Yet the concept of one law for all, while an invaluable legal principle, is in reality something of a sham. Racial prejudice, unequal access to a costly legal team, as well as a public preference for the tough sentencing of some crimes over others, all contrive to make the idea of equality before the law an ideal rather than a reality. So while a thief who pilfers a bottle of water from a store can receive six months in prison, when it comes to white collar crime politicians have traditionally preferred to take a more, shall we say consensual approach. The phenomenon was first recorded in 1949 by the American criminologist Edwin Sutherland, who noticed that:
“There is a consistent bias involved in the administration of criminal justice under laws which apply to business and the professions and which therefore involve only the upper socio-economic group…”
The same holds true for morality, and for those things which fall under the heading of deviance rather than criminality. So while the poor supposedly need threats and sanctions to get them to behave in a civilised manner, the rich require “incentives” – and are, lest you forget that, ready to pull down the roof should it ever look like things aren’t going to keep going their way.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the debate over tax, and more specifically in the language used by the great and the good to justify their tax arrangements. There are a variety of stock phrases that anyone who has ever discussed tax avoidance will have heard, all of which imply that we would all be doing clever things with our money if only we had the cash to pay an affective accountant. As the U2 guitarist David Evans, aka “The Edge”, once rhetorically asked (presumably during time-out from telling the Irish government to give more money to Africa): “Who doesn’t want to be tax-efficient?”.
Indeed, who wouldn’t want to be tax efficient?
The answer I suppose depends very much upon what sort of efficiency it is you are aiming at. Were the question phrased more honestly – i.e. bearing some relation to what the consequences of being “tax efficient” actually are - I suspect the answer would be somewhat different. After all, lessening your tax bill through financial acumen may be satisfying from a purely self-interested point of view, but depriving cancer patients of otherwise affordable medical treatment, or preventing a dementia sufferer from getting the care they require in old age - both of which are consequences of depleted treasury coffers – hardly cover you with glory.
According to the TUC, £25billion is lost annually through tax avoidance by individuals and businesses; more than five times as much as is lost through benefit fraud and error. To put that figure into some kind of context, George Osborne’s first budget planned for cuts of £6.2 billion and public sector workers currently face a three per cent rise in their pension contributions to save the state just under two billion. A modern hospital costs in the region of £90 million, and a state-of-the-art environmentally friendly school costs between five and £10 million. Free school dinners for every primary school child in the country would cost an extra billion, if you felt that way inclined.
David Cameron, to his credit, recently informed the House of Commons that he was “not happy with the current situation”. “I think the HMRC needs to look at it [tax avoidance] very carefully. We do need to make sure we are encouraging these businesses to invest in our country, as they are, but they should be paying fair taxes as well,” he said.
And yet I don’t think it’s just me who suspects the Prime Minister’s language would have been a little more robust had such a colossal sum disappeared via the benefits system. Again, it appears that if you wear a suit and have money, it won’t only be that you sleep in a warm bed with a full stomach at night, but you will go through life playing by a completely different set of rules to your working class counterparts. If you are wealthy and don’t fancy paying tax, you might be encouraged to pay more, but that’s about as far as it’ll go.
That isn’t to say that we should leave it to politicians to tackle tax avoidance. We ought to be able to leave it to them of course, but the major political parties have in recent years demonstrated such a palpable unwillingness to do anything about the problem that a new approach is required.
At the risk of being accused of moralising, the problem is deeper than that, anyway. Politicians will only act if there is a genuine groundswell of opinion that sees tax avoidance as a major issue. At present, there isn’t. Not yet, anyway. UK Uncut has done much to change things with a number of brilliant awareness campaigns aimed at those firms which squirrel their money overseas, but more needs to be done to link in the public mind the real cost of tax avoidance – the hospital closures, the children denied otherwise affordable cancer treatment, the pensioners freezing in their homes – with the supposedly amoral act of becoming “tax efficient”. Tax avoidance, either by companies or individuals, is as anti-social as drink driving, and like getting behind the wheel in a state of inebriation, it has a devastating human cost that no amount of obfuscation and jargon should be allowed to skirt over.