George Osborne’s claim that Google’s £130 million over ten years tax settlement with HMRC is a “major success” now looks like a pretty sick joke.
Tax campaigners like Richard Murphy of Tax Research UK have exposed the deal as involving a tiny proportion of Google’s $5.6 billion (£5.6 billion) annual UK revenues. Google spends about $12 million a year on chicken for its staff canteens.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has aptly described the settlement as a “sweetheart deal” , making the point that tax experts (including Murphy, Prof Prem Sikka and Labour tax barrister Jolyn Maugham) all think that the likely tax rate paid by Google on its likely UK profits may, even after this settlement, not exceed 5%. Google has paid an effective tax rate of around 3% over the past decade, despite a UK corporation tax rate of more than 20%.
Today’s Times reports that French officials have pursued Google far more aggressively, and are in the process of negotiating a settlement worth three times the amount agreed with Britain, despite Google doing more business and employing thousands more staff (2,500) in the UK. Referring to the company’s practice of registering all European sales in Dublin (to benefit from a lower tax rate), a French official (quoted in The Times) said, “We have a hard time believing that 150 well-paid salespeople with advanced degrees employed by one particular company in France are nothing more than busboys for Ireland.”
Anyone who heard the wretched performance of Jim Harra (HMRC’s ‘Director General Business Tax’) attempting to defend the deal on Radio4’s World At One today, will be aware that when all else fails, HMRC falls back on the plea of ” taxpayer confidentiality” to avoid discussion of the principles it has applied when reaching its deal with Google. Nils Pratley, in today’s Guardian, gives the “taxpayer confidentiality” argument short shrift:
“Google and Osborne were happy to publish selected highlights of HMRC’s settlement – the former to appear a good corporate citizen, the latter to try to appear a muscular chancellor. If limited disclosure is OK, both parties should be able to agree full disclosure for the sake of wider understanding.”
But perhaps the most astonishing and outrageous aspect of this whole sordid business is the claim (in todays Times) that:
“HMRC officials never challenged the company’s central and most controversial claim — that it has no ‘permanent establishment’ in Britain — even after they were given whistleblower evidence challenging its account
“The claim is critical to a complex structure used by Google to avoid hundreds of millions of pounds in UK corporation tax. By arguing that it has no fixed place of business in Britain, the company is able to book all its sales to UK customers through an Irish subsidiary, from where profits are again diverted to the tax haven of Bermuda.”
Never mind “whistleblower evidence”: you’d have thought this building, the Google offices in central London, might just have given the game away: