The public discourse on tax avoidance


iStock_watching tv_Dean Mitchell

The cleverest part of the Dispatches programme, How the Rich Avoid Tax, on Monday night was its use of an actual HNWI (high net worth individual) as the presenter, says Wendy Bradley.

Greg Wise is an amiable everyman, someone it is plausible to believe wanted to “manage” his wealth out of the tax system while avoiding the reputational damage suffered by others like Jimmy Carr. He was a person the audience could relate to, and it was a master stroke to show him preparing for his part as a wannabe tax avoider, getting into character by dressing his office with his wife’s Oscars and BAFTAs to impress the scheme seller. Simultaneously he was able to reassure the seller being covertly filmed of his character's cupidity and the audience of his wannabe status, his everyman status, for are we all not wannabes?

We have been here before, most recently in The Town that took on the Taxman where small traders in the Welsh town of Crickhowell came up (with a little prompting from the producers and a selected team of tax advisers) with a scheme to shelter a billion pounds of small business profits offshore.

Both programmes demonstrated that the general public are able to understand tax avoidance issues if they are explained clearly and that, once they understand them, they are by and large furious. (Check the Twitter stream for either programme if you want to see some examples). They are furious at the difference between the tax rates of multinationals and their own, and furious about the difference in customer service that large businesses receive from HMRC in contrast with the tax authority's treatment of SMEs and individuals.

Yet the public discourse about tax avoidance largely misses out the actual public. Look for example at the patient patronising attitude adopted by representatives of large businesses, the tax profession and HMRC in front of the Public Accounts Committee in recent years.

Yes, there is ignorance among the public but is it being dispelled by programmes like this which simplify the issues, you may think, and anyway, what does it have to do with me? It links to the profession, I believe, because - while we might know it’s a more nuanced problem than you can fit into a TV programme - nevertheless the two programmes illustrate that people can understand tax issues if they’re explained to them, and that there’s a huge appetite for information and involvement in the national conversation about tax.  

If the profession isn’t to fall into disrepute, maybe it should be making it clear that – if there are "sides" – it is on the side of the angels? Perhaps agents should be encouraging clients to contribute to the conversation about tax issues? For example, how hard would it be to add a section to a client newsletter informing them about current HMRC consultations and encouraging them to contribute? Public responses almost broke the system when there were 190,000+ responses to the BBC Charter Review consultation, 177,000 of which came via a simplified response email put out by the 38 Degrees organisation. What about an email at the appropriate time before the Budget and the Autumn Statement drawing attention to the Budget suggestions process?

It could add value to the service offered - and keep it clear which side the profession is on.


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11th Feb 2016 16:47

Consultations - some hope!

I have spent years replying to HMRC and HM Treasury consultations through the CIOT and ICAEW. It is very difficult to get even professional tax advisers or accountants to respond to those consultations, even when the matter directly affects their businesses.

Trying to get non-tax people to repond to tax consultations is much harder. The con-docs tend to be quite difficult to follow and contain a load of intimidating questions.

I have found that to persaude a non-tax person to respond, the proposal has to affect that person directly - such as the removal of personal allowances from non-resident individuals - a proposal which was eventually dropped.

I have also tried to persaude Accountants to include a note in thier newsletters about con docs, but they rarely want to do this as they don't want to waste time explaining the tax proposal to clients, or feel that the proposal will only alarm the client unnecessarily.

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11th Feb 2016 17:53

caught between two stools

I really agree about the profession falling into disrepute.

I believe there is a serious risk that the whole profession of "accountant" (which is of course an unprotected title) is being undermined by unqualified aggressive practitioners at the low end and very qualified aggressive practitioners a the high end dragging down the ethics and standards of all who are desperately trying to remain competitive.

Qualified accountants are supposed to posses a sound moral barometer and have high ethics as that is what is drummed in by the supervisory bodies and that has been what most people have expected. My fear is the pincer movement I describe will taint everyone with the same brush - like it did with bankers...

My opinion which many will hate is that HMRC should have a "quality mark" for accountants who have demonstrated basic professional competence (qualified), technical capabilities (accuracy and sound accounting and tax filings over time) and high professional ethics (no dodgy tactics, no aggressive behaviour, a collaborative working relationship, a moral barometer! etc).

If the quality mark was widely advertised and promoted, anyone not using accounting firms with a quality mark would be fair game regarding questions regarding their own moral compass.

Some may say that the letters ICAEW,CTA or ACCA etc should be enough, and many I suspect would achieve the suggested "quality mark" with little or no trouble at all, but I'm afraid I think in terms of tax something radical needs to be done to really shake things up.

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I suppose I have a vested interest (I run a tax consultations blog at but I firmly believe it's always worth responding to consultations when you have the energy, simply because otherwise the government can get away with almost anything with a bland "but no-one raised any objections".  I'd rather like the Treasury to demonstrate that they have EVER accepted a budget suggestion from the public, though!  FoI, anyone?

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Both programmes demonstrated that the general public are able to understand tax avoidance issues if they are explained clearly and that, once they understand them, they are by and large furious.

Given the spin and many, many inaccuracies in each of these programmes, I am not surprised the public are furious. They are furious because they don’t understand tax and they are not being presented with the wider picture.

I finally got to catch up on the “How the Rich Avoid Tax” programme last night. It was the shite. They made a thing about HMRC not going after these schemes. Err, because they aren’t going to waste resources on legal avoidance schemes. Don’t get me wrong though, some of them are complete shams and need to be closed.

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12th Feb 2016 13:13

Hear hear

Both programmes demonstrated that the general public are able to understand tax avoidance issues if they are explained clearly and that, once they understand them, they are by and large furious.

Well said cheekychappy. 

Wendy Bradley, yes, but the general public has to be given the full facts.

I saw the programme about the business folk of Crickhowell.  I have not yet watched the programme mentioned above.

We all learn at our tutor's knee that the type of scheme outlined in the Crickhowell programme is caught by the long standing 'transfer of assets abroad' legislation.  Why was this not mentioned?  Because it would have killed the programme.

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story! 



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Or perhaps....

...because the news was full of Google and others using the same kind of scheme?  "The facts" aren't as clear cut as all that, it seems to me...

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I think it is quite a simple concept to be honest, Wendy.

There is no legal basis for Google et al to pay tax in the UK. The Government should stop trying to collect tax or moral grounds, and change the legislation so that HMRC can collect taxes on legal grounds.

Expecting companies to cough up on moral grounds is cutting corners and does taxpayers a disservice.

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12th Feb 2016 15:59

Concerns over accuracy -dispatches

Greg Wise was very engaging but I felt that this programme ignored anything that didn't fit within the " tax avoidance is easy and everyone is doing it and getting away with it".

For example, a little bit of googling would have revealed the bankruptcy of the previous business of one of the two tax scheme salesmen filmed by Dispatches . The bankruptcy is allegedly because the schemes they sold didn't work.

A lot of the speakers have commented on the reputational damage for accountants. As is often the case, neither salesmen were actually members of any of the tax/accountancy bodies.




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Public understanding not helped by solecistic journalism

The issue of legal, but often immoral, tax avoidance is an important one and should be discussed widely. To that end, much of the complexity needs to be simplified for the public to understand. But this noble cause can only be undermined when serious newspapers like the Sunday Times write front page stories in which they suggest that application of tax law for the explicit purpose for which it was designed is somehow "morally repugnant".

Yesterday's issue discussed the tax affairs of Osborne & Little (a family company in which the Chancellor has a small shareholding) thus: "The company has not paid any UK corporation tax since 2008 partly because it has rolled over losses from previous years". It went on to discuss deferred tax, an issue that the majority of its lay readership will not understand, but which makes the company's tax planning sound like that of Google.

How the use of losses brought forward to reduce current year taxable profits can be described as anything other than wholly acceptable would, I trust, be an uncontroversial view amongst tax professionals. For it to be expressed otherwise in a trusted newspaper of record can only undermine legitimate discourse and any chance of reform.

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15th Feb 2016 12:15

The Dispatches programme

Should have been titled "How the stupid try and fail to avoid tax", as both schemes featured do not work and the supplier benefit trust scheme is essentially fraudulent as has been stated many times before.

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15th Feb 2016 12:42

Legal vs. Moral

Tax is, as has been said by our learned friends elsewhere, and enforced extraction.

Given the way much of it is frittered away uselessly, it is reasonable to posit that the only thing that makes legally collected tax 'moral' is the fact that we, the proletariat at large, have sancioned it, albeit indirectly, by having our (re-)elected reperesentatives emplace it on our behalf.
It is entirely reasonable, given the cost to us of engendering law, to assume that what is written is, to a great degree of precision, what our representatives wished to happen/extract.

Morality, in this context is a temporaly unstable socio-economic more, largely fed by a relative superabundance of disposable income [relative, for example, to the occupants of the slums of Mumbai] that is to say, their economic circumstance alters their perception of what is 'moral'.

It should be remembered that theoretically it is equally 'against the law' to pay more tax than is required - the ONLY legality is to pay exactly the tax required - if only one could define that with certainty.  Morality does not really come in to it.

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15th Feb 2016 16:14

Tax simplification?
The offshore schemes have been widely adopted for decades because the tax authorities have very little chance of successfully challenging :- the value of intellectual property, transfer pricing, management charges nor keeping tabs on which country decision makers were located when they were performing their management duties.
Would tax simplification work if we abolished corporation tax and instead limited input VAT recovery to say 15% thus imposing a 5% tax based on turnover?

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16th Feb 2016 12:45

Just because you can do something... doesn't mean you should.

Sorry but I don't subscribe to the black and white anything legal is okay argument.

Large companies can be heavily influenced by moral or public pressure and it does not always require legislation. The advent of ethical funds and other pressures forced companies to institute codes of sustainability and corporate governance. Starbucks did an about turn. Why shouldn't large multinationals be pressured to have a moral tax code they disseminate to shareholders and the public?

We seem to demand changes in legislation on the one hand and then pound the fist of the other on the table demanding to know why the tax code is so long!

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