The Big Tax Debate

The Big Tax Debate – Ricky Steedman on the panel at the Edinburgh University “Bollocks to Poverty Society” Big Tax Debate, 7th November 2012, The Teviot Dining Room.

I was asked to join the panel in this student debate on Wednesday evening to provide an “expert” viewpoint on global tax issues. Others on the panel were to be Maxwell Greenberg, Founder and Vice President of the North American Society, Peter McColl, Rector of Edinburgh University, and two MSPs (neither of whom turned up). The debate was chaired by Kirsty Haigh of the Edinburgh University BTP Society.

I arrived full of trepidation, armed with nothing more than handful of facts and some blind hope that my 40-odd years’ experience would protect me from a ruthless student grilling. The students turned out to be hugely interested in the global effects of taxation and put several excellent questions to the floor on numerous different subjects, ranging from the recent headline-friendly Starbucks / Amazon / Apple stories to the American election and the effect of Obama’s victory on the global financial and housing markets. One interesting fact arising from this discussion was Max explaining that the tax taken from the population in the USA was around 15% per head of population less than the UK.

I gave an explanation of the effects of tax evasion and avoidance along the lines of “tax evasion is like the mafia in Italy – it is everywhere – it is apparent early in the morning when one sees the window cleaners and taxi drivers who haven’t “joined the system” going about their business gaily demanding cash. It was evident even in a restaurant in the heart of the Tower of London, where I was told that they only accept cash and where I received a receipt for my meals only after a considerable effort. It is also then evident at the other end of the scale, with the tax tsunamis of Goldman Sachs and Vodaphone.”

One tenacious individual had difficulty accepting my explanation of the fact that, while Starbucks do allegedly avoid UK Corporation Tax, they do also contribute massively to the UK economy by employing hundreds, if not thousands, of staff and paying over large amounts of PAYE into the UK system every year.  Peter McColl then countered this with the point that, while the likes of Microsoft have highly specialised talent and products to offer, firms like Starbucks selling a readily available product can be easily replaced in their specific market.

The debate then moved onto HMRC and I got the chance to explain that, while the armed forces, the police, the medical profession etc., are all strictly regulated, there does not seem to be any independent body in place to carry out checks on the behaviour of HMRC and the widely alleged “secret deals” which are taking place behind closed doors. I discussed how Margaret Hodge, MP was doing an excellent job on the Public Accounts Committee to expose a situation whereby ordinary taxpayers are being hounded while billionaires appear to be getting off with millions on a regular basis.

The Sunday Times expose of “Missing in Monaco” was also debated with lots of interesting comments from a very astute and intelligent gathering of students. I confessed that, in my view, there were nowhere near enough tax consultants around and that it was an exciting profession in which to take an interest! (Nobody asked me for a job…)

The debate ended after around 1 and a half hours. Kirsty, the organiser, said they had had a lot of good feedback from last year’s event where they “exposed SAB Miller for being a company of tax nomads and encouraged a student boycott of their beers”.

Ricky Steedman