Tuesday, 29 October 2013


If you were looking for a classic bit of spin, then David Cameron’s promise to reduce or remove the so called ‘Green levies and subsidies’ of energy bills comes close to being it. This is classic misdirection, it makes DC look good, and distracts people’s attention away from the recently agreed guaranteed (and well above the market rate) energy price for the planned nuclear plants, something that should permanently skew the alleged ‘free market’ for energy.

It also effectively ignores the excessive profits that have been generated by the ‘big 6’ a situation that has been aggravated by a lack of effective regulation. One way of the other we are all paying the price for effectively having a pretty much unregulated energy market. This is one of the legacies of the last Labour government, who spent 13 years in office sitting back and watching this situation develop. 

Excessive profits and Tax evasion - surely not?
The ‘big 6’ energy cartel members, coincidentally ramp up the energy bills as our winter approaches, yet this is only part of the ‘corrupt’ legacy that surrounds the few remaining energy giants. The independent on Sunday (27.10.2013) and Corporate Watch (a not-for-profit research group) have revealed that more than 30 UK companies have cut their taxable profits by racking up interest on debt from their owners.

This minimises or in some cases entirely wipes out their UK corporation tax bill.  As most of the owners are based abroad, 20 per cent of the interest payments would usually have to be sent straight to HMRC, minimising the overall saving. As a result of swift footwork by the accountants, the money is lent via offshore stock exchanges this means that it qualifies for a regulatory loophole called the "quoted Eurobond exemption", no tax is withheld.

Scotia Gas, 50 per cent of which is owned by SSE, the energy giant which is about to put its prices up by more than 8 per cent, has avoided an estimated £72.5 million pounds in tax. UK Power Networks and Electricity North West, responsible for running large sections of Britain's electricity network, have both saved more than £30m. Scotia Gas is the second-largest gas distribution firm in the UK, serving 5.8 million people in Scotland and in the South and South-east of England.

Half of it is owned by SSE, the rest is owned by the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System and the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan. After they bought the networks from National Grid Plc in 2005, the new owners lent the majority of their money – about £530m at a 12.5 per cent interest rate – through the Channel Islands Stock Exchange rather than investing it in shares in the company.

Scotia has since paid interest of £537.3 million pounds on these loans. The £268.7 million pounds  of this that went to the Ontario pension funds cost the UK an estimated £72.5 million pounds in tax revenues. SSE Plc pays full UK corporation tax on the interest it receives as it is based in the UK but will have signed off the scheme.

More than 30,000 people contacted the Citizens Advice Bureau in the 13 days after SSE started the latest round of price hikes. It announced its increase on 10th October and was quickly followed by British Gas, Npower and Co-operative Energy. The massive rise in those contacting the charity represents a 55 per cent increase on the number of consumers normally seeking advice about the best power deals.

The Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan also owns National Lottery operator Camelot and Bristol Airport, both revealed to be using the tax-avoidance scheme last week. It is among several foreign pension funds investing through this legal loophole. Two of Britain's 14 privately run electricity networks – Electricity North West and UK Power Networks – also use the loophole.

A portion of every Briton's electricity bill payment is given to their local power network to pay for the running and maintaining of cables in their area. UK Power Networks, which owns and maintains power cables and lines for eight million people in London, the South-east and East of England, has avoided an estimated £38 million pounds since 2010 from paying £164.4 million pounds via the Cayman Islands to firms controlled by Li Ka-shing, a Hong Kong tycoon and Asia's richest man.

The Cheung Kong group also owns Northumbrian Water, among several water firms that use the quoted Eurobond exemption. Electricity North West owns and operates the region's electricity distribution network, connecting 2.4 million properties to the National Grid. It has avoided an estimated £30 million pounds in tax after sending £107.2 million pounds to its owners, JP Morgan Infrastructure Investments Fund and Colonial First State, since they bought it in 2007.

The Eurobond exemption was introduced in 1984 to encourage third-party investment into UK companies. But analysis of listings on the Channel Islands Stock Exchange and UK company accounts shows firms across the economy are using it to minimise tax bills by borrowing from their owners. More than £2 billion pounds a year has left the UK as interest payments to owners, avoiding an estimated £500 million pounds compared with if loan amounts had been invested in companies' shares.

Considering that other stock exchanges such as the Cayman Islands and Luxembourg also qualify for the exemption, the reality is that the total amount of tax being avoided is likely to be much higher. Incidentally HMRC, who are busy shedding jobs and cutting services to the bone, know that the exemption is being misused and even considered restricting it last year, but they backed down after lobbying from the financial industry. 

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