Cameron tells Pakistanis tax non-payment is unfair

David Cameron criticises Pakistan’s tax-dodging rich at a press conference in Islamabad.

In a speech at a press conference in Islamabad, David Cameron told Pakistan's elite that:

Many of your richest people are getting away without paying much tax at all – and that's not fair.

When considering Cameron's words, let's remember that the UK facilitates the very same actions through its sovereignty over 13 of the 24 biggest tax havens in the world, including Jersey, Guernsey, the Cayman Islands and the City of London.

First, it is important to note that the vast majority of people considered "rich" in the UK do pay their taxes. According to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC), there are roughly 327,000 people who earn more than £150,000 per year – the rate at which the 50p tax is introduced. HMRC predicts that by the end of this fiscal year, the richest 327,000 will be paying 26.7 per cent of the total tax collected in the country.

Nevertheless, a request filed by the London Evening Standard under the Freedom of Information Act in 2007 revealed that in 2004-2005 only 65 of the roughly 400 UK-based individuals who earn £10m per year or more actually paid income tax. The failure was estimated to have lost HMRC up to £2bn in revenues.

The related issue of companies in the UK not paying tax has been brought to mainstream attention by the recent UK Uncut protests – fingering Vodafone, Topshop and Boots, among others, as having allegedly "dodged" paying billions.

The chairman of Pakistan's Federal Bureau of Revenue (FBR), Salman Siddiqui, recently issued notices to the wealthiest 700,000 of Pakistan's 2.3 million rich to give up withheld taxes. Although the number of non-payers is far higher than estimates in the UK, Cameron would be better advised to clean up the UK's own mess first before preaching to other countries.

Surprisingly, Cameron did not make the distinction between tax evasion and tax avoidance in his speech. Whereas the latter is considered legal – when taxes are not paid, using the help of loopholes – the former is considered illegal: non-payment of taxes that breaks the law.

A committee was set up to investigate the costs and benefits of having a General Anti-Avoidance Rule for the UK earlier this year. It has until 31 October 2011 to come to a conclusion.

Liam McLaughlin is a freelance journalist who has also written for Prospect and the Huffington Post. He tweets irregularly @LiamMc108.

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.