Tax avoidance costs UK economy £69.9 billion a year

New report from the Tax Justice Network highlights the staggering extent of global tax evasion.

In March earlier this year The Spectator published an article 'Debunking UK Uncut' over their campaign against tax avoidance. The author -- Nick Hayns from the Institute for Economic Affairs -- pleaded with readers not to let "UK Uncut get away with throwing all logic out of the window." But as nations across Europe feel the sting of reduced living standards, the true extent of global tax avoidance -- as revealed today by the Tax Justice Network -- will act to bolster feelings that such injustice can no longer be swept aside with the kind of insouciance Hayn displays.

The research, based on data from 145 countries, shows that tax evasion costs those nations $3.1 trillion annually. In the UK's case £69.9 billion is lost on a yearly basis in what the Tax Justice Network call the "shadow economy." That figure, they point out, "represents 56% of the country's total healthcare spend."

On the back of this report the Tax Justice Network has launched its campaign to Tackle Tax Havens. An initiative aimed at propelling tax avoidance up the political agenda by highlighting, in simple terms, the sheer scale of the sums involved and how they translate into increased cuts in public services for the rest of us.

But is tax avoidance immoral? Toby Young wrote for The Telegraph back in February that "Tax avoidance isn't morally wrong. It's perfectly sensible behaviour." While it might be true from a purely business point of view that tax avoidance is a great way to boost profits, Young conflates what is logical for a business to do, with what is the right thing to do from a societal or moral point of view.

Curiously while parts of the rightwing commentariat insist that deficit reduction is the number one task, they seem little interested in measures that might actually reduce the deficit, namely ensuring companies pay the tax they owe.

"Tax evasion is morally repugnant...It's stealing from law-abiding people, who face higher taxes to make good the lost revenue." This quote could well come from one of the much derided Occupy LSX group, but no, it's our very own Conservative chancellor. The Institute of Directors' have also supported proposals from QC Graham Aaronson to implement a general anti-avoidance rule that would "deter egregious tax-avoidance".

So could the tide finally be turning for those who cheat the system? Richard Murphy of Tax Research UK, that undertook the research for the Tax Justice Network, says: "If only more had been done to tackle rampant tax evasion, Europe would not be facing a crisis today." Adding that to compel both business and the tax havens themselves to be transparent in their dealings would "shatter the secrecy of tax havens for good." Nothing, he goes on, "could make a bigger contribution than this to solving the world's financial crisis".

In response in this article, Chief Executive of Jersey Finance Ltd, Geoff Cook, submitted the following letter:

"Tax evasion" is the illegal concealment of a taxable activity and, to be clear, is a criminal offence in Jersey. "Tax avoidance", on the other hand, is legal and refers to the prudent management of tax affairs to legitimately minimise a company or individual's tax liability within the law. Wide-reaching and thorough regulatory and compliance procedures are fundamental components of how a world-class International Financial Centre (IFC) like Jersey operates.

While the concept of tax avoidance, or perhaps as it may be better described, tax planning, is often discussed in relation to business, the exact same principle applies to individuals from all walks of life. Anyone who chooses to invest in an ISA or a pension could be accused of seeking to "avoid tax"; yet it is plain that such activity is not only legal, but also prudent and sensible.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue