The Tax Journal has an article that it suggests is an end of Parliament scorecard on the efforts of the last government in tackling tax avoidance and tax evasion. Written by my General Anti-Abuse Rule colleague and sparring partner, Graham Aaronson, together with Stephen Bousher (who I do not know), the article is either naive or disingenuous in taking much of what the government has done and said at face value. Graham Aronson is not a man who I consider to be naive, and so I have to presume the alternative.
In that case the result is almost inevitable: Graham and his colleague conclude that there is no area of activity where the government deserves anything less than high marks with regard to these issues. As usual, I have to beg to differ with Graham. I have related countless reasons why his claim is not true, from deliberate failure to calculate the tax gap correctly, to the sacking large numbers of staff, to closing local tax offices, to failing to tackle large companies and their abuse, to inappropriate recommendation of the use of the Lichtenstein Disclosure Facility, to simple corporate capture of the Board of HMRC. Add on to that a failure to close the tax gap, the fact that tax evasion has largely been ignored to date, and failure to collect tax from maybe a million limited companies that do not submit tax returns year and we have a catalogue of failure to consider.
Is there anything good to say about Graham's account? This, maybe:
We give full marks for spurring on and harnessing the power of public opinion, to treat tax avoidance as fiscal behaviour that is not to be tolerated. Anecdotally, we understand that this message has been received loud and clear by most of the major corporates; and few, if any, now have the appetite to indulge in anything that could be regarded as aggressive tax avoidance.
I think he is right that the message has been heard. I am not so sure that aggressive tax avoidance is, as yet, a thing of the past. I am still seeing it. But I thank him for this:
Certainly, there have been other players who have stoked the fires and fanned the flames. Richard Murphy of the Tax Justice Network effectively addressed an increasingly receptive audience.
Maybe I did, but Graham is quite wrong to give me all the credit: this was the work of many, many campaigners.
He's also wrong about the PAC of whom he says:
Margaret Hodge used her position as chairman of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee to make repeated headline grabbing attacks on HMRC for what she saw as its shortcomings in tackling avoidance and evasion, and turned on large corporates for what she saw as their shortcomings in paying their appropriate contribution in tax.
And then adds:
We give high marks to the government for enabling HMRC to strengthen its counter evasion work (together with a black mark against Margaret Hodge and the Public Accounts Committee for, in our personal opinion, unfairly pillorying HMRC in relation to this).
He's just wrong on that score: HMRC's deserve every single criticism that they got.
But I find this one amusing:
We also give full marks for enacting and then leaving the GAAR as it was originally designed. It must have been tempting to ride the tide of public opinion and broaden the GAAR’s scope; but to its credit the government has resisted that temptation.
Perhaps Graham did not notice that George Osborne announced that penalty arrangements would be attached to the GAAR in future in his last budget. This was something I fought Graham on long and hard. It's the first of the changes needed to the GAAR. There will be more to come.
So, if I might, let me award a mark for Graham's efforts. Two out of five might be appropriate for effort, but a lot more analysis, broader scope and the use of more critical thinking would have improve the work no end.
But that, perhaps, was not its purpose.