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UK lawmakers criticize accounting firms on tax avoidance

Demonstrators protest outside a Starbucks coffee shop in central London December 8, 2012. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor
Demonstrators protest outside a Starbucks coffee shop in central London December 8, 2012. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

By Tom Bergin

LONDON (Reuters) - UK lawmakers criticized the role of accounting firms in helping big companies avoid paying tax and said in a report on Friday that close corporate relationships with government raised concerns about undue influence on tax policy.

Corporate tax avoidance has risen to the top of the political agenda in Britain in the past year following reports which showed some major companies paid little or no tax in the country by shifting profits to tax havens.

While the four biggest accounting firms, KPMG , Deloitte , Ernst & Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers said they no longer advised on aggressive tax avoidance plans, the Public Accounts Committee said: "They are still devising complex schemes that look artificial".

It went on to say the accounting firms were still prepared to recommend tax arrangements which had as little as a 50 percent chance of being successful if challenged in court.

The report also questioned the way staff from the "Big Four" were seconded to the government to help draft tax rules.

"The large accountancy firms are in a powerful position in the tax world and have an unhealthily cozy relationship with government," Committee chair Margaret Hodge said.

But the firms said they behaved ethically and that the complexity of tax law was largely to blame for any appearance to the contrary. They welcomed the committee's calls for the rules to be simplified.

"We perform an essential function in the UK economy by helping our clients navigate this complexity," Bill Dodwell, Head of Tax Policy at Deloitte said.

The committee called on companies to disclose more information about their tax affairs. The government has also called for more disclosure but has said it wants this to be done on a voluntary, rather than a mandatory, basis.

(Reporting by Tom Bergin; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)

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