March 5, 2013

UK indie booksellers call on Cameron to make Amazon pay taxes


Frances and Keith Smith

Two British booksellers — Frances and Keith Smith — have announced they’ve nearly got the necessary amount of signatures to present a petition to Prime Minister David Cameron calling upon him to “pressurize Amazon into paying UK taxes on their UK earnings,” as the Smiths put it on their Facebook page. They add, “As their declared net earnings in the UK were £2.91 billion in 2011, that doesn’t sound too unreasonable.”

So far, their petition has almost 100,000 signatures, the necessary amount to present to Cameron. It can be viewed — and signed — here.

The Smiths, who run bookshops in Kenilworth and Warwick, and the online bookstore Beyond Words, explain, “Like most other independent booksellers, Beyond Words has been profoundly affected by Amazon’s rapid rise to dominance. A bargain for the customers apparently — but a very unlevel playing field between booksellers.” The two have gained the support of MP Margaret Hodge, head of the Public Accounts Committee. (Hodge famously grilled a hapless Amazon official, Andrew Cecil, during public hearings on the company’s tax avoidance, accusing him of “pretend[ing] ignorance” and telling him “I don’t know what you take us for.” See the video below.)

Margaret Hodge

According to a Bookseller report by Lisa Campbell, MP Hodge “has said she will help the couple co-ordinate a high-profile publicity campaign around the time of handing the petition to prime minister David Cameron. MPs from across the parties, high-profile authors, and personnel from the publishing and media industries could be involved.”

Amazon’s Andrew Cecil trying to answer — or perhaps not answer — MP Margaret Hodge at recent parliamentary hearings over tax avoidance

Cameron said two weeks ago that the question of tax avoidance was a “moral question” and he did not feel it was appropriate to change the law, closing loopholes that would force Amazon and other companies using business address in tax shelter Luxmbourg to avoid paying taxes. As a Reuters wire story reported, Cameron said, “Some would say, ‘Just change the law to make aggressive avoidance illegal’, but, with respect to my friends in the accountancy profession, it is difficult to do that.”

But the Smiths, and Hodge, apparently think otherwise. “We want to maintain the pressure on Amazon in regards to paying a fair amount of corporation tax in the UK. It is in everyone’s interests,” Frances Smith tells the Bookseller. “Amazon may be obeying the letter of the law—but they’re certainly not being fair. Last year Starbucks announced that they would look at their tax affairs in the UK. It’s time that Amazon did the same.”

Below, Margaret Hodge’s withering interrogation of Amazon’s Andrew Cecil starts at about 2:40:



Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives