Manchester United, one of the world's richest football clubs, has paid more to its tax advisers than it has in corporation tax returns over the past six years, the Observer can reveal. The club has kept payments on its £2.1bn in revenues for the period to a minimum, with no corporation tax at all being paid in two of the years it has been owned outright by brothers Joel and Avram Glazer.
Between 2006 and 2012 United's parent company paid more than £4.1m to their tax advisers PriceWaterhouseCoopers. For the same period it paid just £3.5m in tax. PwC this summer faced the embarrassment of a tax avoidance scheme it devised for a client being declared invalid by the courts and criticised by HM Revenue & Customs.
Manchester United's parent company, Red Football Joint Venture, has not acted illegally. Its revenues have largely avoided tax because the club's huge debt and interest repayments are tax deductible. The American brothers bought the club in 2005 for about £800m, largely using debt. The club has since paid more than £400m dealing with the legacy of that takeover through interest and debt repayments, vastly reducing the club's profitability on paper.
A spokesman for United said that payments to PwC were "not simply related to corporation tax", but were made in relation to a range of tax issues, such as the club's pension scheme.
He added that, in addition, the figures did not take into account tax payments that were merely deferred and would be paid at a later stage. The parent company said: "We pay all corporation tax on our UK companies as and when it is due."
However, the case raises fresh questions over whether the government is doing enough to ensure that some of Britain's largest companies raising huge sums in revenue are paying their fair share at a time of austerity.
Before its takeover the club was profitable, largely debt free and regularly paid more than £7m a year to the taxman.
Simon Hughes MP, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, speaking out just days before the chancellor's autumn statement, called on the government to reform the way the tax system deals with highly leveraged firms.
"The government must investigate the tax treatment of these kinds of deals. It cannot be right to allow people to buy up companies, pile them with debt and get a tax break for the privilege," he said. "The road to recovery needs a more responsible form of capitalism and must bring an end to this kind of financial engineering. The Glazer family must not be allowed to fill their pockets at the expense of the taxpayer and Manchester United supporters throughout the world."
This month the Observer revealed how three of Britain's water companies enjoying huge revenues, Thames, Anglian and Yorkshire, were paying little or no tax while paying huge dividends to their shareholders and handsomely rewarding their executives in pay and bonuses.
Richard Murphy, an economist campaigning for fairer tax, said the government had done "pitifully little" to deal with the tax implications of highly leveraged takeovers, where debts are piled on to profitable companies and the taxman loses out.
Andrew Green, a fund manager in the City of London and adviser to the Manchester United Supporters Trust, which has campaigned against the Glazers, said: "The club was piled with debt so the Glazers could buy it. The club has lost about half a billion pounds in interest and debt repayments, which could have been invested. The taxpaying public loses out because a club that was paying tax on its profits isn't paying much at all any more."
This summer the club floated on the New York Stock Exchange and registered itself in the Cayman Islands, a tax haven, in a move that will reduce its "indebtedness", according to the parent company's Securities and Exchange Commission filing.
It is predicting a record turnover for 2012 of between £350m and £360m, with the company recently boasting of its best "commercial year" yet.
The club says the float in New York will see it pay more tax than before, as profits will be liable to corporation tax in the US. However, the club's prospectus for the float confirms it has sought assurances from the Cayman Islands' authorities that profits directed there will not be taxed in the future.
The prospectus says that the company received an undertaking to the effect that, for 20 years, "no law that thereafter is enacted in the Cayman Islands imposing any tax or duty to be levied on profits, income or on gains or appreciation … will apply to any property comprised in or any income arising under the company, or to the shareholders thereof, in respect of any such property or income".