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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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 50p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

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