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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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.