The morning session of the PAC tax conference was, I think it fair to say, pretty good.
Margaret Hodge was on form.
Grace Perez-Navarro of the OECD presented well and listened well too. The OECD is not a perfect organisation, by a long way. Grace managed those conflicts well.
The panel I was speaking on was made up of people of real ability whose work I can respect even when opinions differ.
And then it all began to go wrong. So for example, I went to a session on the UK approach to tax avoidance. Stephen Herring of the IoD wanted to solve the problem of corporate tax avoidance by getting rid of corporation tax, but then, he and his organisation are out with the fantasists at the Taxpayers’ Alliance and IEA on this one.
One lawyer said she’s never seen tax evasion but thought it was very clearly distinct from avoidance and was not much of a problem, but if you knew the fees her firm charges you might realise why the crooks don’t go there. Frankly, her opinion was worthless as a consequence.
Richard Brooks of Private Eye was attacked by a lawyer who said he should never write with partial information and, anyway, he knew Richard got a lot wrong because he had worked on many of the cases Richard had written about. Richard asked for details and none were forthcoming. I think it quite fair of Richard to call that cowardly.
And then there was Justin King, former CEO of Sainsbury’s, who thinks too few people pay most tax, but had forgotten to notice quite how out of line his income was when compared to that of most people and who also wanted most corporation tax shifted on to VAT, along with all business rates being recharged in the same way – which might add £50 billion to the VAT bill and require an increase in the VAT rate to 30%, which is way beyond legal EU limits, which just shows how well he’d researched what he had to say. Why a retailer also advocates big price shocks in retail markets is also hard to fathom, and he never once noted the regressive impact of his suggestions.
But that was not as absurd as the person who works for a law firm who said that because she doubted figures published by NGOs on tax she also doubted the figures for deaths they claimed on Ebola, which took the most absurd comment of the day award.
To be honest, Michael Izza of the ICAEW and Will Morris of the CBI apart I heard not a single business commentator who showed any inkling of the complexity of tax issues yesterday. All we got were people saying they did not like tax, they did not like what it paid for, who denied there were tax problems or who sought to blame them all on bad law, and who questioned figures as if doing so would suggest that the problems they suggested existed would go away as a result. That revealed a stunning lack of comprehension, let alone analytical ability, and I was deeply unimpressed. I was amused to note Margaret Hodge dismissing much of the commentary rather cleverly in her closing comments. She was right to do so.