Martin Hannan: Not too taxing to make firms pay

Gary Barlow. Pic: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images
Gary Barlow. Pic: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images
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Down in deepest, darkest Fountainbridge you will find one of the more interesting storehouses of information in this city.

It’s called Companies House, and you’ll find its information centre on the fourth floor of the Edinburgh Quay 2 building.

Inside the centre and online you can find out information about every company registered in Scotland and their directors.

I don’t really know what directors actually do on a daily basis, but this I do know – a lot of directors in the UK are involved in what can only be described as cheating the taxman.

Pop singer turned national treasure Gary Barlow and two other members of Take That were recently found by the courts to have used a tax avoidance scheme which saved them millions.

Barlow and Co will have to pay that money as the courts have now declared their tax avoidance scheme to be illegal, but across this country there are company directors who excel at tax avoidance.

The fact is that as directors, their first and main duty is to their company. Under sections 171 to 177 of the Companies Act 2006, directors must “promote the success of the company” for “the benefit of its members as a whole.”

In exercising their duties, directors are specifically told in the Act that they should have regard to “the impact of the company’s operations on the community,” and “the desirability of the company maintaining a reputation for high standards of business conduct.”

In reality, and I have heard this from many of them, company directors interpret the law as saying that they must always act in the interests of their shareholders first.

Forget the “community”, forget “high standards of business conduct,” when it comes to making a profit and keeping as much of it in the company’s hands as possible, some directors will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid paying tax, and since they must fulfil their prime duty to shareholders, company directors can legitimately claim that they are acting as directors must by avoiding tax.

The problem for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is that much tax avoidance is perfectly legal – sneaky, nasty and bad for society, but all legal.

Having myself just reached an agreement with HMRC, whose employees I have always found to be thoroughly professional, to pay a small amount of back taxes that I owe, I can say that process of paying tax on self-employment earnings, while painful, is fairly straightforward.

It should surely be just as easy for companies to settle their tax affairs timeously and in full. Yet we repeatedly learn of companies, big and small, who are able to cut their various tax bills. According to HMRC on its website, the total lost to the public purse runs into billions of pounds.

The fundamental problem is the Companies Act. As long as it can be interpreted as saying that a director’s first duty is to shareholders, then the act is flawed.

The government should bring in a new law stating that a director’s first duty is to ensure that a company must operate to the highest moral standards, and that includes paying full taxes. But that would involve this coalition government in acting against the rich when we all know they prefer to make war on the poor.

First up Lawrie, now for Eddie

The many fans of the late Lawrie Reilly, above, will rejoice that his name will soon adorn a new street near Easter Road.

The planning committee threw out a useless tradition when it decided to ignore the rule that someone had to be dead for ten years before a street in Edinburgh could be named after them.

So now that silly rule is in the bucket, let’s hear it for Eddie Turnbull Street. It’s been three years since the great Eddie passed away, and naming a street in his honour is the least Edinburgh can do to mark this Hibs legend’s achievements.

For reasons that they will know, however, not many Hearts fans will want to live at number 7 or 70 Eddie Turnbull Street.

Bridge looking spick and span

The Queensferry Crossing is slowly but surely taking shape, and I have to say that the view from the Forth Road Bridge of the first section moving out over the river is simply stunning. The three towers have also emerged from the water and look wonderful.

I still say that we should have built a tunnel, as it would have been cheaper in the long run and tunnels don’t close in high winds, but I am prepared to accept that the new bridge is going to look spectacular. It’s also on time and on budget – now that is worth celebrating.

Consider harm statins can do

The recent fuss about statins and their possible side-effects will not be news to regular readers of this column. I have twice written about what they did to me – drove me barmy, basically – and even though I’m sure they do plenty good, there must be more consideration of what harm statins can do before they are prescribed to healthy people.