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.
About Wendy Bradley
Wendy Bradley is a retired tax inspector, now working as a freelance journalist.