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April 26, 2013

Tax avoidance a lost battle says PAC

HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) is fighting a "battle it cannot win" against tax avoidance, due to the influence of Big Four firms on the UK tax system, the House of Common’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) expressed in a report released today.

The report, ‘Tax avoidance: the role of large accountancy firms‘, raised concern over the role that tax advisors play when giving technical advice to both the government and private clients, and pointed out that the Big Four firms employ some 9,000 people between their tax practices, compared to "far fewer resources" held by HMRC.

The report stated there is a "perception" that the Big Four’s relationship with the government exerts an "undue influence on the tax system" which can be harnessed to firms’ advantage.

"Big Four accountancy firms put their experts into treasury and the HMRC, help write the technical rules [that later] become the new laws. Armed with that insider knowledge they go back to their companies and use that knowledge to devise new schemes for tax avoidance among the rich individuals and among the big global companies," PAC chair Margaret Hodge told BBC News.

University of Essex professor of accounting Prem Sikka told IAB tax laws may benefit from the technical advice of the Big Four, but added: "If that [was] the case, we should see evidence of decreased tax avoidance and we don’t see any. Tax avoidance is more rampant than ever."

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Ernst & Young UK managing partner for tax John Dixon said it is completely wrong to conclude the firm’s secondment to the government on tax legislation exerts an undue influence.

"We see it as our responsibility as experts in our field to provide input on new legislation to help HMRC identify and avoid unintended consequences and arrive at more effective legislation," Dixon commented.

PwC UK head of tax Kevin Nicholson disagreed with the PAC’s conclusions about the role of large accountancy firms and said PwC follows a clear code of conduct, working constructively with HMRC.

"We provide technical insight to government but only when asked and are never involved in deciding tax policy which is a matter for the government," Nicholson said.

KPMG UK head of tax Jane McCormick welcomed the debate promoted by parliament and emphasised the firm’s secondees do not write legislation or make policy decisions.

"When requested to by government departments we do provide individuals on secondment. Their role is to provide tax technical input and commercial experience so that the authorities can make informed choices on tax policy," McCormick said.

Deloitte UK head of tax policy Bill Dodwell noted that while Deloitte is pleased by the fact PAC acknowledged their role in giving technical advice to the government, the firm does not believe there has been any conflict of interest.

"We have responded to requests for secondees and have provided a small number of people with some tax experience to help the Treasury and HMRC teams working on policy initiatives. Our secondees have all reported to experienced Treasury and HMRC officials and have never driven any policy initiative," Dodwell said.

With regards to HRMC’s lack of resources as discussed by the report, Dodwell said:
"We agree that HM Treasury needs greater tax expertise, and the policy of frequent rotation within the Treasury and Civil Service does not help".

Ethical responsibility

The Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales (ICAEW) chief executive Michael Izza highlighted the importance of chartered accountants (CAs) in making the tax system work and ensure "the right amount of tax is collected"

Izza said ICAEW will continue to ensure that CAs "are aware of their obligations when it comes to the provision of tax advice."

"This includes updating our guidance for members to reflect the latest measures designed to reduce aggressive tax avoidance including the introduction of the GAAR later this year." Izza added.

Related articles

Big Four defend their work in front of UK govt accounts committee

Big Four to appear before UK Public Accounts Committee

Related link
House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts’ report
Tax avoidance: the role of large accountancy firms

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