In contrast to the UK, reports by various US Senate committees have been critical of the predatory practices of the major accountancy firms (for examples, see here, here and here). KPMG was fined $456m (£284m) for facilitating tax evasion and a number of its former personnel have been sent to prison, as have some of the former personnel of Ernst & Young.
Now the public accounts committee (PAC) chair Margaret Hodge has PricewaterhouseCoopers PwC, Ernst & Young, KPMG and Deloitte in her sights. The PAC should investigate the role of these firms in organised tax avoidance. An earlier internal HMRC study estimated that these four firms "were behind almost half of all known avoidance schemes".
Some of the evidence about their predatory practices is on the public record. In November 2012, a tax tribunal threw out an Ernst & Young inspired scheme that enabled Iliffe News and Media to create a new asset – newspaper mastheads. This asset was created for a nominal sum of £1. It was leased back to its subsidiaries who paid the parent company over £51m in royalties and thus reported lower profits. No cash left the group but the companies now sought tax relief on royalty payments to reduce their corporation tax bill. The company's board minutes stated that Ernst & Young, who audited the company's financial statements as well, confirmed that the use of the scheme would also "significantly lessen the transparency of reported results".
PricewaterhouseCoopers devised a scheme to enable a rich entrepreneur to avoid capital gains tax on profits of £10.7m. A tax tribunal heard that the scheme involved a series of circular and self-cancelling transactions resulting in the creation of assets and disposals which somehow managed to generate a loss of £11m and thus cancelled out the profit. The scheme was thrown out by a tribunal, and in August 2012 by the court of appeal. The presiding judge said that "there was no asset and no disposal. There was no real loss". This scheme was sold to 200 entrepreneurs and if successful, would have enabled them to avoid capital gains tax on profits of around £1bn.
KPMG devised a scheme for an amusement arcade company to avoid paying VAT on its operations. The scheme was not developed in response to any request from the company; KPMG cold called the company. Its presentations were subject to a confidentiality undertaking being given. A 16-page report cited by the tribunal said that by using Channel Islands entities, the company's profits could improve by £4.2mn. KPMG charged £75,000 plus VAT for an evaluation report and counsel's opinion, and a fee of 25% of the first year's VAT avoided, 15% of the second and 5% of the next three year's VAT avoided. KPMG felt that the UK tax authorities would regard the scheme as "unacceptable tax avoidance" and would challenge the arrangements, but still sold it. The case subsequently went to the high court and the European court of justice and the scheme was quashed.
We are all suffering from the bankers' follies. But Deloitte devised a scheme to enable bankers to avoid income tax and national insurance contributions on £91m of bonuses. More than 300 bankers participated in the scheme, which operated through a Cayman Islands-registered investment vehicle. A tax tribunal threw out the scheme and the presiding judge said that "the scheme as a whole, and each aspect of it, was created and coordinated purely for tax avoidance purposes".
The above only provides a tiny glimpse of the predatory practices of major accountancy firms. They create sham transactions, phoney losses and phantom assets to enable their clients to dodge taxes. Despite the evidence, no accountancy firm has ever been disciplined by any professional accountancy body. Despite spending millions of pounds to quash predatory schemes, the UK Treasury has never sought to recover the legal costs from the promoters of the schemes. Instead, the big accountancy firms continue to receive taxpayer funded contracts.
No government will be able to effectively tackle tax avoidance without shackling the designers and enablers. It is hoped that the public accounts committee will investigate the role of the big accountancy firms in tax avoidance.
PS. Some years ago I had contact with Professor Prem Sikka. He expressed interest in my evolving project of Transfinancial Economics saying essentially that it needs to be known to as many people as possible.