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.

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All doctors kill people – and the threat of prosecution is bad for everyone

We must recognise the reality of medical practice: just because a doctor makes a mistake, that doesn’t mean they’ve all broken the law. 

On 15 November the Court of Appeal quashed the 2013 conviction for gross negligence manslaughter (GNM) of a senior consultant surgeon in London, David Sellu. Sellu, who had completed his prison term by the time the appeal was heard, will never get back the 15 months of his life that he spent in jail. Nor will the personal and family trauma, or the damage to his reputation and livelihood, ever properly heal. After decades of exemplary practice – in the course of the investigation numerous colleagues testified to his unflappable expertise – Sellu has said that he has lost the heart ever to operate again.

All doctors kill people. Say we make 40 important decisions about patients in a working day: that’s roughly 10,000 per annum. No one is perfect, and medical dilemmas are frequently complex, but even if we are proved right 99 per cent of the time, that still leaves 100 choices every year where, with the benefit of hindsight, we were wrong.

Suppose 99 per cent of those have no negative consequences. That’s still one disaster every 12 months. And even if most of those don’t result in a fatal outcome, over the course of a career a few patients are – very regrettably – going to die as a result of our practice. Almost invariably, these fatalities occur under the care of highly skilled and experienced professionals, working in good faith to the very best of their abilities.

If one of these cases should come before a crown court, the jury needs meticulous direction from the trial judge on the legal threshold for a criminal act: in essence, if a doctor was clearly aware of, and recklessly indifferent to, the risk of death. Sellu’s conviction was quashed because the appeal court found that the judge in his trial had singularly failed to give the jury these directions. The judiciary make mistakes, too.

Prosecutions of health-care professionals for alleged GNM are increasing markedly. The Royal College of Surgeons of England identified ten cases in 2015 alone. This must reflect social trends – the so-called “blame culture”, in which we have come to believe that when a tragedy occurs, someone must be held responsible. In every one of these cases, of course, an individual’s life has been lost and a family left distraught; but there is a deepening sense in which society at large, and the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), in particular, appear to be disconnected from the realities of medical practice.

Malpractice investigation and prosecution are horrendous ordeals for any individual. The cumulative impact on the wider health-care environment is equally serious. In a recent survey of doctors, 85 per cent of respondents admitted that they were less likely to be candid about mistakes, given the increasing involvement of the criminal law.

This is worrying, because the best way to avoid errors in future is by open discussion with the aim of learning from what has gone wrong. And all too often, severely adverse events point less to deficiencies on the part of individuals, and more to problems with systems. At Sellu’s hospital, emergency anaesthetic cover had to be arranged ad hoc, and this contributed to delays in potentially life-saving surgery. The tragic death of his patient highlighted this; management reacted by putting a formal rota system in place.

Doctors have long accepted the burden of civil litigation, and so insure themselves to cover claims for compensation. We are regulated by the General Medical Council, which has powers to protect patients from substandard practice, including striking off poorly performing doctors. The criminal law should remain an exceptional recourse.

We urgently need a thorough review of the legal grounds for a charge of GNM, with unambiguous directions to the police, CPS and judges, before the spectre of imprisonment becomes entrenched for those whose only concern is to provide good care for their patients. As Ken Woodburn, a consultant vascular surgeon in Cornwall who was accused and acquitted of GNM in 2001, has said: “You’re only ever one error away from a manslaughter prosecution.”

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage