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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.