Shire – moving into a world of make believe taxation

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Shire plc is a UK pharmaceutical company. Sitting at about number 50 in the FTSE 100 ranking, it's a company almost no one will have heard of. Its directors may be pleased about that. Between 2000 and 2006 it lost about £600 million according to its audited accounts when translated to sterling, in my estimate.

Perhaps unsurprisingly it didn't pay a lot of tax as a result. In fact, in seven years it declared tax liabilities of just £1 million in the UK but did declare tax due of £436 million in other countries although it actually only settled £288 million of it in those years (again, my translations).

And now it is leaving the UK to set up a new corporate headquarters in Jersey, but with its tax residence declared to be in Ireland.

Why, you might ask, would a company that has paid £1 million in 7 years leave now? Well, the answer might be in the 2007 accounts. The company paid tax in the UK in 2007. A little over £25 million (allowing for exchange differences). That's because in 2007 the company finally came up with some drugs which worked, which helped stem its enormous losses. And of course, some of those drugs were sold to the NHS in the UK and tax was due as a result and licence income on the sale of those drugs, developed no doubt at its real HQ in Basingstoke, also probably became subject to tax here.

That apparently is too much for Shire to bear. Despite the fact that it is keeping the focus of its operations here in the UK it's now planning to set up a new UK listed, Jersey incorporated, Irish tax resident holding company for the group.

Let's be clear what this is. It's pure financial engineering, using two tax havens and the assistance no doubt of a lot of accountants, lawyers, bankers and their associated fees to ensure that whilst the company enjoys all the benefits of being in the UK, will enjoy sales of its products to the NHS, and will licence products made in the UK around the world the income of the latter at least will probably not be taxed here. Tax saving is said to be its objective for the move.

This is corporate social irresponsibility in my opinion because this is Shire failing to pay back to the society that has given it the opportunity to create the drugs from which it will now make its income that tax that is due, again in my opinion, in exchange.

And the cost is real. The UK has to meet its obligations to its citizens, and the more that the corporate world seeks to avoid paying its share through complex financial engineering, the more of the total burden of financing the cost of UK infrastructure (from which companies benefit) will fall on the middle classes in particular. This shift in burden at is why ordinary taxpayers in the UK have seen their bills rise as corporations and the wealthiest (who disproportionately own those corporations) have seen them fall.

In shifting profits in this way Shire sends out a clear signal: it does not consider itself responsible to the society in which it is based but in which, admittedly, only 7% of its sales arise.

What is extraordinary is the cost Shire must be going to to achieve this tax saving. What is extraordinary is the fact that it thinks it can do this despite the blow that this must impose on the morale of tis staff in the UK. And what's most extraordinary is that it believes that structuring so blatantly through tax haven states is going to be acceptable to society at large.

I'll tell them. It isn't. They've got that seriously wrong.