Opinion: Taxing stuff – what George Monbiot got wrong

As a tax professional, it’s not often people ask me about what I do in my day job. Sure, people will occasionally ask me about their personal tax returns, but UK corporation tax on foreign companies and branches? Not even my insomniac friends are that masochistic.

So I was surprised to see my local party debating this very subject (or so it seemed) based on an article George Monbiot wrote in The Guardian. I was curious: I’ve worked in corporate tax for 17 years, for professional firms and companies, large and small, and contributed to consultations by HM Treasury and HMRC, including the one upon which George Monbiot seems to have based his article.

But Monbiot’s article itself left me completely confused as it bears scant relation to the consultation document I’ve read. Monbiot has clearly decided there is some hidden scandal (a “corporate coup d’etat”, no less) which will result in the “biggest and crudest corporate tax cut in living memory” which has been kept from the Great British Public. Even tax professionals like me had never heard of it. Boy, was I intrigued. Until I read the article and discovered that Monbiot’s thesis has more holes in it than a colander filled with Swiss cheese.

So, for all those confused tax lawyers – and anyone taken in by Monbiot’s polemic, here are the top five things George Monbiot got wrong:

It’s not a big change

Monbiot is mostly railing against the proposed changes to the taxation of branches. At the moment, when a UK company has a branch in a foreign country the UK taxes the branch’s profits and the UK company gets relief for tax paid in the foreign country. This is a so-called “credit system”. Except that the system is imperfect and can lead to double taxation because the UK and foreign tax laws often calculate the tax base differently. More and more countries (including most in Europe) use an “exemption” or “territorial” system instead, where you simply tax the profits only in the country where they are earned and don’t try to tax them in the head office location (in this case the UK) as well.

Incidentally, if a UK company operates in the foreign location via a subsidiary (a separate legal entity) rather than via a branch, then there would not be UK taxation on those foreign profits anyway, so the proposals are bringing the taxation of branches in line with that of subsidiaries. That is essentially all that is being proposed – it is eminently sensible and much more consistent with what most countries do – but one of the less radical changes in the UK tax code in the last 10 years.

It’s not a tax break for big business

Not surprisingly, companies at present don’t chose to organise their foreign activities as branches if it means they pay more tax than they would operating via a subsidiary, so this change isn’t going to reduce the amount of tax they pay. On the contrary, if anything the mismatch between the taxation of branches and subsidiaries that exists at present lends itself to a well-established planning technique which this change is expected to remove. Under the current regime a company will initially set up a branch in the foreign location in the early years, while it is making start-up losses – that way it can offset those losses against its UK profits, saving UK tax. Then when the branch is about to turn to profit, they convert it into a subsidiary, such that those profits (being sheltered from foreign tax by the brought-forward losses) are not then taxed in the UK. Clearly bringing the taxation of branches in line with the taxation of subsidiaries will close down this planning technique so, ironically, I would actually expect this move to increase the UK tax take, as well as simplifying the system. A bit of a win-win, in fact.

It’s not peculiar to the UK

Most countries in Europe already operate an exemption system for foreign branches. The US de facto achieves the same result as it allows groups to elect whether to treat an entity as “transparent” or “opaque” for tax purposes. If anything the UK is rather behind the times and has been catching up in moving to a more territorial regime over the last few years. This includes the much more significant changes to introduce exemption systems first for capital gains and then dividends from trading subsidiaries (changes which both took place during Labour’s period of office).

The exemption system is both fairer (not subject to the vagaries in either direction caused by different methods of taxation in different countries) and more consistent with the UK’s international obligations under EU law and bilateral tax treaties with most countries worldwide.

It won’t encourage offshoring or drain wealth from the UK

For one thing, it isn’t much of a change, so it’s hard to work out how this would have all the consequences Monbiot ascribes to it. If anything, I would expect that these modernisation and simplification measures would encourage both inward investment in the UK and outbound investment by successful UK headquartered businesses.

None of this is likely to change where businesses conduct their main operations, but it may have an impact on the location of significant numbers of headquarters jobs (often highly paid and highly taxed in their country of residence). Over the last few years a number of UK groups (such as WPP and Shire Pharmaceuticals) have moved their headquarters to Ireland or Switzerland, largely in response to the complexity and overbearing nature of other aspects of the UK international tax regime.

I wouldn’t expect these changes to branch taxation specifically to alleviate the concerns that caused them to move, but they are certainly a move in the right direction towards achieving a simpler and less arbitrary regime. Interestingly the UK regime has been converging more and more with that in the Netherlands over recent years, and had these changes come earlier, we might not have seen companies like Shell choosing a Dutch over a UK unified parent company.

It’s not secret or a plot

Most bizarre is Monbiot’s claim that the proposed changes are some kind of secret plot or even a “coup d’etat”. Admittedly they weren’t the most riveting and exciting parts of their manifestos, but both the Lib Dems and Tories set out their plans to simplify the UK’s extraordinarily complex corporate tax system, and these measures are very much part of that. Indeed this consultation was originally kicked off by the last Labour government, so it’s hardly controversial, let alone hidden.

And as for Monbiot’s claim that “a kind of corporate coup d’etat is taking place”, it’s a public consultation exercise, for crying out loud – it’s not exactly tanks surrounding the Palace of Westminster. I like hyperbole as much as the next man, but this is just too silly.

You’ve got to give it to Monbiot, though – what a great way to create a scandal out of such a dull subject and such flimsy evidence. It’s a cunning journalistic wheeze: pick an unpopular target (big business); invent an entirely spurious (and unrelated) “plot” and then tell your readers that it’s too dull, complicated and obscure for them to understand (so no one challenges your proposition). Genius!

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41 Comments

  • I see no Iceberg 16th Feb '11 - 1:00pm

    It is a tough one.
    Who are we going to believe on an impenetrably complex change to the Tax Laws ?
    Monbiot and Private Eye’s investigative journalists or someone who worked for 17 years to minimise Corporate Tax for his Clients ?

    You pays your money and you takes your choice.

  • It is a tough one.
    Who are we going to believe on an impenetrably complex change to the Tax Laws ?
    A journalist with a political axe to grind who probably studied English and therefore doesn’t even understand basic maths, let alone complex tax regulations; or someone who has worked for 17 years in the area and had to pass very tough qualifications on it?

    You pays your money and you takes your choice.

  • I think a good attitude is probably that if someone like Monbiot or Private Eye say something like this, it’s worth taking time to investigate with an open mind. Both of them have a record of occasional overhyping (and this may well be one such case), but both have enough reputation that their claims are worth looking at in some detail.

  • David Allen 16th Feb '11 - 1:36pm

    Monbiot is often right. I tend to respect someone who starts off as an ardent environmentalist and then painfully works himself round to putting a case for nuclear power and against feed-in tariffs for photovoltaics (even if I don’t myself agree). The guy thinks, and the guy questions his own judgments. Precious few other people do. I have no idea if he is right about tax, but at least he’s not working for the avoiders.

  • paul barker 16th Feb '11 - 1:45pm

    Excellent article Max but no-one on Left or Green sites will believe you as you admit to working for “The Man”. See “Ice berg” as example.
    Monbiot raises a general problem with the Green Movement – their belief that all previous Political thought has to be junked. They are left with a small pool of talent trying to re-invent the wheel. Ironically that leaves them open to the unconscious adoption of older Ideologies, currently Nationalism & Communism.

  • @David Allen

    Spot on. Of course you have to make a judgement on the person making the argument, as well as the merits of the argument. A good argument made by a transparent snake oil salesman, would fail to convince many.

  • Liberal Neil 16th Feb '11 - 1:47pm

    My objectives are similar to george monbiot’s, and he is a nice guy, and pretty genuine.

    However, a lot of his articles, like the one he wrote on these issues, simply don’t stack up.

    On this issue he attacked the Government for at the same time giving big tax breaks to their corporate mates and at the same time pushing business away from the UK. Completely self-contradictory.

    This article, whatever the interests of the author, make sense. As does the Government’s consultation document, if you read it. In fact, just by reading the document, I was able to see some of the holes in Monbiot’s article, even without any particular expertise in the subject.

  • I see no Iceberg 16th Feb '11 - 2:26pm

    Both authors freely admit the Tax Law to which they refer is labyrinthine and hideously complex. So it’s obvious that in such an area anyone with enough knowledge can muddy the waters or make mischief depending on who you believe.

    Both make their own case based on their reading of it.

    I urge people to read both which was implicit in my statement “you takes your choice”.

    I am not a climatologist so despite having looked into some of the science I am forced to rely on those with far greater expertise than myself in a complex area. And unlike most Conservatives I don’t believe they are lying or hold a grudge against Monbiot because he’s associated with the Green movement.

    Here we have someone making his case for the changes to Tax Law based on his experience in dealing with it for his clients, and another by Monbiot who was greatly respected by Liberal Democrats pre-coalition, and Private Eye who are renowned for attacking all sides politically. They get more right than wrong Mr Pack as I’m sure you’re aware.
    The research was done by a former tax inspector and a senior member of the tax staff so Mr Teuerman is not the only expert at play here.

    I presume it also hasn’t escaped some people that the Conservatives were revealed to receive over 50% of their funding from the City. Particularly not the Conservatives enraged by Monbiot’s article and Green stance.

    Here is the book Monbiot spoke of that implicates Blair just as much as these new tax laws implicate Cameron.
    http://treasureislands.org/
    Or were Conservatives still under the comforting illusion that this was all written from a pro Labour stance ?

  • I see no Iceberg 16th Feb '11 - 2:53pm

    The consultation document written with the help of the Corporate Tax Liason Committee?

    Liaison Committee
    A Liaison Committee of representatives from businesses has been established to provide strategic oversight of the development of corporate tax policy. A list of members is provided below. The first working group meeting is scheduled for the end of January.

    John Bartlett, BP
    Ian Brimicombe, AstraZeneca
    Brian Harris, RWE npower
    Will Morris, GE
    Rachel Morrison, Santander
    Paul Morton, Reed Elsevier
    Jean Sharp, Aviva
    Tim Voak, Tesco

    We’re all in it together indeed.

  • Steve Wilson 16th Feb '11 - 3:06pm

    I’ve read the article and Monbiot’s too. I will take my chances with Private Eye and Monbiot, both of whom gain little from their journalism, compared to those they routinely expose. And both of whom in my experience are usually correct on most counts.

    The government and UK tax officials records on getting big business to pay their due taxes is reprehensible. So when they start lecturing me on this sort of thing, I look elsewhere for a different view, and it seems to fit the reality I see much better.

  • Same article George Monbiot wrote in The Guardian, only with the references to the points raised which are interesting…

    http://www.monbiot.com/2011/02/07/a-corporate-coup-detat/

    Now I am a layman, but I have to wonder where is the truth, because when the dust settles and we find it is just another loophole that is never going to be closed (bad for business), I do have to ask why when most of us are being squeezed there is tax relief for some

  • I reaad both articles (George Monbiot’s and Private Eye’s) and have been looking out for anyone else picking it up.

    Thus far, this is the first, however, given that the Mont Pelerinists running our party would obviously choose to attack it, I’m now suspicious. I know the corporate community had it damn good under New Labour but they’re they’re having it even better now that the Tories, plus a Alexander, Laws, Cable from our side (corporation tax cut, year on year tax cut for the banks, Phillip Green checking out the books, etc, etc).

    Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good – wasn’t ‘everyone else is doing it’ a line trotted out by George Osborne to justify killing the deficit (and maybe the economy) in one parliament? Anyway, new Private Eye is out today so I’ll see if they’ve got any more material on this.

    Talking of neoliberalism, did I hear the PM encouraging faster de-regulation?

  • @Adam Bell

    I don’t understand why you’re facing down ISNI for ‘playing the man’. I think he’s simply pointing out that whilst big business is well represented on government advisory committees, and presumably taken notice of, whereas other interest groups do not get a look-in.

    I might add that the Upper House appears to be stuffed with big business cronies of all parties, whereas say, the heads of charities are conspicuous with their absence.

    Personally, I think he makes a fair point and provides another reason to ‘watch this space’.

  • I see no Iceberg 16th Feb '11 - 5:00pm

    “Are you refusing to read the document?”

    No, are you denying who helped draught it ?

  • Steve Wilson 16th Feb '11 - 6:26pm

    @Adam

    You don’t seem to have read my post before inferring what you wished to read from it.

    I don’t seek out other views to reinforce my view. I said that I look elsewhere at other explanations when the one I am given doesn’t seem to fit with my experience of the world. Neither did I say Monbiot was ‘correct’ just that I found his arguments rather more compelling due to my personal experiences, and the fact that the government and tax professionals (unsurprisingly) have a very poor record on closing tax loopholes favoured by people we might call their ‘friends’ or even ‘employees’ (paymasters is a little vulgar perhaps?) in the case of tax ‘professionals’.

  • Andrew Suffield 16th Feb '11 - 8:12pm

    When one person lays out an argument based on facts and reasoning, and another lays out an argument based on the identity of the author, my automatic conclusion is that the second person has neither facts nor reason to support their case. Why would anybody resort to such things if they did?

  • I see no Iceberg 16th Feb '11 - 9:39pm

    “When one person lays out an argument based on facts and reasoning”

    Both Monbiot and Teuerman do.

    The facts and reasoning are in a subject of arcane and incredibly complex tax law as they both admit.
    There is a reason tax lawyers and accountants who specialise in the field of corporate tax are extraordinarily well renumerated as the subject is neither simple nor easy to explain to the layman.

    In such cases looking at who is doing the reasoning and their possible motives, after reading both articles, can help clarify the reasoning used and why.

  • > It’s a cunning journalistic wheeze…

    Your insinuation that Monbiot has concocted this article just to sell copy is nothing but a nasty attempt to smear him. Shame on you.

    Whatever George Monbiot’s faults, he is an intelligent, honest, principled person – who like every single one of us is fallible. When he makes mistake and the case is proven to him (see stolen climate emails non-event), he admits to them and corrects them – that’s a hell of lot more than most are capable of.

    And how many of us have the courage and integrity to publish our net worth? http://www.monbiot.com/2011/01/05/another-one-bites-the-dust/

    > …and then tell your readers that it’s too dull, complicated and obscure for them to understand (so no one challenges your proposition).

    Where does he say that? As best I can see he says no such thing – it’s just you.

    Whether the balance of truth lies with Monbiot or your claims, I don’t know – but I’m tempted to favour Monbiot simply because of the sneering condescension in this article.

    Regardless, any reasonably informed person should know that income disparity has grown alarmingly over the last few decades and that massive tax avoidance by corporations and wealthy individuals is an obscenity when others are struggling to feed and keep themselves warm. Monbiot’s article speaks to that fact and is valuable for it.

  • Adam Bell:

    > I’ve based some of my understandings of an appropriate response to global warming on his book Heat, and if it turns out that it’s as incompetently researched as his position on finance…

    Do share some specifics – if you have any.

  • “It’s not a big change”
    “I would actually expect this move to increase the UK tax take”
    “It won’t .. drain wealth from the UK”
    – Max Teuerman, a man who earns his living mostly by helping companies avoid tax.

    Anyone else find it odd that a tax accountant makes claims like the above in an article yet includes absolutely no numbers to support his argument?
    Anyone else find it odd that a man who makes a living out of the complexity of the tax code writes in support of what he claims is a straightforward “simplification” of it that will lead to his clients paying (so he claims) a bit more tax?
    On the balance of evidence so far, I’m with Monbiot.

  • Andrew Suffield 17th Feb '11 - 7:57am

    “When one person lays out an argument based on facts and reasoning”

    Both Monbiot and Teuerman do.

    While you do not. There is a lesson here.

  • I think something much simpler is going on here.
    Max is looking at this based on the intentions of the consultation, and what is supposed to happen.
    George is looked at this based on his experience of government’s (of all hues) success rate in nailing down companies tax payments.
    The truth – which I would define as “what is actually going to happen” undoubtedly lies somewhere in between.

  • I see no Iceberg 17th Feb '11 - 8:39am

    “While you do not.”

    You do not you mean.

    I gave reasoning for why the backgrounds of both are important in a complex area of corporate tax law tax as well as facts on who helped draught the documents. Which is far more than you have. There is a lesson here.

  • I’m no fan of Monbiot, and I’ve made no conclusion on this tax issue yet. but I came along from Reddit because most article containing the word ‘conspiracy’ turn out to be hilarious propaganda, and thank god you’ve not disappointed. It follows the template perfectly, 2 paragraphs of aggressive, factless, fruity language, calling the person all sort of names & saying that everything that comes out of their mouth is bunkum. This appeals to the tabloid heart in us all, it gets out blood going! It’s exciting, pop-y writing, and it’s fun.

    Then after what is essentially a rant, you back it up by taking on some of the weaker side issues, not the core of the issue. The problem is that many people are stupid enough to not see through this vindictive ruling-class propaganda. I laughed at some of these heading, half of them are opinions masquerading as fact, some are facts backed up by conjecture. And “OHNOES! Journalist uses headline grabbing language!!!!! OHMIGOD!” Unlike, you know, the writer.

    Gotta keep those LibDemSheeple in line! Aww. x

    D- MUST TRY HARDER! I’m not terribly bright, and you ain’t fooled me. Disappointing.

  • Good article. Corporate tax is terribly complex (mostly in an effort to stop tax avoidance) but the underlying issue here is relatively simple – territoriality (taxing profits in the country in which they are earned).

    Compared to the main alternatives – taxing profits in the country the company is based in, regardless of where they are earned (giving additional incentives to base themselves in tax havens), and taxing them twice (hardly fair) this seems to me the most sensible basis for an approach. Of course there will always be disagreements and arguments about where a profit was actually earned (businesses are likely to try to maximise the amount made in low tax countries) but that still seems better than the alternatives to me.

    My understanding is the changes are largely prompted by changes to regulation of the insurance industry which come into effect next year across the EU. These regulatory changes mean that insurers will need a single super-company to operate throughout Europe. Without these changes to corporate tax rules the UK will be in an uncompetitive position when this happens with the result that we will lose jobs.

  • “When one person lays out an argument based on facts and reasoning, and another lays out an argument based on the identity of the author, my automatic conclusion is that the second person has neither facts nor reason to support their case. Why would anybody resort to such things if they did?”

    On most subjects, that’s a perfectly fair comment. On tax avoidance, it’s not. The game in tax avoidance is to work up schemes that are too complex to be seen for what they are by anybody except full-time specialists, and to present plausible-sounding arguments which cannot be properly refuted except by such specialists. The game also relies upon the fact that there is much more money involved in paying people to become specialist advisers to rich avoiders than in paying taxmen and independent journalists to prevent avoidance.

    So, unusually, the ad hominem approach is as good as any. The concern with Monbiot is that he could be out of his depth. Neocon insults alleging ideological bias and rigidity are very wide of the mark, Monbiot is an abnormally flexible thinker. The concern with Teuerman is that he is a company-paid tax professional, and that he is therefore working for organisations who would like to keep their tax bills down..

  • toryboysnevergrowup 17th Feb '11 - 1:56pm

    Max appears to be factually correct on most points – all that is being proposed is that the same exemptions be given for branch taxation as for subsidiaries. What he fails to address is whether the exemption given for overseas subsidiaries is right in the first place. Subsidiaries can and are used as a means of transferring incomes and profits from one more highly taxed place to another, and I daresay Max is not above giving a little advice as to how this should be achieved. But subsidiaries do have the advantage that they are legal entities and as a result such transfers and any dividends back to the parent are a little more transparent – and so it is more difficult to stop abuses. Allowing the same trick with branches will just make things a little less transparent and present a whole range of new opportunities for tax advisers to move profits away from the scope of UK taxation. I agree with Max that it will not be the cataclysmic change Monbiot thinks, but it will present a whole new range of tax avoidance opportunities, and will as a result lead to a slow and steady reduction in the UK corporate tax take.

    I should remind LibDems that they went into the election advocating a reduction in tax advoidance not an increase in the opportunities for its use. Perhaps if the LibDems were really interested in tax avoidance they might want to look at how much better the “territorial” systems Max refers to are at collecting corporate taxation than is our current system. One of the chief beneficiaries of the present system is of course News International or is that a vested interest too close to home for the Coalition?

  • @Adam Bell, do NOT rely on Monbiot’s book on climate change it is unreferenced and therefore simply a large opinion piece. Whilst much of what he writes in the book is correct my Dad is a professor in a related field to climate change and he picked several holes in Monbiot’s analysis.

  • Stuart Mitchell 17th Feb '11 - 7:46pm

    Going through Teueman’s list of “five things Monbiot got wrong” (in bold and italics no less) one by one :-

    1. “It’s not a big change”
    Teuerman has a point here, at least looking at it in terms of % of the total tax revenue. 1-0 for Teueman.

    2. “It’s not a tax break for big business”
    The Treasury freely admit that the changes amount to a tax cut of £100m per annum, the beneficiaries being a small number of large companies (mostly in banking and insurance). If that’s not a “tax break for big business”, it’s kind of hard to imagine what *is*. 1-1.

    3. “It’s not peculiar to the UK”
    Teueman refers only to the general principle of territorial taxation of branches – but Monbiot never actually claims that such a development would be peculiar to the UK. The two aspects of the proposals Monbiot *does* claim will be peculiar to the UK (treatment of tax havens and expenses of foreign branches), Teueman doesn’t even bother to mention, so this is another clear point for Monbiot. 2-1.

    4. “It won’t encourage offshoring or drain wealth from the UK”
    Both make plausible arguments, and I doubt anybody knows the answer to this for sure, so half a point each. 2.5 for Monbiot, 1.5 for Teueman.

    5. “It’s not secret or a plot”
    A big black mark for Teueman here for resorting to a straw man. Monbiot calls the proposals “obscure” (which they certainly are – how many of us knew?) but nowhere does he claim there’s anything secretive about it – he refers several times to the Treasury documents and even provides a link to the consultation on his website!! “Secret” and “obscure” are not the same thing (unless this is some arcane tax consultant terminology??)

    Final score: Monbiot 3.5, Teueman 1.5.

    I’m not convinced the proposals are quite as dire as Monbiot’s impressive rhetoric makes out, but George is certainly onto *something* here, and the political ramifications of giving a tax cut to banks at the same time as hammering ordinary individuals is something that ought to be obvious to anybody – even those with a prejudice against anything Monbiot says.

  • Graham Lawrence 18th Feb '11 - 8:26am

    Take something complicated – that you don’t fully understand – distort it and turn it into sensational journalism. Interesting. So if Mr Monbiot does that with corporation tax, how should you regard what he has said in the past about global warming and climate change? With some caution and rational reserve, I suspect.

  • David Allen 18th Feb '11 - 2:05pm

    Caution and rational reserve, my foot. Climate change denialism, no thanks. Campaigning journalists, yes please.

    OK, now that one or two people with genuine expertise have posted comments, we can see that Monbiot has probably overstated the concern. Well, good for him, I’d say. If you are digging into soil that nobody else seems to have dug, and you come across something fishy that might or might not be really serious, do you say “Ahem – I think there might be a slight flaw in what the government is proposing”? Or do you say “BLUE MURDER! (p.s., come and prove I’m wrong if you can)”? Monbiot has done the latter, and we should be thankful.

    What emerges – and why should we be surprised? – is that a Tory government is in the business of extending tax concessions to companies and bankers. So we’re going to keep quiet about that?

  • Liberal Neil 18th Feb '11 - 2:41pm

    What emerges is that this Government is continuing down the same path of all recent Governments in trying to maximise the corporate tax take by ensuring that the UK’s corporate tax regime remains competitive.

    Better to take 24% of £100bn in tax than 28% of £80bn.

    Past experience of reductions in the rate of Corporation Tax suggest that the tax take doesn’t drop as a result.

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