Many of Britain’s best-known high street chains are avoiding millions of pounds in tax through the controversial Eurobonds scheme.
Food chains including Nando’s, Pizza Express, Café Rouge, Strada and Pret A Manger have cut their taxable profits by borrowing from their owners through the Channel Islands Stock Exchange. High street retailers doing the same include BHS, the electronics retailer Maplin, Office and Pets At Home. The revelations form the third part of an investigation by Corporate Watch and The Independent into major UK companies using the quoted Eurobond exemption, a regulatory loophole the Government knows about but has decided not to close.
David Cameron is expected to be questioned today in Parliament about the scheme and HMRC’s failure to tackle it. Instead of putting their money in the shares of the companies they buy, the owners – mostly private equity funds – lend it instead. The interest on the loans cuts the UK companies’ taxable income each year and the exemption – triggered because the loans are listed on the Channel Islands Stock Exchange – means the interest goes to the owners tax free. Without this loophole, HMRC could deduct a 20 per cent “withholding tax” from payments overseas and the overall tax saving would be greatly reduced. Yesterday The Independent reported how Camelot had avoided tax using this method and how HMRC was lobbied by financial firms to keep the loophole open.
Murray Worthy, a tax campaigner with War on Want, said: “This isn’t just a niche issue that’s being used by a handful of companies. We’ve seen how angry people are about the ease with which these companies can avoid paying their fair share, [and] the only reason this is happening is because of the influence of big business on the Government’s tax rules.” Gondola Group – which owns Pizza Express, Zizzi and Ask – has avoided as much as £77m in UK corporation tax since it was bought by the Cinven private equity fund in 2006. Cinven loaned Gondola more than £300m at a 12.5 per cent interest rate but only invested £8m in equity. Instead of receiving the interest payments on the loans every year, Cinven has allowed it to accrue on the debt, compounding the amount taken off Gondola’s profits every year. When Cinven sells the restaurants, which it is reportedly considering, it can receive the £276.8m it is owed tax free.
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