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CPS to crack down on tax evasion

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

Keir Starmer. Photograph: Getty Images

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.