The truth is out: companies set UK tax policy and they’re doing all they can to keep it that way

Posted on

Simon Bowers of the Guardian missed a great tax conference on Friday, staged by the Tax Justice Network. He went to the Oxford Centre for Business Taxation conference marking 50 years of corporation tax instead.

At the TJN conference he'd have heard a range of mainly academic and some other speakers discussing the very essence of corporation tax, in particular. The aim was to explore why this tax was charged, and how nation states could make sure the charge was effective and how they could beat tax competition.

In contrast it is hard to take any conference on corporation tax organised by Prof Mike Devereux of the Oxford Centre for Business Taxation seriously. After all, this is the man who in 2012 had an article in the FT that was headlined 'The best reform of corporation tax would be its abolition'. He now says he's not so sure but that, in my opinion, is not true. His chosen replacement is a new form of VAT and the charge would undoubtedly fall on consumers and not companies and their owners. You can see why he keeps his sponsors happy. As Simon Bowers notes in the Guardian, these include:

Diageo, GlaxoSmithKline, Alliance Boots, SABMiller and Pearson. Past donors have included Vodafone, WPP Group, Shire Pharmaceuticals and ICAP. Many of these companies have been involved in high-profile controversies about tax in the past.

It was for pointing things like this out, from the first conference of the Oxford Centre onwards, that Mike Devereux long ago made clear I was not welcome at its conferences.

But that did not stop the message from the sponsors getting through, and Simon Bowers hearing it. As he notes:

Philip Baker QC said policymakers and tax experts had learned over recent decades that the mobility of companies and jobs meant there was “no question [countries] have to be competitive to survive”. As a consequence, governments had to provide the tax policies that international corporations wanted.

Speaking to an audience of tax planners, academics and HMRC officials at theCentre for Business Taxation, part of Oxford University’s Said Business School, Baker said: “I don’t think in the last 20 years or so one can say that governments have driven corporation tax policy. It’s the large companies that have driven the direction of corporate tax policy.”

I suppose I should applaud the honesty, but I am not sure I can, for a number of reasons. The first comes from the conference spiel on the web site. It says:

Looking back over the past 50 years of the tax we will take stock of the main landmarks in its development. To what extent has the tax changed and how? What lessons can we learn from our experience so far? How has the intellectual debate about taxing corporate profit developed over this period and how has it had an impact on the design of the UK tax?

And yet what Philip Baker noted was not that there was intellectual debate but a fait accompli corporate takeover. The intellectual debate on the issue happened at the Tax Justice Network, where the issue of tax competition, what it meant, what competition really was, how it impacted and what the resulting demands required of corporation tax were all looked at in detail. Prof Judith Freedman of Oxford would have none of it though on twitter. Taking my lead from the conference spiel, again, I had noted that it said:

Leading speakers from government, business, academia and the media will address different aspects of the UK corporation tax, discussing its development and future.

But as I noted during the day, continual reference came from the Oxford conference on how it was NGOs who had also set the terms of the debate. But none were apparently asked to speak. So I challenged Judith on this issue. Her reply was:

Screen Shot 2015-06-29 at 08.15.03That was blatantly untrue: Vanessa Houlder from the FT is not an academic, for a start.

I was not, of course, at both conferences. But I have a very strong suspicion that I know which entered into debate with an open mind. And which explored ideas. And that could not have been the Oxford conference. That was, after all, about maintaining the status quo that Philip Baker described, whose preservation justifies the investment by major corporations in the Oxford Centre for Business Taxation.

If we're going to see new thinking on corporation tax Oxford is not the place to look for it; of that I am sure. But the Tax Justice Network is certainly doing its best.