The cautionary tale of the 79-year-old tax dodger

How much of George Osborne's pledge to cut tax evasion is chest-thumping?

UK chancellor George Osborne has unveiled a budget full of detail on government plans to crack down on tax evasion. The UK government has been banging its drum for some time on the topic, but now it’s released some firm detail on what it intends to do, and in particular its offshore strategy. The question is how much of this is chest-thumping and what will it actually mean?

Here, like in many other areas, it’s useful to see what the US is doing and it’s clear that the UK has taken its lead from across the Pond. The US has had significant success putting the fear into US citizens with assets abroad. The US Internal Revenue Service has netted more than $5bn in back taxes, interest and penalties since 2009. This included the conviction of a 79-year-old former offshore account holder, Mary Estelle Curran, who was fined $21m having failed to report tax of $667,716 on her undeclared offshore accounts (although the accounts did hold $41m so she wasn’t left destitute by the fine!). The HMRC has outlined plans to use similar name and shame tactics to get the desired result.

The message the government and HMRC are trying to send is clear: the government is doing its worst to be a big bad monster and force tax-dodgers to quake in their boots and fess up. The government says it will ‘name and shame’ not only avoiders, but those who help them all – or as David Cameron referred to them in Davos earlier this year: “the travelling caravan of lawyers, accountants and financial gurus”. The aim is to bring in an extra £4.6bn in taxes over the next five years and the tax exchange agreements recently agreed with Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man are expected to bring in more than £1bn of that over the same period.

This seems like a modest amount, and it would be entirely realistic to see this figure edge higher. According to global wealth consultancy WealthInsight the amount of offshore funds held in the UK and Channel Islands by local clients’ stands at about £515bn. Osborne’s figure of £1bn is, therefore, a tiny drop in this ocean of offshore money.

However it’s important to remember that this kind of rhetoric about tax dodgers is not new. Governments have been talking about it for the past seven years, although it’s only now that the regulatory machinery has caught up. There’s little doubt the smart money has already moved to become transparent – those caught in the coming years are likely to be those without Cameron’s ‘caravan’ of sophisticated advisers.

Still it’s important not to underestimate to what lengths the tax authorities will go to claw back revenue. Since 2010 the HMRC has spent £1bn on tax gathering including employing an extra 2,500 staff by 2014-15. And the HMRC is not just targeting high flyers; it recently released a list of evaders who had avoided £25,000 or more. The writing is on the wall. The government coffers need any penny they can scrape together and the HMRC is set to go to what may seem like extreme lengths to claw back all it can get from its taxpayers, at home and abroad.

George Osborne. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.