CPS to crack down on tax evasion

A populist move, which may be less popular than expected.

The head of the Crown Prosecution Service, Keir Starmer, has told the Financial Times that he is planning to increase fivefold the number of tax evasion cases the organisation takes on. Caroline Bingham writes:

Tax consultants who push dishonest avoidance schemes – and the professionals who invest in them – are central targets in the strategy. 

“There have been some cases involving lawyers, some involving tax consultants, and plumbers,” Mr Starmer said in an interview. “Within the ramped-up volume, it’s intended that we will select cases to send a clear message as to the breadth of our coverage.”

The FT reports that there were just 200 convictions secured in 2010, even with a conviction rate of 86 per cent. We can infer from those figures that the CPS only takes on cases where it has a very strong expectation of success, which is a different operating procedure from most other crimes which it prosecutes.

The tough stance of the CPS is matched by an equivalent stance from HMRC as both organisations try to crack down on the estimated £14bn a year lost to evasion.

Part of the plan is to explicitly pick cases which are harder to prosecute to make it clear that any type of tax evasion — not just the easy-to-prove cases — may be subject to prosecution. In addition, the CPS will apparently be prosecuting "everyday" tax evasion — that is, rather than just going after the most egregious offenders, it will prosecute people who match the typical profile of a tax evader. Starmer told the FT:

There have been some cases involving lawyers, some involving tax consultants, and plumbers. Within the ramped-up volume, it’s intended that we will select cases to send a clear message as to the breadth of our coverage.

The news is undoubtedly a success of sorts for campaigning groups like UKUncut, which has focused on tax evasion and avoidance and a source of missing income for the nation since 2010. There is now crystal-clear acceptance on the part of some of the most conservative institutions in government that it is unacceptable to be cutting public services while not putting as much effort as possible into securing revenue.

But the way the CPS intends to go about this new policy may be a double-edged sword. UKUncut has historically focused on the biggest individual cases, like Vodafone, which it alleges avoided £6bn in tax, or Topshop owner Philip Green, who the group claims avoided £285m.

The CPS plans to go after the exact opposite. Those hit will likely be self-employed people failing to declare all their income, as well as those more explicitly evading tax. It is harder to frame such a crackdown as the rich stealing from the poor given at least some of those evaders will themselves be earning little.

That's not to say that the CPS isn't pursuing a progressive strategy in implementing its new prosecution plan. But it may turn out being less populist than it, or the protest groups who have pushed for it, planned.

Keir Starmer. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.