WizengamotSeptember 11, 2013
So I was at a meeting of the Wizenagemot yesterday…
Ah. I probably need to step back a bit and explain? You see, it’s my belief that the debate about tax is divided between two groups. There are the tax professionals on the one hand – people like HMRC and HMT and accountants, tax specialist solicitors and barristers, tax specialists in large businesses and policy thinktanks and lobby groups. People who understand that a painting can be “plant” and whether or not a jaffa cake is a biscuit. Let’s call them the tax wizards.
And then there are the people who don’t understand that “there is no equity about a tax” but think that there ought to be some kind of principle of “fairness” involved. People whose “idosyncratic and ill-informed” views about tax are “a joke to those who understand the subject”. The tax prats . The citizen stakeholders. People who pay their taxes and don’t understand why everyone else doesn’t seem to have to follow the same rules. The tax muggles.
Well, if you’re a tax muggle you may not be aware that there’s an active debate in the tax wizarding world about this thing called the Tax Gap, which is the difference between the tax that HMRC collects for us, and the tax that they ought to be able to collect if everyone paid their dues and no-one made any mistakes. And you don’t have to be a wizard to understand that this gap is never going to be zero because, after all, nobody’s perfect, but everyone is clear that it ought to be as small as we can reasonably make it.
Ah. And there’s the rub. Because David Gauke, the Minister for Magic doesn’t think there’s much of a problem with the tax gap at all. He told the meeting that the UK tax gap was “relatively small by international standards”. (Does anyone have a source for this, by the way?)
He also told the meeting that he made “no apology” for HMRC’s staff and budget being reduced, which was a bit of a brick considering that the meeting had been called by ARC, the section of the FDA that represents senior officials in HMRC, and that their agenda was to explain that they thought they could make a big hole in the tax gap if they could just have a few more people and some decent treatment for their members.
The meeting was at Portcullis House (and isn’t THAT a fabulous building! Wow!) and involved tax wizards from HMRC and ARC, the Exchequer Secretary, his Labour Shadow and the Chair of the backbench Lib Dem Treasury Committee, as well as Richard Miller from ActionAid. It was chaired by Vanessa Houlder from the Financial Times and was extensively tweeted here (although not at the time – no signal inside Portcullis House).
I am not sure there was any great meeting of minds resulting from the event. The politicians spoke to their briefs, the campaigners argued the tax gap is bigger than HMRC’s calculation, and I sat there wondering (a) what does it matter and (b) when was ARC going to get back to the “give us more resources” point?
What does it matter? Well, everyone agrees there IS a tax gap. Everyone agrees that it is a good thing to endeavour to keep the tax gap as small as feasible. There is some broad agreement on what elements are included in the calculation of the tax gap so we know where to direct attention. So what does it matter in practical terms whether underpaid corporation tax is around 3-4 billion or 12 billion? Can we just agree that it’s either “shedloads” or “a fuckton” and that in either case we’d like some of it back, please?
Which takes me back to (b). I was surprised, frankly, that ARC didn’t drive home their point a little more strongly. When your Minister says he makes no apology for cutting your staff and resources, surely you exercise right of reply and say, “yes Minister, but” and then hit him with your stats? The stats you’ve politely buried in the Notes to Editors to the press release linked in the bibliography to the polite paper you’ve put together for the meeting? Because, you know, he won’t have read that far. Even his staff are unlikely to have read that far. So when you have him sitting two seats away from you, you pass him another cup of coffee and give him your elevator pitch: invest £312.3m in us and we’ll bring you in eight billion quid (£8,260m)
As Saint Sir Bob apparently never actually said “give us the fucking money!”
[note: edited 16/9/13 to add a link to the FDA reporting of the event - first link in the article]