LONDON British retailers have been accused of not paying their way on tax, with just two of 25 well-known store groups awarded a "Fair Tax Mark", in a report published on Thursday by the Fair Tax Campaign.
Several UK companies, including mobile telephone group Vodafone (VOD.L), have faced criticism from tax campaigners over the way they structure their tax affairs, provoking consumer anger and pledges from political leaders to act. Now the spotlight has been put on retailers.
The Fair Tax Campaign said that over the six year period surveyed to prepare the Fair Tax Mark the profits of the retailers covered increased by 47 percent, but the tax they paid rose 22 percent.
The Fair Tax Campaign is affiliated to existing campaigners, including Tax Research UK and the Tax Justice Network, and is supported by the Public and Commercial Services union, which says it represents more than 50,000 workers in HM Revenue and Customs.
"Companies have a duty to be open about where they operate, what profits they make, what taxes they pay and what tax havens they use," said Meesha Nehru, lead researcher of the Fair Tax Mark.
"It's shocking to find that so many companies - and well known ones at that - don't give us this basic information."
The Fair Tax mark assesses companies on whether they publish enough information so it is clear how much activity they have and what profit they make in Britain and how much tax they pay in Britain.
It also assesses if the companies pay an acceptable rate of tax on their profit and if a fair part of it is declared in Britain. Finally it assesses companies' use of tax havens.
Each of the three criteria is scored from zero to five and a total score out of 15 created. Those getting 12 or more are awarded a "Fair Tax Mark".
Only Greggs (GRG.L), Britain's biggest seller of food-on-the-go, with a maximum score of 15 and wine retailer Majestic Wine MJW.L with 14 achieved the mark.
Two of the lowest scoring were Tesco (TSCO.L), Britain's biggest retailer, with three, and J Sainsbury (SBRY.L), the country's No. 3 grocer, with two.
Both companies defended their tax affairs.
"We entirely reject the allegation that we are not paying our way. All our trading profit is UK generated and taxed in the UK," said a Sainsbury's spokesman.
He noted that last year the firm paid 144 million pounds ($224.6 million) in corporation tax and more in other taxes.
A spokesman for Tesco said it was one of the largest payers of tax in the UK, paying 1.5 billion pounds directly, including 387 million pounds in corporation tax, in the year to February 2013.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents store groups, was critical of the Fair Tax Campaign's methodology and analysis, calling it "narrowly focused and oversimplified".
"By restricting the study to corporation tax the results omit the lion's share of the tax burden for retailers and therefore misrepresents what is actually a higher than average tax rate with a growing overall burden," said BRC director general Helen Dickinson. ($1 = 0.6411 British pounds)
(Reporting by James Davey; Editing by Louise Heavens)