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 deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.