Dispute over the competitiveness of the UK’s corporate tax system is never
far from the thoughts of the business world, but the debate has reached new
heights recently with some of the UK’s largest companies sticking their heads
above the parapet and standing up to the power of the Treasury.
Common among the grumbles of UK plc are the increasing complexity of the tax
system (and the associated compliance demands) and the actual rate of
corporation tax, which many companies claim comes in well above the headline
rate of 30%.
This year’s Finance Act, for example, ran to 517 pages while Gordon Brown’s
aggressive moves to combat abusive tax avoidance, and the disclosure regime that
forms part of that, have piled yet more demands on the tax departments of
And while the headline rate of corporation tax has been cut from 33% in 1997
to 30% today, this tells only half the story. An increase in National Insurance
contributions combined with various other obscure business taxes have increased
the gross tax that companies must pay.
Tesco, the UK’s largest retailer, says that as much as 50% of its profits go
to the government in taxes of one form or another. “We have a large and rising
tax burden,” Lucy Neville-Rolfe, the retailer’s company secretary told the Daily
Telegraph. “Yes, the corporate tax rate was lowered, but business rates have
risen sharply and so has National Insurance. There is also much more uncertainty
about the tax system.” This is backed up by research carried out by Grant
Thornton. The accountancy firm expects corporation tax revenues to represent
11.4% of all tax receipts in 2006/07, compared to just 8.2% in 2003/04.
As a result, UK-domiciled companies are suffering something of a double
whammy. On the one side, taxes are slowly creeping up through the back door
while, on the other, complexity and compliance demands have also increased. The
result is to create an environment where UK companies are seriously considering
their options and deciding whether or not to remain as UK-domiciled companies.
Last year, Chris Spooner, the group head of financial planning and tax at
HSBC said, very publicly, that the bank would think nothing of quitting the UK
because of its uncompetitive tax system. “A number of low tax jurisdictions have
approached us,” he told a Chartered Institute of Taxation conference. “There has
been nothing tempting yet, but we have moved headquarters before and we are not
scared to do so again. The UK used to be a good place to be for purely tax
reasons. I am not sure if that is the case anymore.” Analysis of HSBC’s 2005
annual report goes some way to explain why the bank feels aggrieved with the tax
treatment it receives on these shores.
Its total UK corporation tax charge was $663m (£337m) out of a global charge
of $4,685m. However, the bank calculated the overall tax charge which would have
applied if all profits had been taxed at the UK rate. The result? An increase of
more than $400m to $5,093m.
There are several things about HSBC’s statement that the Treasury should be
concerned about. First, the fact that one of the UK’s prize corporate assets
would not for a moment baulk at a move abroad; and, second, that countries are
actively approaching companies domiciled in other jurisdictions to try and
attract their investment. But Spooner had more to come, and what he said next
had a cold inevitability that would have had Treasury officials squirming. “HSBC
pays a large amount of tax and we are the ones who decide who gets it,” he said.
“We take the competitive environment seriously and there are others like us.”
Of this there is no doubt. In November 2006 Hiscox shareholders approved a
proposed corporate reorganisation that would see the insurance group relocate to
Bermuda. “Many of the group’s principal competitors already enjoy the
substantial potential tax benefits that would become available to Hiscox Ltd
and…this scheme should improve the prospects for the group’s share price,” a
Hiscox statement said at the time.
And Hiscox wasn’t alone. As the statement said, many of its competitors were
already benefiting from the more competitive tax treatment that was on offer
outside of the UK, including Caplin which left these shores to operate out of
Bermuda in 2002.
The boards of most multinational companies would admit to considering their
domicile from time to time – it is part and parcel of running a business.
Aidan Smith, the finance director of FTSE-100 property group Liberty
International, is a case in point. He says the company carried out a major
reorganisation in the late-nineties and that a location change was not out of
the question. In fact, if it weren’t for the newly introduced Reits (real estate
investment trusts) regime Liberty may well have thought about moving offshore by
“I think if you were starting, if I was starting with a clean sheet, in the
absence of Reits I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen London,” he says.
“The only mistake you can make in the UK, as far as tax is concerned, is to
be born here. Because if you’re born here, you’re taxed on everything. If you
come here from abroad, it seems that the Revenue is much more lenient.”
Regulation and complexity
But perhaps even more of an issue than the overall tax charge that
UK-domiciled companies face is the stifling effect of tax regulation and
complexity. A report conducted by theWorld Bank in association with
PricewaterhouseCoopers illustrates the problem well. The research looked into
the number of pages of primary tax legislation that each of the leading 20
economies have. The UK was the second worst with 8,300 pages, after India with
9,000. Looking at the UK’s closest competitors, however, was revealing. The US
significantly improves on the UK with 5,100 pages, whereas Germany (1,700),
France (1,300) and the Netherlands (1,640) positively leave us in their wake.
A report carried out by KPMG highlighted yet more areas for concern over the
country’s tax system. Threequarters of respondents to its survey claimed that
the UK tax environment has become more complex over the last five years, with
fully 84% of large businesses thinking this to be the case. Perhaps it should be
no surprise, then, that the research also found the average tax department was
spending 56% of its time on compliance-related activities.
John Whiting, a tax partner at PwC, says that while we are not at a stage where
a steady flow of UK companies are going to up-sticks and move abroad, “the extra
bit, the jam, the investment, might go somewhere else.” In the government’s
defence, last November it published the 2006 Review of Links with Large Business
– an attempt to offer a late olive branch to corporate Britain. The report was
compiled by former chairman of HMRC Sir David Varney and lays out eight
proposals that the department should address to deliver four key outcomes that
both HMRC and businesses want to see.
The outcomes were:
• Greater certainty;
• An efficient risk-based approach to dealing with tax matters;
• Speedy resolution of issues; and
• Clarity through effective consultation and dialogue.
The proposals certainly make sense: a system of advanced rulings, so that
companies have greater certainty about the tax implications of significant
investments and corporate restructures, and a transfer pricing enquiry system
which will see matters settled within 18 months, are just two of the proposals.
Perhaps most interesting, however, was the statement that, effective from
Budget 2007, “HMRC will be accountable for taking the business perspective into
consideration in everything it does from implementing policy decisions to
designing systems and processes. A consistent approach to informal and formal
consultation with clear accountabilities and parameters will ensure the business
perspective is taken into account as the norm, so contributing to a more certain
administrative framework within which business can thrive.” While it’s
gratifying to see the UK government tackle this issue head on, some would argue
that it’s too little too late. Other economies have overtaken the UK in terms of
being attractive places to do business: and in this sense, the tax environment
is extremely important – certainly more so than it used to be.
“Tax has become more important, possibly because it’s now being seen as an
area for cost control,” says Whiting. “Other countries have latched onto it as
an area for competitive advantage.” And if companies continue to experience the
kind of complexity and expense associated with the UK tax system, it won’t be
long until that competitive advantage is enough to tempt more than just a
handful of UK-domiciled countries to foreign shores.
The FDs’ take
A survey of 87 FTSE- 350 finance directors, conducted by Ipsos Mori on behalf of
the Confederation of British Industry, had some interesting findings:
• Twice as many respondents said that other EU member states’ tax regimes
were preferable to the UK’s. And more than 70% said that the UK’s tax regime has
become worse over the last five years – compared to 7% who said it had improved.
It wasn’t all bad news, however, with twice as many saying that the UK’s tax
regime was better than that of the US.
• When asked whether they had relocated or whether they were considering
doing so, 61% said not, while 39% said they had either relocated or were
considering doing so.
• And, worryingly for the taxman, of these, 38% said that tax matters were
very important to these deliberations and 56% said they were slightly important.
Research by the CBI asked finance directors what things they found
particularly attractive about other tax regimes.
Below are a few of their responses:
• “The attitude to tax such as in the Netherlands. It’s the approach to
companies, a welcoming approach. They want companies.”
• “Transfer pricing such as the Netherlands and Ireland. Better controlled
foreign company regimes such as USA and Canada.”
• “Our system is particularly complex, so somewhere like Ireland where there
is less statutory regulations would be better.”
• “Eire. Low tax rate, ability to get advance rulings, a system that is
straightforward and not complicated, and an ability to have a sensible dialogue
and low compliance burden.”
• “The Dutch participation exemption. The Irish financial services regimes.
The flat tax such as in Eastern European countries from a corporation tax level,
not income tax.”
• “Low tax rates and no CFC rules such as in Ireland. Better international
taxations such as in the Netherlands.”
• “Eire. Competitive, the rate is low and they understand the needs of
• When asked which domicile outside of the UK they would choose for tax
reasons, 61% said either Ireland or the Netherlands.