'Housing is a right, tax-dodging is wrong,' read a banner outside the Oxford Street branch of Vodafone on Saturday. UK Uncut had organised a day of action in cities around the UK. Vodafone recently reported a post-tax profit of £59.4 billion for the year to March. For the third year in a row the company has paid no corporation tax; in 2010 HMRC wrote off a £6 billion tax bill. Meanwhile, the government says it can't afford not to make cuts to social housing.
The protest took the form of a housewarming party. There were balloons, music and fizzy drinks outside the shop; inside, a few people behind a half-lowered shutter. Three women, a toddler and a man in a wheelchair had managed to get in there early. The protesters at the door had a minor scrap with the staff, then chatted to the police. An activist in a Gary Barlow mask explained the amount allegedly owed by Vodafone. One of the officers asked him: 'Yeah, but have you done your own investigation?'
The investigation that started the first wave of protests in 2010 uncovered a 'sweetheart deal' between Vodafone and HMRC. The then chief tax collector Dave Hartnett was criticised by the Public Accounts Committee for letting the company off with paying only £1.25 billion after litigation that lasted nearly a decade. A report by the National Audit Office concluded that the deal was 'reasonable', if not fully in line with HMRC's policies. All parties agreed that the issue was highly complicated – a point Vodafone insists on.
The latest figures need some unpicking too. One reason for the apparent disparity between profits made and taxes paid is a tax break peculiar to Luxembourg which, according to Reuters, 'lets companies cut their income taxes using costs that they haven't actually borne'. Another is that Vodafone's sale of its stake in the US operator Verizon Wireless, which brought it £84 billion last year, was not liable for UK capital gains tax. Even if it had been, the deal would qualify for the substantial shareholdings exemption introduced in the 2002 Finance Act to encourage capital investment in the UK. Vodafone talks about its 'huge investments' here and says its profits are a 'small fraction' of the revenue. UK Uncut is planning a series of further demonstrations on the question of corporate social responsibility in the run-up to Vodafone's AGM next month.
'If you want to use our police pay your tax,' the crowd in Oxford Street chanted, telling everyone around that Vodafone owed the British public a lot of money. 'I don't understand how that's possible,' a passer-by said. 'Me neither,' replied a man with 'I pay more tax than Vodafone' written on his back. Other posters mentioned the 1.6 million households on waiting lists for social housing, and the 30,000 people forced out of their homes because of the government's cuts. Eventually the group inside the shop joined everyone on the pavement. The women were from Focus E15 Mothers, social housing campaigners from East London. They are organising a march for 'Our Right to Decent Housing' on 5 July.
When the staff closed the shutter, one of the women complained about 'the heavies' pushing her. 'For the first time in my life,' she said, 'I want to say thank you to the police.' The same officer tried to persuade the protesters to move on, but got nowhere. The man in the Gary Barlow mask expounded further on Vodafone's liabilities. 'Yeah, but is it your personal opinion,' the policeman interjected, 'or is it like a fact?'