Uber, like everyone else, must pay the right amount of tax.
Last year the Employment Tribunal held that Uber was supplying transportation services. If Uber is supplying transportation services, it should be charging 20% VAT on all its fares and paying that money over to HMRC: tens or hundreds of millions of pounds every year. But it wasn't last year and it isn't now. And if Uber is liable to VAT it will also owe substantial amounts of unpaid VAT from the past - both to HMRC and to other tax authorities throughout the EU.
There is a public interest in ensuring that, in particular, big and powerful taxpayers pay the tax they owe. If we don't believe others are made to pay their taxes it undermines our willingness to pay ours. Why would we if we think they don't?
There is also a perception that HMRC has one rule for big corporations and another rule for everyone else.
We don't know much about the private conversations that take place between HMRC and the most powerful taxpayers. Neither side wants us to. But from what we can see it looks as though the amounts of tax that Google and Apple pay in the UK are unaccountably lower than what they pay in smaller markets on the Continent. We know that the French Finance Minister accused HMRC of doing a sweetheart deal with Google. We know HMRC brings thousands of prosecutions of the poor who over-claim benefits but has, historically, been enormously reluctant to prosecute the wealthy who evade tax offshore. We know HMRC ran semi-permanent tax amnesties on evaded foreign taxes that appalled a senior UK judge. We know HMRC went out of its way to provide political cover for the artificial tax planning arrangements adopted by the likes of Facebook and Amazon – even going so far as to excuse them as “not tax avoidance.”
These are reasonable grounds for public interest. But there’s no way of understanding what's going on. Call up HMRC and you’re told customer confidentiality means they can’t discuss the matter. The Public Accounts Committee has no greater luck. Politicians and senior HMRC executives do not seem to want meaningful change. And some taxpayers – or in many cases non-taxpayers – offer, instead of transparency, a cocktail of evasion and untruth.
All of this damages trust in Government and in the establishment. And, if you care about the future of our country, this should worry you hugely.
The Good Law Project has taken advice from a Queen's Counsel, George Peretz QC, and a junior, Brendan McGurk, both of whom practice in the field of VAT law. And it has instructed Edwin Coe LLP. We cannot disclose that advice but you can read why our Director, Jo Maugham QC, thinks Uber is liable to charge VAT here (https://waitingfortax.com/2016/12/20/thats-one-uber-vat-problem/).
Last week, our Director, Jo Maugham QC, took an Uber from his office to meet a client. The law gives him a right to a VAT receipt for that journey. But Uber can't give him a VAT receipt without accepting it is liable to charge VAT. And it says it isn't. And so Jo intends to sue Uber in the High Court to force it to give him his receipt. If he wins it is very difficult to see how Uber can avoid charging VAT on all Uber rides in the UK and, quite possibly, elsewhere throughout the EU.
It is impossible to know what the litigation will cost. It will depend upon what Uber says and what the High Court says. But our initial target of £75,000 will cover the bulk of our costs of bringing the case in the High Court. Our lawyers are all acting at considerably below market rate. But we are likely to need to raise a further sum both for additional legal expenses and to ensure that, because Jo Maugham has no private interest in the litigation, he is not personally exposed to the costs of losing.
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