The Paradise Papers show accountancy firms are engaged in wilful and organised hypocrisy

Major accountancy firms are key players in tax avoidance -- but at the same time publicly claim to have "high moral standards". This myth must be quashed.

The revelations from the Paradise Papers once again show the visible hand of big accountancy firms in tax avoidance. The information should blow away the cobwebs about the claims that accountancy firms are ethical or serve the public interest.

Accountancy firms, central to tax avoidance exposed in the Paradise Papers, engage in organised hypocrisy — where the firms’ slick public relations do not match their actual practices.

Let’s start with two of the largest firms. The Paradise Papers show that PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and Deloitte are both implicated in crafting schemes to enable Blackstone to reduce its UK tax liability.

PwC were also central to the avoidance schemes revealed by the Luxembourg Leaks. Ernst & Young enabled Formula One auto racing star Lewis Hamilton to avoid VAT on his private jet. KPMG advised a Canadian tout who avoided paying UK tax on his lucrative sales.

Big accounting firms have a long history of profiting from tax avoidance. In 2003, a US Senate Committee investigation concluded that:

“Respected professional firms are spending substantial resources, forming alliances, and developing the internal and external infrastructure necessary to design, market, and implement hundreds of complex tax shelters, some of which are illegal.”

The committee continued: “they are now big business, assigned to talented professionals at the top of their fields and able to draw upon the vast resources and reputations of the country’s largest accounting firms.”

In 2013, the UK House of Commons Public Accounts Committee held an inquiry into tax avoidance promoted by the big accounting firms. Its chair said:

“I have talked to somebody who works in PwC, and what they say is that you will approve a tax product if there is a 25% chance—a one-in-four chance—of it being upheld.”

Continuing: “that means that you are offering schemes to your clients—knowingly marketing these schemes—where you have judged there is a 75% risk of it then being deemed unlawful”. Partners of other firms admitted to having a threshold of 50%.”

Just think about it. What would be the consequences if producers of food, medicine, water and other things imitated the standards of big accounting firms and knowingly sold goods and services which knew were substantially unlawful.

Regulators and governments would leap to action, at least one hopes so, but they have done little to check the predatory practices of the firms.

Instead of curbing their predatory practices, the firms seek to disarm critics with mantras of integrity, ethics and social responsibility.

PwC’s website claims that the firm’s “high standards of ethical behaviour, are fundamental to everything we do … We are willing to walk away from engagements and clients if our independence, integrity, objectivity, or professionalism could be called into question if we continued”.

Deloitte claims that “Integrity and ethical behaviour are central to maintaining our reputation”. Ernst & Young boldly states that “We reject unethical or illegal business practices in all circumstances … We are alert for personal and professional conflicts of interest”.  Whilst KPMG boasts “high ethical principles”.

The above claims cannot easily be reconciled with the actual practices of the Big Four firms. No one has been able to find even one line amongst the millions of pages leaked by Paradise Papers or any other leak in which accounting firms ever considered ethics, social responsibility or the impact of their trade on the rest of the society.

The firms are engaged in organised hypocrisy. They manage external pressures with claims of ethical behaviour and social responsibility, but internal processes cannot be aligned with such claims.

Internally, staff are trained to design and sell tax avoidance schemes. Audit clients are often targeted. Tax departments and staff are assigned revenues and profit generating targets.

Those failing to meet their targets are disciplined whilst those meeting the targets are rewarded with promotions and salary increments. Over a period of time, certain habits and practices become normalised and tax avoidance becomes just another part of daily organisational life.

Since internal routines cannot easily be reconciled with external pressures or public expectations, accountancy firms have adopted decoupled responses.

They publish high sounding statements of social responsibility whilst at the same time internal routines are geared to generating profits through tax avoidance.

The hypocrisy is not an accidental or unintentional outcome, but rather it is the intentional outcome of policies deliberately chosen and implemented by senior executives of the firms.

The tensions between internal and external responses are now regularly exposed by whistle blowers, court cases, media investigations and leaks such as the Paradise Papers.

The negative publicity and public anger lead to calls for retribution. The partners of the firms can respond by aligning organisational culture, goals, practices and mindsets of staff with social expectations, but they have shown little inclination to do so.

The firms have used their vast financial and political resources to stymie any serious reform and their lucrative tax avoidance business continues. Or maybe the Paradise Papers will finally spur politicians to long overdue reforms.

Prem Sikka is Professor of Accounting at University of Sheffield and Emeritus Professor of Accounting at University of Essex. He tweets here.

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10 Responses to “The Paradise Papers show accountancy firms are engaged in wilful and organised hypocrisy”

  1. patrick newman

    A Labour government should increase the risk of these companies being exposed by boosting the resources of HMRC investigation teams and ensure the consequences of aiding tax avoidance (to be redefined) and evasion are severe financially and personally on partners and directors, including lengthy jail sentences.

  2. nhsgp

    Accountants in the public sector are key players in screwing the public over.

    They claim adherence to IFRS standards but then omit the debts.

    MPs and the public sector workers involve need to be jailed for life, and all their assets confiscated.

    Why should they run up a 12.5 trillion pound debt and only report 1.5 trillion?

    Far worse than any tax avoidance which is legal.

    Evasion is another matter. That’s not on the scale the left would have people think. The left wants people to think there’s a magic money tree where someone else pays for their errors.

  3. nhsgp

    So should banks who helped Jews get their money out of Nazi Germany have had their workers jailed?

  4. Chester Draws

    Lewis Hamilton doesn’t reside in Britain. Why should you expect him to pay VAT in a country he doesn’t live? That is exactly what tax avoidance is — not paying tax you don’t have to.

    I have also had advice from an accountant about how to avoid paying tax when I changed my country of residence. Only an idiot wouldn’t. And I’m be pretty hosed off if my accountant decided, on my behalf, to have me pay more tax than I should.

  5. patrick newman

    Anonymous trolls! One can only imagine they are happy with the inequality and the unnecessarily high taxes most people have to pay! Avoidance is the same as evasion but awaiting smarter legislation. Why on earth would Hamilton buy an executive jet where he has to get a British VAT refund? You can figure that out for yourself!

  6. Will

    Should J Corbyn ever hold the reins, maybe he could alter all of the tax laws of this country making them far more simple and therefore becoming a lot less necessary to employ financial people. These financial parasites could then be employed in place of all the european workers who will leave Britain once the madness of Brexit finally happens. I, personally, would be very happy to see former accountants and such like picking fruit and cleaning hotel rooms for minimum wages on no hours contracts.

  7. Das

    The UK government has consistently been run to aid the wealthy, it’s fear of the wealthy go back a long way. A lot of this stems from the losses it incures from the secret trade tribunals which inevitably drives this fear. The UK government is also run and infested by people who know how what needs to be done to put this right but are refused the powers to implement it by a lot of single minded unprincipled and selfish ignoranouses that always takes the easy way and thinks nothing about taxing the defenceless poor to the tune of over 70% of their income because it’s ‘easy’, as opposed to less than 1% of the turnover of the rich because this is hard and complicated.

  8. Sajid

    This has been ongoing for many years, it will continue to increase unless new reforms and legislation are revised. Where will this leave the role of accounting firms if new tighter controls are bought in.

  9. Roy

    They know who butters their bread. It’s not as complicated as we are told it is. It has been going on for over fifty years that I have witnessed

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