The coalition's over-optimism on tax avoidance could mean more tax rises or cuts

Ministers have pledged to fund policies like the extension of free school meals and the freeze in fuel duty through extra revenue from reducing avoidance. But HMRC is struggling.

Sometimes it seems that clamping down on tax avoidance is the gift that keeps on giving - because no one really knows the scale of the problem, politicians can be very optimistic about the amount of extra revenue that can be generated. Danny Alexander claimed at this year’s Liberal Democrat conference that a clamp down would provide as much as an extra £10bn a year for the Exchequer by 2015. This is more than rhetoric; the government has been spending some of this additional money already. The commitments in the Autumn Statement to fund policies like the extension of free school meals and the freeze in fuel duty are balanced out by increased tax revenues from reducing avoidance. If those revenues can’t be found, then  the government will have to borrow more, raise taxes or make spending cuts elsewhere.

Today’s Public Accounts Committee report puts the Treasury’s claims on reducing avoidance in perspective. The committee concludes that HMRC "massively over-estimated" how much unpaid tax it would collect from UK holders of Swiss bank accounts. HMRC has only managed to collect £440m so far against an estimate of £3.12bn given in the 2012 Autumn Statement. In the light of these criticisms, it seems sensible to take a step back and interrogate HMRC’s figures.

HMRC makes a calculation of the 'tax gap' every year to guide its work on reducing evasion and avoidance. The gap is the difference between the amount of tax that should, in theory, be collected, set against what actually is being collected. Calculating it is very hard; by definition we don’t know exactly how much evasion or avoidance is going on, but HMRC has developed some analytical techniques by which to do so. 

What would a realistic reduction in this tax gap look like? As the chart below shows, the 'gap', as a percentage of total liabilities, declined from 8.3% in 2005 to 7% in 2012. Since 2008, the reduction has been more modest, falling from 7.6% to 7%.

Chart 1: The tax gap as a percentage of total liabilities

Source: HMRC 2012, ‘Measuring tax gaps 2013 edition: Tax gap estimates for 2011-12’, p.4

What does this mean for the future? As the UK economy begins to grow again, the likely total tax liabilities will increase, so even if HMRC does not reduce the relative size of the tax gap there will be additional revenue for the government to spend. While the size of the gap will continue to decline, it is unlikely that we will see a huge reduction. Between 2010-11 and 2011-12, the tax gap as a percentage of liabilities only came down 0.1%. If things continue at this rate, the gap will be 6.8% of the total estimated tax bill by 2014-15.

So how realistic was Alexander’s claim of "clawing back" £10bn a year to 2015? If we assume that the total tax liabilities will increase 10% per annum until 2014-15 (a very generous assumption) then to reclaim an additional £10bn a year the tax gap would have to fall to 5.2% of the total tax bill. This represents a 34% increase in the effectiveness of HMRC: implausible at the best of times, but doubly so given that HMRC is facing a further 5% cut in its budget over this period.

Chart 2: Actual size of tax gap vs. target tax gap

Source: SMF &HMRC 2012, ‘Measuring tax gaps 2013 edition: Tax gap estimates for 2011-12’, p.4

Perhaps recognising this challenge, George Osborne reduced the target from £10bn per year to £6.8bn in total over the next five years in this year’s Autumn Statement. That’s a massive reduction in ambition and it seems that Osborne expects HMRC to get less effective relative to the current trend in performance. If the current trend was kept up, HMRC would bring in an additional £13.1bn; so the Chancellor appears to now share the Public Accounts Committee’s scepticism, expecting it to do only half as well in closing the tax gap as it has been doing.

Arthur Downing is a Researcher at the Social Market Foundation

George Osborne and Danny Alexander leave the Treasury in London on December 5, 2013, before the Autumn Statement. Photograph: Getty Images.

Arthur Downing is a Researcher at the Social Market Foundation

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.