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Houses Of Parliament

Even Google is sometimes lost without Google. “How much do you earn?” Meg Hillier, chair of the public accounts committee, demanded of Matt Brittin, president of Google Europe. “I don’t have that figure,” said Brittin, hurriedly reaching inside his pocket for his phone.

Hillier could not quite believe she had just met someone who did not even have a rough idea of how much he was paid. So she asked him again. By now Brittin was busy typing, “How much do I get paid?” into Google. A look of panic crossed his face when the search revealed no answer. “It’s a salary,” he said, playing for time. A large one. Google’s top exec got paid £138m last year, so let’s assume Brittin is on a wee bit less. £137m.

The hearing on Google’s tax affairs had not got off to the best of starts and relations became progressively frostier. Brittin has the look and manner of an over-enthusiastic second-hand car dealer: sharp suit, sharp tie and the sweetest of tongues. A man who doesn’t expect to be believed but never gives up hoping that, just this once, he might be; a man who has spent his life talking up the leather seats and walnut veneer while conveniently overlooking the missing steering wheel.

“Google is love, Google is good, Google is the enlightened one,” Brittin chanted. All he and Google had ever wanted was to help countries make their tax regimes fairer, and if part of that process was exploiting international loopholes, then so be it. “Worldwide, Google has paid 19% tax, which is about in line with the 20% rate of corporation tax in Britain.”

For some reason, the committee was not prepared to take these assertions on trust. Possibly because Google seemed to have gone out of its way to to make its tax affairs as impenetrable as possible. If Google was paying the going rate why had it not just filled in its annual self-assessment form like everyone else, rather than going to the effort of squirrelling from Britain to Ireland, from Ireland to the Netherlands and from the Netherlands to Bermuda? And from Bermuda into thin air.

It turned out there was a very good reason for channelling profits to Ireland. “In Ireland we have a range of people capable of speaking 140 different languages, which benefits our customers worldwide,” Brittin cooed. Who knew it was so difficult to find foreign language speakers in England? When Brittin types “linguistic capital of the world” into Google he gets Dublin as the answer. When anyone else does, they get references to the French cultural capital theorist, Pierre Bourdieu. That must be what Google refers to as the “Double Irish” tax avoidance scheme.

Brittin was less clear on the exact processes of the Dutch Sandwich and the Bermuda Triangle – other than they were designed to make money disappear out of sight – so he handed the hospital pass to his American sidekick, Tom Hutchinson, Google’s vice-president of finance. Hutchinson merely looked bemused. His job was to make sure the company paid as little tax as possible and he did it very well; if he ever gets fired by Google he would make a great small-town Albuquerque accountant in Better Call Saul.

Bermuda was a red herring, Hutchinson insisted. The Bermuda operation was merely to avoid paying US tax. It had nothing to do with avoiding UK tax. Phew. “Out of interest,” Hillier inquired. “How many people does Google employ in Bermuda?” “None,” said Hutchinson proudly.

That zero was one of the few figures Hutchinson was prepared to commit himself to in public. On everything else he was either very cagey or just not very good at maths. It even took him about 10 minutes to remember that £18m of the £130m Google had paid in back tax was interest.

“Were you embarrassed not to have been paying the right level of taxes?” asked Hillier.

Hutchinson could not believe his ears. “Are you kidding me?” he might have snapped. “I was thrilled. What kind of deadbeat accountant do you take me for? One that gets his clients to pay the full whack?”

Labour’s Caroline Flint turned her attention back to Brittin. “Over the past five years, Google has enjoyed more than 20 meetings with government ministers,” she said. “Did the question of tax ever come up at these meetings?” Brittin’s amnesia took hold. He couldn’t really remember for sure but supposed it must have done. In that case, Flint added, could he provide the written account of these meetings that had been sent back to head office? Fraid not. They had completely forgotten to keep written records. Silly them.

Brittin and Hutchinson began to look bored. They had let the committee have their 90 minutes’ grandstanding – without the presence of rotty-in-chief Stephen Phillips, who was abroad, the questioning was less focused and forensic – as it was they were keen to get back to their day jobs of making money and not paying tax on it. Conservative Richard Bacon had one last question.

“Your negotiations with HMRC went on for six years,” he observed. “Did it take so long because Google is very bad at explaining or because HMRC is very bad at understanding?”

Part of the answer was immediately provided by the next witness. Enter Lin Homer, aka Dame Disaster, head of HMRC. Dame Disaster spent the first five minutes answering a question she had not been asked and the next five explaining why she was not a tax expert. Google 8, HMRC 0. Referee stopped fight.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by John Crace, for The Guardian on Thursday 11th February 2016 16.34 Europe/London

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