Rather than "shaming" tax avoiders, the coalition should stop them

The latest "crackdown" on tax avoidance is nothing of the sort.

In these austere times, tax avoidance, as Ken Livingstone and Jimmy Carr learned to their cost, is a toxic practice. In view of this, the government is preparing to announce a new "crackdown" on avoiders today. Treasury minister David Gauke will tell Policy Exchange that scheme operators may be forced to hand over client lists to inspectors, and will be "named and shamed" for not sticking to the rules.

Gauke will say:

We are building on the work we have already done to make life difficult for those who artificially and aggressively reduce their tax bill.

These schemes damage our ability to fund public services and provide support to those who need it.

They harm businesses by distorting competition. They damage public confidence.

And they undermine the actions of the vast majority of taxpayers, who pay more in tax as a consequence of others enjoying a free ride.

Laudable words, you may think. But Gauke's suggestion that "naming and shaming" tax avoiders will reduce the practice is either extremely optimistic or extremely disingenuous. Were negative publicity enough to dissuade avoidance, men like Philip Green, hired by the government to advise on its spending cuts (the need them for them partly derived from his and others' avoidance) would have paid up long ago. Rather than merely "shaming" avoiders, the government needs to stop them. Yet there is nothing in today's announcement to suggest it will do so.

As Richard Murphy noted on The Staggers last month, the coalition's much-vaunted "anti-avoidance rule" will do little to end the cat-and-mouse game between HM Revenue and avoiders. As the government closes one scheme, another opens. Only an anti-avoidance principle, which looks at intent as well as practice, would significantly reduce avoidance. As Murphy explained:

A principle is something quite different. It looks at intent. It is not about box ticking, as rules are (which is why they are so easy to get round - general anti-avoidance rules included). It is about looking at what you did and using that evidence to assess on the balance of probabilities what your intentions were.

On this point, George Osborne, who memorably described tax avoidance as "morally repugnant", and his Treasury colleagues remain mute.

Finally, one might ask why, if the coalition is so opposed to avoidance, its Budget rewarded it. The stated reason for the abolition of the 50p tax rate was that high-earners were avoiding it. As Osborne stated in the Budget

HMRC find that an astonishing £16 billion of income was deliberately shifted [emphasis mine] into the previous tax year - at a cost to the taxpayer of £1 billion, something that the previous Government's figures made no allowance for.

But this was an argument for reducing tax avoidance, not for cutting taxes for the one per cent. While the rich avoided the 50p rate in the first year of its existence (by bringing forward income from 2010/11 to 2009/10 in order to pay the 40p rate), this was not a trick they could have repeated. Yet Osborne cut the rate all the same. It was as if he had rewarded welfare cheats by increasing their benefits. Seen in this light, the government's new fondness for moralising against avoiders is merely an attempt to change the subject. We should ensure it cannot.

Jimmy Carr recently said he made a "terrible error of judgment" in using a tax avoidance scheme. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.