone would want one, even the straight firms or the modest Mr Harding at Winton Capital.

But it may help steer a few more people away from Starbucks in the direction of Costa or one of those small independent coffee shops, book shops, grocers (etc, etc) whom we should cherish while they cling on in the face of unfair competition.


Michael White

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Starbucks employees see the graft before the grind
Starbucks is sending staff to Africa to get their hands dirty with coffee farmers. But is it any more than a hollow PR stunt?

Patrick Collinson

06, Nov, 2010 @12:01 AM

Article image
Fairtrade beans do not mean a cup of coffee is entirely ethical | Dan Welch

Dan Welch: When choosing between the big coffee chains, consumers should also consider the wages of the workers and the ethics of the company

Dan Welch

28, Feb, 2011 @7:00 AM

Article image
How can we stop tax avoidance? | UK Uncut's Ellie Mae O'Hagan and City AM's Allister Heath

Public attention to tax avoidance is at an all-time high. UK Uncut's Ellie Mae O'Hagan discusses the system's flaws with financial journalist Allister Heath

Interview by Aida Edemariam

07, Dec, 2012 @6:37 PM

Article image
Starbucks tax avoidance: HMRC to face parliamentary committees
Two committees to question officials about how Starbucks was able to pay no UK tax on £1.2bn of sales since 2009

Staff and agencies

17, Oct, 2012 @5:14 PM

Article image
Taxing time for multinationals
Amazon, Google and Starbucks face wrath of public accounts select committee amid corporate tax evasion fears

Nils Pratley

12, Nov, 2012 @7:14 PM

Article image
Starbucks' tax avoidance hasn't boosted our business, says Costa Coffee
Finance director of rival coffee chain's parent company, Whitbread, says tax row is likely to have damaged all big brands

Simon Bowers

23, Oct, 2012 @3:58 PM

Crashing the tax avoidance party | Stephen Reid

Stephen Reid: We gave former HMRC boss Dave Hartnett an award for services to tax avoidance – but his activities represent a far deeper problem

Stephen Reid

25, Sep, 2012 @12:04 PM

Article image
Amazon and eBay profiting from online VAT fraud, says watchdog
Parliamentary report criticises ‘too cautious’ HMRC and says loss to public purse likely to far exceed £1.5bn estimate

Rajeev Syal

18, Oct, 2017 @7:12 AM

Article image
From loo rolls to fashion: how to spend your cash more ethically
Coronavirus has made us all think about where our money is going. Here are everyday things you can do to make a difference

15, Aug, 2020 @6:00 AM

Tax haven London targeted by activists armed with adverts (and palm trees)
Global collective The Rules launches 'Visit the City' mock campaign in bid to shine light on tax avoidance

Peter Walker

11, Mar, 2013 @1:04 PM