Will Cameron and Osborne remain silent over Goldman Sachs's tax ploy?

Having denounced "aggressive tax avoidance", Osborne is under pressure to respond to the bank's plan to avoid the 50p rate tax by delaying bonus payments.

Update: It appears that the adverse publicity has prompted a rethink at Goldman. The bank has dropped plans to delay bonus payments and, consequently, will pay the 50p rate. Before the announcement, the Treasury said simply: "We do not comment on the tax affairs of individual companies, but we are clear that everyone must pay the tax they owe."

As Alex reported yesterday, mega-bank Goldman Sachs is considering deferring bonus payments for its UK employees until April in order to benefit from the reduction of the 50p tax rate to 45p. The proposed tax dodge has already drawn criticism from Labour, with shadow Treasury minister Chris Leslie declaring that "banks need to think carefully about their own reputations if they seek to avoid tax in this way" and the redoubtable Margaret Hodge accusing Goldmans of not giving "a toss about collective responsibility".

This morning, Bank of England governor Mervyn King added his voice to the protests. During his appearance before the Treasury select committee, he commented:

I find it a bit depressing that people who earn so much find it would be even more exciting to adjust their payouts to benefit from the tax rate, knowing that this must have an impact of the rest of society, which is suffering most from the consequences of the financial crisis. I think it would be a rather clumsy and lacking in care and attention to how other people might react. And in the long run, financial institutions do depend on goodwill from society.

King's intervention prompts the question of whether David Cameron and George Osborne will have anything to say about the matter. In last year's Budget, Osborne memorably denounced "aggressive tax avoidance" as "morally repugnant". And if Cameron is prepared to take the time to attack Jimmy Carr for tax avoidance, one might expect him to comment when one of the world's largest investment banks deploys similar chicanery. The numbers involved are not insignificant. Goldman paid out £8bn in bonuses last year and a similar stunt by the bank and others in 2010 (when they brought forward income in order to avoid the rise from 40p to 50p) cost the Treasury £16bn.

Labour is keen to take every opportunity to remind the public that the government is choosing to cut taxes for the top 1.5 per cent of earners this April. With the additional chance to protest at "aggressive tax avoidance", don't be surprised if Ed Miliband raises this issue at PMQs tomorrow.

Lloyd Blankfein, Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.