Tech Giants Avoid A Billion-Pound Tax Bill

Interesting figures in The Telegraph this morning show the extent to which the Chancellor is missing out on taxing the tech giants.

Tax Watch has estimated that five of the biggest -- Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Cisco -- only paid around a quarter of a billion in tax in 2018. This might seem like a lot of money until you realise that Tax Watch estimates their profits from operating in the UK were around GBP8bn. 

It's hard to be sure because the tech giants do not always transparently break out their revenue and profits from operating in the UK individually. Instead, figures are often reported as part of wider markets and so the GBP8bn profit is an educated guess, while the GBP237m paid by the five companies in tax in 2018 is a fact.

There is, of course, nothing illegal about how the tech giants work. They are masters of using the system to make money in lucrative markets and then account for it -- or incur costs from -- another market where tax rates are a lot lower than the UK. 

So how much should they be paying? Well, Tax Watch puts it around a billion pounds more than they already pay. If they played with a straight bat and accounted for profit in the UK, and declared it here, the campaigners suggest the final corporation tax bill would be around GBP1.3bn. 

It goes without saying that in a time of austerity and a moment in the country's history where there is great economic uncertainty, an extra billion pounds in the Treasury's bank account would be very welcome.

It raises the question, however, of what on earth Boris can do. Or at least what the Chancellor, Sajid Javid, can get away with. The way the tech giants suck money out of the UK market and have the profit taxed elsewhere has long been a bone of contention. It has led to the Digital Services Tax that is due to place a levy of 2% on their sales. The principle is that if it is a direct tax on a sale, they just cannot get away from paying it.

The trouble is that President Trump is threatening retaliatory tariffs, prompting France to postpone its equivalent of the tax.

Sajid Javid said the tax will still be implemented in April, but it's hard to see how. Will Boris risk a rift with America at exactly the same time that he needs to pull a trade deal out of the hat? Surely it will be safer to wait until later in the year when the OECD is expected to unveil new ways of taxing the tech giants.

And that's where we are, sadly. Brits are generally peeved that they pay their fair share of tax while tech giants get away with working the system, legally, to their advantage. But Boris cannot do anything about it without risking a tariff war with the one country he has to stay on the right side of.

With Trump not impeached, but rather appearing to feel emboldened, it would take a brave British Prime Minister to assume that a row with America would only last until November when a new President is elected. Chances are that Trump will be in place for another four-year term, and that means upsetting him and starting a trade war -- at a time that we need a trade deal -- simply doesn't make sense. 

It means we know the tech giants might be getting away with a billion pounds worth of tax that should be going to the Treasury, but ultimately, there's virtually nothing the country can do about it. 

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