Cameron's tax crackdown undermined as Lawson accuses him of "prancing around"

The former Tory chancellor says that the government is "getting nowhere slowly" on reducing tax avoidance by multinationals.

David Cameron has long sought to present reducing tax avoidance as a priority of the coalition. While cutting taxes for high-earners (with the reduction in the top rate of inncome tax from 50p to 45p) and reducing corporation tax to the joint lowest level in the G20 (it will stand at 20% in 2015, down from 28% in 2010), he argues that the government is committed to ensuring that all pay their fair share. By ending the mass avoidance (and evasion) that existed under Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems claim that they can raise more revenue from lower rates. 

Cameron will return to this theme today with the announcement of a new public register designed to reveal the true owners of the anonymous "shell" companies associated with tax evasion. "For too long a small minority have hidden their business dealings behind a complicated web of shell companies," he will tell the Open Government Partnership in London. 

But the PM's anti-avoidance drive has been undermined by an unlikely source. In a debate in the House of Lords last night, Nigel Lawson accused the coalition of "prancing around", rather than making the changes needed to ensure that large corporations pay their dues. The former Tory chancellor warned that multinationals "shift their profits and their intangible assets around the world in such a way that they pay little or in some cases no UK corporation tax at all", while "small and medium-sized enterprises" face "the full rigour of corporation tax". 

He went on:

It is a totally inequitable system. So what is the government doing? Just prancing around saying we are talking about with our opposite numbers from other OECD countries and other European countries and goodness knows what.

They love going to these conferences and they happily make statements that they have reached a great understanding and a great agreement but the problem is just the same, it hasn’t gone away.

Lawson proposed that the government should introduce a new system with separate taxes on profits and sales to ensure that companies like Starbucks, Google and Amazon make some contribution. He said: "God forbid that the United Kingdom should take a lead and introduce a sensible tax system of its own which would probably comprise a very low level of corporation tax - tax on corporate profits - and perhaps a low level of corporate sales tax, because sales are where they are and sales in this country are sales here which we can tax here.

"But more than anything else we should be taking a lead. I have to say to the government that you are not even getting nowhere fast - you are getting nowhere slowly."

Labour, meanwhile, has welcomed the announcement of a public register, while highlighting the rise in uncollected tax to £35bn and the failure of the government's Swiss tax deal to raise anything close to the promised amount. After George Osborne booked £3.1bn from the agreement, it has so far raised just £440m. 

Nigel Lawson said of ministers and tax avoidance: "they love going to these conferences and they happily make statements". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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She knew every trick to get a home visit – but this time I had come prepared

 Having been conned into another couple of fruitless house calls, I now parry the proffered symptoms and generally get to the heart of the matter on the phone.

I first came across Verenice a couple of years ago when I was on duty at the out-of-hours service.

“I’m a diabetic,” she told me, “and I’m feeling really poorly.” She detailed a litany of symptoms. I said I’d be round straight away.

What sounded worrying on the phone proved very different in Verenice’s smoke-fugged sitting room. She was comfortable and chatty, she had no fever or sign of illness, and her blood sugar was well controlled. In fact, she looked remarkably well. As I tried to draw the visit to a close, she began to regale me with complaints about her own GP: how he neglected her needs, dismissed her symptoms, refused to take her calls.

It sounded unlikely, but I listened sympathetically and with an open mind. Bit by bit, other professionals were brought into the frame: persecutory social workers, vindictive housing officers, corrupt policemen, and a particularly odious psychiatrist who’d had her locked up in hospital for months and had recently discharged her to live in this new, hateful bungalow.

By the time she had told me about her sit-in at the local newspaper’s offices – to try to force reporters to cover her story – and described her attempts to get arrested so that she could go to court and tell a judge about the whole saga, it was clear Verenice wasn’t interacting with the world in quite the same way as the rest of us.

It’s a delicate path to tread, extricating oneself from such a situation. The mental health issues could safely be left to her usual daytime team to follow up, so my task was to get out of the door without further inflaming the perceptions of neglect and maltreatment. It didn’t go too well to start with. Her voice got louder and louder: was I, too, going to do nothing to help? Couldn’t I see she was really ill? I’d be sorry when she didn’t wake up the next morning.

What worked fantastically was asking her what she actually wanted me to do. Her first stab – to get her rehoused to her old area as an emergency that evening – was so beyond the plausible that even she seemed able to accept my protestations of impotence. When I asked her again, suddenly all the heat went out of her voice. She said she didn’t think she had any food; could I get her something to eat? A swift check revealed a fridge and cupboards stocked with the basics. I gave her some menu suggestions, but drew the line at preparing the meal myself. By then, she seemed meekly willing to allow me to go.

We’ve had many out-of-hours conversations since. For all her strangeness, she is wily, and knows the medical gambits to play in order to trigger a home visit. Having been conned into another couple of fruitless house calls, I now parry the proffered symptoms and generally get to the heart of the matter on the phone. It usually revolves around food. Could I bring some bread and milk? She’s got no phone credit left; could I call the Chinese and order her a home delivery?

She came up on the screen again recently. I rang, and she spoke of excruciating ear pain, discharge and fever. I sighed, accepting defeat: with that story I’d no choice but to go round. Acting on an inkling, though, I popped to the drug cupboard first.

Predictably enough, when I arrived at Verenice’s I found her smiling away and puffing on a Benson, with a normal temperature, pristine ears and perfect blood glucose.

“Well,” I said, “whatever’s causing your ear to hurt is a medical mystery. Take some paracetamol and I’m sure it’ll be fine in the morning.”

There was a flash of triumph in her eyes. “Ah, but doctor, I haven’t got any. Could you –”

Before she could finish, I produced a pack of paracetamol from my pocket and dropped it on her lap. She looked at me with surprise and admiration. She may have suckered me round again, but I’d managed to second-guess her. I was back out of the door in under five minutes. A score-draw. 

Phil Whitaker is a GP and an award-winning author. His fifth novel, “Sister Sebastian’s Library”, will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain