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Osborne issues warning as Google tax deal challenged

Published 02/02/2016

George Osborne has warned against a rethink of tax rules following the Google deal
George Osborne has warned against a rethink of tax rules following the Google deal

George Osborne has warned against demands to shake-up the way multinational firms are taxed following the row over the £130 million deal with Google.

The Chancellor insisted strengthening the existing corporation tax system based on profits was better than moving to a levy on turnover.

Mr Osborne has come under pressure following the internet giant's agreement with HM Revenue and Customs covering 10 years of back taxes.

The Chancellor was challenged about the Google settlement while answering questions at a FSB conference in London, where he was told that corporate giants should be made to play by the "same rules" as smaller firms.

Mr Osborne said: "There is a challenge, which is the tax laws used to tax multinational corporations were devised in the 1920s and they didn't keep pace with not just the growth of the global economy and all the trade that has happened since then, but also the growth of the internet.

"We have been trying to get international agreement to change those laws and that international agreement is coming - only last week we got 30 other countries, the rich countries of the world, to sign up to an agreement to exchange information on the tax affairs of companies, so we know what each other are up to as tax authorities and we are seeking to get a change so that they also publish that information so there is transparency."

Critics of the Google deal have claimed that the amount the firm has agreed to pay 3% tax on its profits from UK sales, but the corporation tax system is based on profits from "economic activity" rather than sales.

Mr Osborne said: "I have heard lots of proposals about getting rid of corporation tax altogether and raising a turnover tax.

"I would just enter this note of caution: that means a business that has made no money in a particular year, it maybe in a recession or a company that has lost a big order - they would be being hit with a tax bill.

"So I think before we rush to some other solution I would try and make corporation tax work, which is a tax on profits.

"And in particular - and this is where all the anger has come - make sure we are taxing the genuine economic activity that happens in this country.

"That's always a challenge, because if you make a car in Britain and sell it in another country, how much of the profit is because it was well sold in the sale room and how much of the profit is because it was built in Britain, the designers were in Britain and so on.

"This is not an easy issue to deal with but clearly the internet has made it much more challenging."

Mr Osborne said his "diverted profits tax" was designed to address the issues posed by multinational firms.

"This new rule means that if we can show real economic activity happening in this country it should be taxed in this country, rather than passed off to some other country in the world.

"In the end, for me, the real solution to the problem is this: many of the companies you are talking about and have been in the press are American companies. We need more of these British companies, we need British companies growing and succeeding on the internet."

Mr Osborne's comments came as Google owner Alphabet knocked fellow US tech giant Apple off its top spot to become the world's most valuable public company.

Alphabet posted a fourth-quarter profit of 4.9 billion US dollars (£3.4 billion) on Monday, up from 4.7 billion US dollars (£3.3bn) a year ago.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell said: "When Google is seeing its UK revenue rise to 1.9bn US dollars (£1.3bn) in one quarter alone, to then pay a potential single digit tax rate just seems like a slap in the face to taxpayers, and it only seems like a lack of ambition from a Chancellor when he describes it as major victory'.

"It's time that George Osborne got a grip of this situation as it's becoming a daily occurrence that we read yet another multinational are not paying their fair share in tax meaning other taxpayers have to shoulder the burden.

"George Osborne should use the EU negotiations not to cut the pay of people on low incomes but to get a deal at EU level on tax so that we are getting the tax status of these big multinationals under control."

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