PriceWaterhouseCoopers chief Kevin Nicholson denies lying over tax deals
Nicholson stands by previous testimony to MPs, as accountants are accused of mass-marketing tax avoidance schemes
The head of tax at one of the UK’s top accounting groups was accused of lying to parliament about his firm’s role in devising controversial tax deals for clients in Luxembourg.
Kevin Nicholson, PwC UK’s head of tax, who worked as an HM Revenue and Customs tax inspector in the early 1990s, was in front of the Commons public accounts committee for the second time in two years, following last month’s revelations of aggressive tax avoidance by PwC clients published by the Guardian and more than 20 other international news outlets.
In a series of fractious exchanges on Monday, the committee’s chair, the Labour MP Margaret Hodge, said: “We’ve asked you to come back to see us because we’ve reflected on the evidence that you gave us on 31 January 2013, and tried to relate that to the revelations around the Luxembourg leaks that have been in the press. I think I have a very simple question for you: did you lie when you gave evidence to us?”
Nicholson responded: “I didn’t lie and stand by what I said.”
Hodge’s anger stemmed from Nicholson’s previous evidence that PwC did not “mass market” tax products or sell tax avoidance “schemes” to clients, when set against the new evidence of 548 letters – relating to 343 companies – showing how PwC wrote to Luxembourg tax authorities to agree on how their clients structured their businesses for tax purposes.
“It’s very hard for me to understand that this is anything other than a mass-marketed tax avoidance scheme,” Hodge said. “I think there are three ways in which you lied and I think what you are doing is selling tax avoidance on an industrial scale.”
Nicholson again denied that the tax services sold by PwC were mass-marketed schemes and said that around 80 of the Luxembourg rulings related to UK companies, which were all distinct and had been disclosed to HMRC.
He said: “At the heart of the Luxembourg economy now is an economy that is based around businesses going there to finance [and] to hold investments. The tax structure, the system that they have created, facilitates that happening, along with all the other infrastructure. I’m not here to change the Lux tax regime. If you want to change the Lux tax regime, the politicians could change the Lux tax regime.”
Last month’s analyses of the way multinational companies establish businesses in Luxembourg were based on a leaked cache of hundreds of tax rulings secured by PwC Luxembourg that showed major companies – including drugs group Shire Pharmaceuticals and vacuum cleaner firm Dyson – using complex webs of internal loans and interest payments, which have greatly reduced tax bills.
The exposure of these arrangements – signed off by the grand duchy and all perfectly legal – have triggered an emergency debate in the European parliament focusing on the track record of the new European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, who had dominated Luxembourg politics as prime minister between 1995 and 2013. Juncker has sought to brush aside criticisms, insisting: “I am not the architect of the Luxembourg model because this model doesn’t exist.” However, Hodge added: “Since I have uncovered all this, I have questions about if Mr Juncker is fit to be the president of the European commission. I think if this had been around during the period of his appointment, it might well be a different decision.”
Appearing alongside Nicholson was Shire’s head of tax, Fearghus Carruthers, who explained how the group had two full-time employees in Luxembourg, who earn a total of €135,000 (£106,200) a year and handle intra-company loans of around $10bn (£6.4bn).
Hodge said: “It is stretching our credulity in suggesting to us that these two employees, who are also directors of umpteen other companies, are seriously the guys taking the decisions on loans totalling $10bn. Let me put this to you, Mr Carruthers, because it is a very serious matter, because if the decisions in substance aren’t taken in Luxembourg, this isn’t just avoidance; for me, it’s fraud.”
Carruthers responded: “Madam chair, I can assure you that the decision-making in respect of that Luxembourg company is made in Luxembourg.”
The executive was also repeatedly asked to explain the commercial rationale behind Shire establishing companies in Luxembourg and his answers included: “The commercial purpose is to allow us to have a treasury operation in Luxembourg which finances our activities”; and “the commercial purpose is for us to reinvest our cash appropriately and efficiently.”
When asked what Shire could do more efficiently in Luxembourg, Carruthers said: “It is not necessarily a question of comparative efficiency, we could have this lending in and lending out in all sorts of other jurisdictions. It’s just a good location.”
Well-known buyout firms such as Blackstone and Carlyle also appeared in the leaked documents, and Luxembourg investment vehicles are commonplace in such investment firms. A 2008 joint venture between private equity group Apax Partners and Guardian Media Group, which owns the Guardian, used a Luxembourg structure after it invested in the magazine and events group Emap, now called Top Right.
When the leaked documents were published, a GMG spokesman said: “We partnered with a private equity company which regularly used such structures. A Luxembourg entity was used because Apax already had that structure in place. The fact that the parent company is a Luxembourg company does not give rise to any UK corporation tax savings for GMG.”
Last year, PwC made revenues of £2.81bn, of which £714m came from its tax advisory practice. PwC Luxembourg had turnover of €276m for the year to June 2013, up more than 12% on the previous 12 months. Tax advice accounted for 29% of revenues, up from 24% two years ago. The Luxembourg partnership employs about 2,300 staff – equivalent to one in every 240 people resident in the small country. New offices for the fast-growing practice were officially opened last week at a ceremony attended by the duchy’s prime minister, Xavier Bettel.