From The Times edition of 8th November
Labour-run councils in £12m tax avoidance
Labour councils are using offshore companies to avoid paying millions of pounds in tax, The Times can reveal.
Jeremy Corbyn was accused of hypocrisy yesterday after an investigation found that two authorities controlled by his party avoided paying more than £12 million in stamp duty on the purchase of commercial properties.
On Monday Mr Corbyn hinted that the Queen should apologise if the offshore investment of £10 million of her personal wealth — as revealed in the leaked Paradise Papers — was designed to avoid tax. Yet in May Sefton council in Merseyside bought the New Strand shopping centre in Bootle via a Luxembourg-registered company for £32.5 million, saving £1.6 million in stamp duty. The council also bought insurance against the possibility that the taxman might chase it for payment.
In July Warrington council agreed to pay more than £200 million for Birchwood Park, a business centre in Cheshire, via an offshore company, saving almost £10.5 million in stamp duty. By agreeing to the purchases, the councils may also have helped the sellers to avoid capital gains tax.
In June John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, said that corporations were “morally obscene” for ducking out of obligations that “the rest of us fulfil”. Such action “corrodes the functioning of democracy”, he added.
An email seen by The Times from the Labour leader of Sefton council confirmed that the structure of its purchase of the Bootle shopping centre helped to avoid tax. It said: “It is true that one of the important considerations for purchasing the company rather than the asset is that the council would not have to pay stamp duty land tax. This is a widely accepted tax-efficient way of completing the purchase.”
In 2013 George Osborne introduced a levy to stop residential property being held in offshore companies, describing the practice as an abuse of the tax system. It was not extended to commercial property, however, leaving owners of business parks and shopping centres free to hold these assets in companies registered in low-tax jurisdictions, a structure that facilitates the avoidance of corporation and capital gains tax and stamp duty.
Sir Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said yesterday: “The Labour leadership has spoken loudly about stamping out tax avoidance yet Labour-run local authorities have avoided stamp duty through complicated tax structures when speculating in commercial property. The . . . stance appears somewhat hypocritical until they have their own house in order.”
Sefton council, which borrowed money from the Treasury to fund the purchase, declined last night to reveal how much it had paid its tax advisers on the transaction. One of the advisers is understood to be PWC, the accountancy firm that Labour has previously accused of “complicity in tax avoidance”.
There is no suggestion that the structure is illegal and yesterday the council insisted that it had not intended to avoid stamp duty. A spokesman said that the vendor was willing to sell only the holding company that owned the shopping centre rather than the shopping centre itself, giving it no choice but to avoid the tax. He added that it had unwound the offshore structure.
John Pugh, the former Lib Dem MP for Southport who is now a councillor at Sefton, said: “No one has to speculatively buy a shopping centre or take advantage of a tax loophole in doing so. For a Labour council to do so in considerable secrecy looks utterly hypocritical.”
In a letter to Warrington council Helen Jones, Labour MP for Warrington North, said that using an offshore structure was “morally questionable [and] contrary to Labour policy”. She wrote that Labour councillors believe the cash is “better in the borough’s pocket than the government’s” but no one should decide not to pay tax because they disliked the party in power.
Sefton council said: “We paid all the tax due and will continue to do so. The council bought the company that owned the asset as this was the corporate structure that was marketed for sale. We acquired the shopping centre primarily to deliver a new revenue stream to help pay for vital services that have been reduced as a result of government cuts. The purchase also supports regeneration in Bootle.”
Warrington council, which still holds Birchwood Park in an offshore company, said: “The only tax not being paid . . . is a one-off payment of stamp duty land tax. This position was discussed in detail and followed extensive due diligence and external advice to the council. To complete the acquisition in a timely manner the council agreed to leave the business offshore as trying to complete the deal and bring it onshore would have delayed the purchase.”
Labour said: “We’re committed to changing the current tax environment and to tackling tax avoidance.”