“The Appeal of Tax!” – By May Hen

In September 2016, members of the Cambridge Tax Discussion Group participated in a plenary at the 34th Annual Cambridge Economic Crime Symposium held at Jesus College. During our weekly meetings leading up to the conference, a topic was chosen by interested participants in the group and “The criminalization of tax avoidance” was proposed to stimulate debate. We decided to produce a series of working papers in response to Richard Gordon and Andrew Morriss’ article “Moving Money: International Financial Flows, Taxes, & Money Laundering” (Hastings International and Comparative Law Review, 2013, Vol. 37, No. 1) and invited the co-authors to Cambridge to take part in the debate. The result was an interesting mix of responses from panelists from the OECD, U.S. Department of Justice,  Department of Sociology, Faculty of Law, and Department of Economics from Cambridge.

A resulting editorial commentary by myself, May Hen, was published in the Journal of Money Laundering Control and a larger series is being put together by participants to be published as a special issue this year. It is hoped that this forthcoming issue will serve as a central stimulant for further debate at the 35th Annual Cambridge Economic Crime Symposium surrounding current tax issues. If you are interested in taking part this year in either the special issue or Economic Crime Symposium, please contact me at hmh46@cam.ac.uk

“Tax Avoidance: An Oxymoron” by Dr. Alexis Brassey

This week, Cambridge Tax Discussion Group member, Dr. Alexis Brassey contributes a discussion piece on tax avoidance. Dr. Brassey is a PhD student reading Law at the University of Cambridge.

Disclaimer: Any opinions expressed are solely by the author and is not representative of the opinions of individual members of the Cambridge Tax Discussion Group. The Group is a diverse network of scholars and professionals who gather weekly to discuss broad topics related to tax.

Tax Avoidance: An Oxymoron

Dr. Alexis Brassey

The expression tax avoidance elicits strong emotions from journalists and politicians. This interest, which has spawned thousands of articles and frequent legislative proposals, arises as a result of a belief that “something untoward” has happened. Some clever company or “ultra high net worth” has managed to outfox the great British public and therefore something must be done about it.

The question, “what exactly is tax avoidance?” barely gets a mention, other than the possible tacit acknowledgement that its “legal”, but somehow “wrong”.

The most eloquent and succinct definition of tax avoidance was proposed by Lord Hoffman in 2005:

“…tax avoidance in the sense of a series of transactions successfully structured to avoid a tax which Parliament intended to impose should be a contradiction in terms. The only way in which Parliament can express an intention to impose a tax is by a statute that means that such a tax is to be imposed. If that is what Parliament means, the courts should be trusted to give effect to its intention.”[1]

If Lord Hoffman was correct, however, the idea that so much could be said and done about tax avoidance would be very odd indeed. At the heart of the avoidance debate and every avoidance case, one finds the executive[2] branch of government, HMRC, unable to convince the judiciary that they are able to impose a tax. The frustration of the executive branch then manifests itself in their assertion that whilst, grudgingly the tax payer has legally avoided being taxed, they ought not to have done. Something unfair, in the eyes of the executive branch of government, has taken place.

In the context of our constitutional doctrine, built on the principle of a separation of powers, how concerned ought we to be when the executive branch loses its case in a court of law? The answer, in ordinary circumstances, is that the mediation of executive power by the courts ensures our freedom. This freedom is underwritten by an overarching set of principles that constrain executive power by the judicial branch, which itself operates within a rule of law doctrine. The British legal tradition has a proud history of constraining its executive to ensure the liberty of its subjects with doctrines such as ultra vires and judicial review. Surely, so called tax avoidance is merely a by-product of a system of law working well.

In light of this analysis, what then is tax avoidance? HMRC bring a case to impose a tax. The courts consider the case and there can only be one of two outcomes. Either the courts decide HMRC are correct, in which case no tax has been avoided. Alternatively the courts can decide that no tax is due, in which case no tax has been avoided. The existence of tax avoidance, therefore, resides only in the minds of those who either misunderstand the judicial process or harbour the belief that law is something that ought to take place outside the courtroom.

Tax academics have written widely on tax avoidance[3], most struggle to articulate a coherent definition, all fail to overcome the problem that they are doing nothing more than discussing the executive’s frustration at losing in court.

There have been attempts[4] to distinguish between what is legally effective and what ought to be legally effective in the literature. These attempts, however, do little more than articulate the normative perspective of the authors in respect to the outcome.

“Tax avoidance or aggressive tax planning involves bending the rules of the tax system to gain a tax advantage that Parliament never intended. It often involves contrived, artificial transactions that serve little or no purpose other than to produce a tax advantage. It involves operating within the letter – but not the spirit – of the law. In arriving at a view as to whether the transaction is contrary to the intentions of Parliament, HMRC will consider a purposive construction of the legislation, and will also consider whether Parliament can realistically have intended to give the proposed result in circumstances that are very different from those that prevailed at the time (e.g. re loopholes being used to arrive at an unexpected result).”[9]

On this definition, HMRC believe themselves to be the arbiters of the law as opposed to the court. Under the current constitutional settlement, the only criteria the taxpayer needs to fulfil is to be able to demonstrate to a court of law that their transaction is not subject to tax. Of course, HMRC may take a different view, but that is part and parcel of our system of law. Unless and until ALL parties recognise that it is for the courts to decide the law and only the courts, we are doomed to spend time on listening to subjective moral or political positions of various parties who have failed to understand our constitution.

The introduction of a General Anti Abuse Rule[10] in 2013 has opened up the spectre of increased political positioning in the field of tax law. It is now possible for HMRC to advance their position in court as somehow arbiters of “reasonableness”[11]. The Finance Act 2013 now requires courts to have regard to HMRCs GAAR panel[12].

The GAAR can be considered as either being ineffective or a mechanism to circumvent the rule of law for the following reasons. If the GAARs application is limited to allowing courts to impose tax on the basis of a purposive jurisprudential construction[13] then it is not adding anything to the current legal corpus. If GAARs application is designed to allow courts to ignore or exceed purposive jurisprudence on the basis of an unspecified notion of “double reasonableness”[14] then we are indeed in a pre Magna Carta[15] or pre-Bill of Rights[16] era where arbitrariness is allowed to reign in determining tax on an ex-post basis.

Lord Diplock suggested that requiring citizens to do anything other than understand the words in the Statute was tantamount to a confidence trick:

“If the meaning of those words is clear and unambiguous and does not lead to a result that is manifestly absurd or unreasonable, it would be a confidence trick by Parliament and destructive of all legal certainty if the private citizen could not rely upon that meaning but was required to search through all that had happened before and in the course of the legislative process in order to see whether there was anything to be found from which it could be inferred that Parliament’s real intention had not been accurately expressed by the actual words that Parliament had adopted to communicate it to those affected by the legislation.”[17]

Graham Aaronson, the author of the GAAR along with Judith Freedman et al, however, were relaxed about giving consent to both the executive and the judiciary to go beyond purposive analysis and traditional rules of judicial interpretation:

“The advantage is that the GAAR can use concepts which could not be developed by applying conventional interpretation to the tax rules. A significant example of this is to define “an arrangement” in the sensible terms which were rejected by the majority of the House of Lords in Craven v White[18] because in their opinion those terms went beyond the scope of permissible judicial interpretation.”[19]

This author rejects the possibility of an interpretation of law that is beyond the scope of permissible judicial interpretation (on a pre-GAAR basis), given that judicial interpretation is law. So, where does this leave the definition of tax avoidance now courts and the executive have the capacity to determine the law on an uber-purposive analysis? The answer will be difficult to know until we have seen what happens when, and indeed if, the courts overturn Magna Carta by applying the GAAR contrary to a purposive interpretation. The result, whilst eliminating “tax avoidance” as defined by a losing executive, will be the circumvention of the rule of law and the separation of powers doctrine with all that entails. Let us all hope sanity and good sense means liberty requires GAAR to be entirely ignored by the judiciary. In the meantime, it would be helpful to view tax avoidance as nothing more than the by-product of a liberty protecting constitutional democratic system based on the rule of law.

[1] Hoffman, L “Tax Avoidance” in British Tax Review No. 197 (2005) pp197-206, p203

[2] Some would prefer to separate out the executive from the administrative branches of government, but for the sake of brevity I have used “executive branch” here as pointing to HMRC

[3] Tax Avoision, IEA readings 22 (Institute of Economic Affairs, 1979); Cooper, GS (ed) Tax Avoidance & the Rule of Law (1997)

[4] Freedman, J (2008), “Is Tax Avoidance Fair” in Wales, C “Fair Tax, Towards a Modern Tax System”, The Smith Institute

[7] Mayes v HMRC [2011] EWCA Civ 407

[8] It is possible for a scheme to be ineffective for tax purposes but still have legal consequences, but I would not characterise those schemes as tax avoidance, given they have failed to avoid tax.

[9] HMRC, Consultation Document, “Improving Large Business Tax Compliance”, 22nd July 2015, Annex C

[10] Ss206-215 Finance Act 2013

[11] Through the mechanism of a dubiously independent, albeit HMRC appointed GAAR panel

[12] S211 (2) (b), FA, 2013

[13] W. T. Ramsay Ltd. v IRC, Eilbeck (Inspector of Taxes) v. Rawling [1982] A.C.; Barclays Mercantile v Mawson [2004] UKHL 51 , IRC v. Scottish Provident Institution[ (2003)] CA, [2003] STC 1035, MacNiven v. Westmoreland Investments Ltd HC [2001], 73 TC

[14] S207 (2) FA, 2013

[15] Clauses 12 and 14 of the 1215 Charter state that to levy or assess an aid or scutage the King will accept the “common counsel of our realm” indicating that only Parliament as opposed to the Monarch could levy a tax charge.

[16] Bill of Rights 1688: Chapter 2 1 Will and Mar Sess 2 An Act declareing the Rights and Liberties of the Subject and Setleing the Succession of the Crowne Passed on 16th December 1689

[17] Fothergill v Monarch Airlines Ltd – HL, [1981] AC 251

[18] Craven v White [1988] 62 TC 1

[19] G. Aaronson (2011) “GAAR Study, A Study to consider whether a general anti-avoidance rule should be introduced into the UK tax system” para 5.6



“CSR and Tax: Venus nor Mars” by Hans Gribnau

Hans Gribnau is a Professor of tax at Tilburg University and the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. This week, we welcome his discussion piece for our blog.

Disclaimer: Any opinions expressed are solely by the author and is not representative of the opinions of individual members of the Cambridge Tax Discussion Group. The Group is a diverse network of scholars and professionals who gather weekly to discuss broad topics related to tax.

gribnau-330x390CSR and Tax: Venus nor Mars

Hans Gribnau

To someone coming from Mars, doing business on Earth is a rather strange thing. Take for example Starbucks. This multinational considers itself a ‘responsible company’: it appears to connect with people and communities. This responsibility, responsibility to others, is a strange concept in Martians’ vocabulary. On Mars, businesses go for maximum profit, nothing less. Responsibility to others sounds like peaceful cooperation, or even solidarity – nothing like war, a good fight and stiff competition or demolishing one’s competitors. And Martians take pride in it. To earthlings this may sound a bit embarrassing, but in a way Martians are quite charming: they are completely transparent about their warlike culture; they have no hidden agendas.

Martians have another trait: they are quite nosy; they want to know your business and your strategy. Maybe they can learn from it and become more competitive. So they take an interest in mysteries like responsible companies.

That’s why they want to know more about Starbucks. First thing, they check the Starbucks website. It appears that the people at Starbucks believe that they should have ‘a positive impact on the communities we serve.’ So Starbucks is part of society, a corporate citizen, engaging with other citizens. Again, these are strange words for it does not sound anything like a fierce competition, but the Martians go on reading and find Starbucks’ Global responsibility report 2013 on the website. Here, John Kelly, senior vice president, Global Responsibility and Public Policy, tells us that in ‘2008 we set a series of ambitious goals where we felt we could use our scale for the greatest good in the areas of ethical sourcing, environmental impact and community improvement.’ So in 2008 Starbucks had the ethical ideal of the good society in mind. This is almost the language of fraternity, solidarity – and love of society. How on earth is this possible, do they not want to be competitive, drive their competitors out of the market? Or … is this exactly what their responsibility strategy aims for? Do consumers love a company like this. So being responsible actually generates more profits?

Indeed, it was not just about setting abstract ethical goals, it is definitely more. Ambitions should be implemented into the business. ‘We had a vision that by 2015, we could fundamentally transform the way our company approaches corporate social responsibility (CSR) and imprint these values into our business.’ Again, talk about values sounds quite radical to Martians who think that a corporation must strive to maximize its shareholder-value. Here, a corporation seems to be a moral agent; with a vision on corporate social responsibility to realize the ideal of the good society. This kind of moral responsibility comes close to love, to Venus – Mars’ arch-enemy. But can such a soft approach be successfully put into practice? Martians are well aware that a vision is one thing, putting it into practice throughout the whole company quite another. Did Starbucks succeed?

It appeared that Starbucks struggled with little success to imprint the professed responsibility values into its tax business. In October 2012 Reuters reported that Starbucks as a result had paid virtually no U.K. company tax since it started to operate in the United Kingdom in 1998, for it had claimed losses in 14 of the 15 preceding years. This is quite remarkable for Starbucks had a 31 percent market share and its shareholder reports indicated solid profitability for the Starbucks group attributable to its UK operations. This news unleashed a political firestorm and public outcry, including demonstrations and threats of consumer strikes of UK Starbucks stores. Within a month the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts convened a hearing during which Starbucks and other companies were questioned about their tax behaviour in the UK. Martians especially liked the way Margaret Hodge grilled these companies. But though they think that war is the real thing, they understood why Starbucks did not fight back. It was consistent in its soft, value-based approach. Starbucks’s CFO Troy Alstead Committee of the UK House of Commons confirmed one of basic values of CSR: ‘We believe very strongly in transparency — with the Committee, with tax authorities around the world, and with consumers.’


Kris Engskov, director of the British part of this American company, tells us in an open letter on the website that, ‘the most important asset that we have built in our time in the UK is trust – trust with our employees, customers and the wider society in which we operate. We fundamentally believe that acting responsibly and listening to our customers makes good business sense.’ Starbucks actually showed awareness that CSR demands behaviour beyond the letter of the law. Its website states that while Starbucks has always paid taxes ‘to the letter of the law, we know that to retain public trust we need to do more’. As a result, in December 2012 Starbucks announced it would voluntarily pay more tax in the UK. The payment would involve approximately £ 10 million (€ 12 million) per year. To Martians taxes amount to slavery, so they fully understand that a company wants to minimize its tax payments, and chooses to pay to the letter of the law. Just not running afoul of the laws of any jurisdiction, that will do. But why pay more? Why voluntarily go beyond the letter of the law? That’s for somebody who loves to pay taxes. That’s just like they do on Venus.

However, Starbucks seems to drift about. Although its promise might seem to show Starbucks’s readiness to incorporate CSR values to its tax strategy, just months later the company launched an offensive to protect and expand tax breaks on foreign profits in the United States. The multinational company lobbied the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee for a special regime that would permanently allow its strategies for generating ‘stateless income.’ Does this lobbing really show corporate social responsibility? It rather shows that Starbucks tax strategy is not CSR proof.

So both Starbucks and Martians seem to be puzzled about the relationship between taxes and community. Let’s therefore try to go beyond the Mars and Venus dichotomy. The why of taxes is related to the question to whom one pays taxes. Taxes are payments to the state, but what for? Taxes are payments to the state on behalf of society. They are funding for government and public services. Taxes enable government to support and enhance society by providing all kind of public goods. Think of defense, justice, infrastructure, healthcare, education. And of course the free market system, for the state and the legal system lay the foundations for a functioning market economy. Without legal institutions, property would not be secure and markets could not exist. Moreover, in order to be competitive and profitable companies rely on government to boost innovation, encourage investment, enhance worker productivity, raise production standards, and foster the efficient use of scarce resources. Many tax systems contain R&D incentives.

These institutions and public goods are funded by taxes, by citizens who pay for the advancement of society. Indeed, without taxes market, society and communities could not thrive. As Thomas Piketty says ‘Without taxes, society has no common destiny, and collective action is impossible.’

Companies contribute goods and services to society. They are members of society and also depend on other members doing their share. Paying taxes is a vital part of this reciprocal relationship. Business depends on public goods paid for by taxpayers and it therefore should contribute its share.

This goes all the more for CSR companies. These companies acknowledge several obligations towards society, viz. economic obligations, legal and ethical obligations. They accept duties that are not required by law; they go voluntarily beyond the letter of the law. In short, a CSR company like Starbucks is part of society, a corporate citizen, and engages with other citizens. This view must have tax consequences. A company that takes its social responsibility seriously should extend this responsibility so as to include taxation. This means going beyond the letter of the tax law. To engage with community cannot be not a matter of manipulating the (international) tax rules in order to minimize one’s tax liability. For the result of aggressive tax planning is to rob society of its much needed financial resources.

Nonetheless, nobody demands Starbucks to love paying taxes, for taxes are costs. There is no need to explain this to society. And to plan and structure one’s affairs to achieve a favourable tax treatment within the limits set by law, is a well known taxpayer’s right. But the exercise of this right becomes less legitimate when it boils down to exploiting the inevitably imperfect tax rules, mismatches and loopholes in order to avoid contributing to society at all or to a bare minimum. To my mind, companies endorsing CSR should balance their right to structure their affairs in a tax favourable way with the obligation to accept the inevitable imperfections of the legal system. In the end, engaging in tax planning in a socially responsible manner is a matter of enlightened self interest. And it comes from neither Mars nor Venus.

A summary of 2016

Before we begin 2017, we would like to take a moment to summarize the variety of activities the Cambridge Tax Discussion Group have undertaken in 2016.

Meetings: We hosted 35 weekly meetings with pauses during winter, spring and summer break. We also managed to enjoy a few meetings outside such as in the Christ’s Fellows gardens during the summer months.


Socials: We hosted a variety of formal and informal socials including our first annual  garden party. An updated list of past and future events can be found here

Alfred, May and Chris enjoying Christ’s May Ball
Chris, May and Matteo enjoying the Cambridge Union garden party

Speakers: Our weekly meetings brought a diverse mix of speakers who made up a third of our weekly meetings.  Some of our speakers and guests in 2016 included: 1)Tarrant Green – Tarrant Green & Co Chartered Accountants, 2) Robert Wardrop – Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance, 3) Garrick Hileman – Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance, 4) Martin Hearson – LSE, 5) Rodrigo Ormeno-Perez – University of Birmingham, 6) Geoff Meeks – Judge Business School, 7) Jonathan Zenios – Z Investment Partners, 8) Peter Allen – ICAEW , 8) Sol Picciotto – Lancaster University, 9) John Magyar – Faculty of Law, St Edmunds College, 10) Travers Smith, 11) Samanta Padalino – Centre for Science and Policy, and 12) Pete Miller – The Miller Partnership

If you have a mild interest in tax and are in Cambridge, or passing through London, please do consider attending our weekly talks. Do reach out to us as we really enjoy engaging with and learning from outside speakers!

Extracurricular: Members of our tax discussion group travelled around the country and continent to various tax-related events, (sometimes stimulating discussion on tax-related phenomena into non-tax events) and presented work that was discussed and developed during meetings.

Matteo and Chris (along with a few others from Cambridge.tax) en route to the Institute for Fiscal Studies “BEPS and Beyond” conference in London April 18, 2016


We hope to continue on with an interesting mix of speakers and events for 2017 and look forward to what this year will bring to the world of tax.