Do we need corporation tax returns on public record?

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I am aware that I will have upset some tax justice campaigners by saying this yesterday (as reported in the FT):

Mr Murphy said the best way to improve tax transparency would be through changes to international accounting standards. He warned against making tax returns public because they contained commercially sensitive information and were too long and complex. He said: “If I was given the job of wading through vast numbers of international tax returns it would be a mammoth task and I wouldn’t find what I was looking for.”

There are campaign groups who are saying that publishing corporation tax returns is the way forward so I should explain first why I disagree and then what I want instead.

There there are three practical problems with publishing tax returns. The first is they are for individual companies, and not groups. So, I would get an extremely partial view from any such publication and would then have to spend my life trying to create a group view. No one is going to have the resources to do that.

Second, these can be massive documents: we would suffer information overload without getting nearer the truth. I do also think it likely that the boundary where commercial confidentiality will have been crossed and prejudiced might have been reached if such returns were published and whilst I am completely committed to accountability that can be sufficiently achieved with less information than these returns would give.

Third, the most interesting companies in many groups do not have corporation tax returns: tax havens do not require them. They have no need of them if there is no tax. So we would have a gaping hole in the data.

All of which means we would get a partial, impossible unwieldy, view from corporation tax returns and that is very far from what I want. This is why reform of IFRS has to be the way forward in m,y opinion.

First companies have to deliver country-by-country reporting. The OECD template is a minimum expectation here. I stress the word minimum: I think any reasonable accounting standard would demand more relating to areas of high risk such as intra-group purchases and the destination of sales.

Second, the tax charge for each jurisdiction has to be disclosed and, in my opinion, explained, as a result  that country-by-country reporting disclosure.

Third, the reporting group has to improve its overall tax accounting. Tax reconciliations in accounts are far too broad brush at present. Most reconcile to the total tax charge and not current taxation. Given that deferred taxation accounting is a black art within IFRS designed to disguise tax avoidance, in my opinion, this is completely unacceptable. The reconciliation must be to current tax first and then to deferred tax second and in the case of deferred taxation the estimated time of crystallisation of assets and liabilities should be disclosed, as should be their anticipated probability of arising so that we can really see how much tax avoidance is hidden in this charge.

Fourth, any company should be required to disclose where it us under tax investigation, why, the disputed sums involved and the provisions made.

Fifth, full disclosure on the use of tax haven use should be required.

Give me that and I know a great deal.

Give me corporation tax returns and candidly I won't, as much.

That's why I think accounting reform the better option.