Like millions of others this weekend, Barney Jones is filling in his tax returns. The forms detailing earnings and expenditure are not for the faint-hearted, and completing them seldom gives satisfaction – even when you’ve just played a key role in adding an extra £130m to Britain’s coffers.
The whistleblower who helped to reveal how Google was avoiding paying tax in the UK said that Britain needed to create better incentives to encourage more people to come forward and reveal how multinationals are avoiding paying tax to the Exchequer. His call came along with revelations that the European Commission has been asked to investigate other controversial tax deals HMRC is currently negotiating with multinational companies.
Mr Jones, 37, a former sales executive, handed over tens of thousands of emails to investigators which laid bare how the search engine firm avoided paying tax in the UK.
He readily admits when he handed over the emails three years ago he knew little about tax. He had watched Matt Brittin, his former boss at Google, give evidence to MPs on the Public Accounts Committee with interest but also mounting disquiet. Mr Brittin emphasised to the PAC one reason Google paid so little tax in the UK was that it did so little business here. The bulk of its work was generated through its Dublin headquarters – where corporation tax was lower than in London.
Mr Jones, a father of four and a devout Christian, knew that wasn’t true. He had worked in the London office from 2002 to 2006 and had his own view of the large turnover of work that was really going on in the UK. He took the facts to PAC chair Margaret Hodge and then on to Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC), which took his evidence but wasn’t exactly overjoyed by it.
“They seemed quite defensive and seemed to be more interested in justifying their position, saying they didn’t make the tax laws – they only applied them,” he said. “They looked at the emails and spoke to me about them and took it away. I only heard from them briefly a few times after that.”
When news of Google’s £130m settlement broke, he felt a small amount of satisfaction at his part but a stronger feeling of disappointment. “On the one hand, I was pleased. I had made my contribution but it was a derisory amount. The reaction from the Chancellor was very disappointing. That figure is pocket change for Google,” he said.
Motivated only by a sense of right and wrong and the belief he will one day be held to account by God, Mr Jones said he is not surprised there aren’t more whistleblowers like him coming forward from multinational giants with controversial tax arrangements.
“There really aren’t any incentives in this country. Unlike in the US where they pay large rewards, the Revenue gave the impression it wasn’t something they liked to do and did so infrequently. Not that I did it for any money, but it may be an incentive to other employees,” he told The Independent. “The other thing that is off-putting is HMRC’s attitude. To simply say publicly ‘We’ve looked at the tax arrangements and they are OK’ does not encourage you to approach them.”
The taxman needs to be made more accountable, he believes. “I think Margaret Hodge did a remarkable job in trying to hold them to account but a lot more needs to be done,” he said.
“HMRC cannot simply say we just apply the laws, we don’t make them. They need to advise MPs better about what is required. They need to make clear what criteria they apply and how they apply it when determining who pays what tax.”
The Google deal is one of those the campaign group Tax Justice Network (TJN) formally asked the European Commission to investigate. Its request came as calculations by The Independent suggested Google may owe as much as £700m in UK taxes. The TJN request said it was one of a number of similar deals, it believed.
“These tax practices are not only harmful to trade within the European Union, but also harmful to the British public, who have had to suffer severe cuts to public services on the basis that the Government has not been able to raise sufficient revenues,” said the TJN’s John Christensen. “It is our belief the nature of deal announced by the Chancellor suggests that similar deals may have already been reached between the Government and other, unknown companies, or may be in the process of being negotiated.”
Prime Minister David Cameron said he welcomed the EU investigation of the deal.
The commission’s own anti-tax avoidance proposals, revealed earlier this week, were strongly criticised. Tove Ryding at the European Network on Debt and Development said: “The proposals are woefully inadequate to stem the tsunami of scandalous cases of multinational corporations failing to pay their taxes.”