The scene – a church graveyard in Middle England. A respectable crowd, trussed-up in winter clothes, surrounds an open grave. As the coffin is lowered into the gaping hole, the priest declares: ‘The Mother of Parliaments gave, and the Mother of Parliaments hath taken away.’ A sharply dressed gentleman throws the first clod of earth onto the coffin-lid, almost obscuring the gold plaque: ‘Double Taxation Treaties 1872 – 2014. Taken In Their Prime. RIP’.
George, for that is the chief mourner’s name, turns towards the gate, followed by Dave, Nick and Ed. An intimidating, middle-aged woman tarries at the graveside, a sardonic smile engulfing her harsh face. ‘Margaret!’ calls Ed. ‘Move your arse. If we don’t hurry, the Tories will destroy the capitalist system before we get the chance.’
Sounds gothic? Welcome to Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s pre-election Autumn Statement (Budget Preview). After Labour MP Margaret Hodge successfully mauled executives of Starbucks, Google and Amazon back in 2012 over the immorality of shifting UK profits to low-tax jurisdictions, it was only a matter of time (election time, to be precise) before the Conservative Government sought to retake the moral high ground.
Many thought it enough that David Cameron had taken the lead in pushing the OECD BEPS initiative at the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland in 2013. Wrong. Last week his Finance Minister spewed out possibly the most radical piece of international taxation legislation since JFK nuked the world with the Controlled Foreign Corporation (CFC) on October 16, 1962 – the first day of the Cuban Missile Crisis (CMC).
The Diverted Profits Tax – already affectionately dubbed the Google Tax – will tax profits rightly belonging to the UK but currently denied it due to the inconvenient permanent establishment provisions of Britain’s double taxation treaties. It will also tax payments to low-tax jurisdictions unless there is a jolly good reason for them, irrespective of OECD transfer pricing provisions. In order to ignore the existence of a century-and-a-half’s worth of international agreements, the new tax is to be precisely that – a new tax, not a subdivision of the Corporation Tax. It will be levied at a higher (25%) rate and, Mr Osborne hopes, will be beyond the clutches of the EU, OECD and substantially every country participating in the United Nations General Assembly.
Happily, the legality of this aggressive move is to be examined by the Tory party’s nemesis – the European Commission. There are also strong arguments that the new tax does not succeed in side-stepping treaties, being ‘substantially similar’ to existing taxes.
What is hateful about the proposal – which has enormous support in the UK – is that it potentially undoes 140 years of international tax cooperation. Ironically, that cooperation was started by the British – the first ever double taxation treaty being concluded with the Swiss Canton of Vaud in 1872. Moreover, such international cooperation has never been more marked than in the last two years. The BEPS Action Plan, while unlikely to be implemented in all its detail, has, together with FATCA-inspired Automatic Exchange of Information, already started to shake-up the international scene in a big way.
So why has the British Government decided to risk bringing the whole international tax edifice crashing down, encouraging other countries to retaliate with beggar-thy-neighbour treaty avoiding provisions? David Cameron has been a safe pair of hands as Prime Minister and is deserving of praise, but this latest gambit can only be explained in terms of cheap electioneering. It follows a developing trend that started with immigration bashing, and continued with threats to leave the EU. The paranoia of Britain’s ‘Knees up Mother Brown’, beer-swilling, fag-smoking UKIP party dodos has become contagious. Cameron did not see things done this way on the playing fields of Eton. The Prime Minister would do well to go back and read John Donne’s ‘No man is an island’.