Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Let's start adding morality to make coffee taste better

Poor Starbucks. It has spent 15 years persuading people that coffee is something you drink in cups that could be buckets, with lots of milk and maybe syrup to hide the nasty taste. It seems to have been doing it well, but it still can't make a profit.

You might think that was strange. You might notice, for example, that the company had a turnover of £398m last year.

You might think it was quite odd that a company that took that much money and paid many of their staff minimum wage had never paid a penny in corporation tax.

You might also not know that a company like, say, Google, which had a turnover of £2.6bn last year, which would normally mean that you'd get a tax bill of about £200m, would pay just £6m (or 0.4%) in tax.

And you might not realise that a company like, say, Amazon, which had a UK turnover of £3.3bn in 2011, claims all its profits were actually made at a branch in Luxembourg and paid no corporation tax in this country.

If you had watched the Public Accounts Committee on Monday, you might have learnt quite a lot. You might have learnt that the people who represented these companies seemed surprised to have to explain themselves to people who have been elected to represent the people who buy their products.

You might have heard the man from Google tell the committee that everything his company did was legal. And you might have heard the response: "We are not," said Margaret Hodge MP, "accusing you of being illegal. We are accusing you of being immoral."

Margaret Hodge, like all the MPs on the committee, knows that we need businesses that thrive. So does the next Archbishop of Canterbury, who used to work in the oil industry, and who told the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards that the "culture" of a bank's investing arm could easily "contaminate" its retail arm by pushing for higher profits.

All these people know that we need successful businesses, because we need more jobs.

But all these people also know that business isn't just about profit. Or, as Amazon and Starbucks might call it, loss.

It isn't easy to take on global giants. It isn't easy to know what to do about people who will spend the millions on lawyers they won't spend on taxes to find the cheapest loophole, in the cheapest place.

It isn't easy to know how to deal with people who get their biggest thrills by sailing as close as they can to the wind.

The law could certainly be changed to make sure companies with high turnover in this country pay more tax here, but there's a limit to what the law can do in a globalised world. The law can't change the rules in other countries and it can't make global businesses nice. But we can change our own culture, in our own country. We can elect people who will hold these businesses to account.

We can show people that we're getting quite tired of being treated with contempt.

And we can start by buying real coffee in nice cafes and not nasty, flavoured milk.

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