Whitehaven News column – 19th February 2015

‘Little People’ Like Us…

Bills. Life wouldn’t be the same without them. We don’t like paying them, but – like taxes – we know we have to. Like taxes, we know that if we don’t pay our bills then we stand a good chance of going to jail or being placed on a debtor’s register. Like taxes, we know that the money we are being asked to pay when we receive or bills for is for services that we need and use. Like taxes, we know that if we don’t pay our bills, then those to whom we owe the money will be able to do far less than they might otherwise be able to do.

We’ve just passed that gut wrenching January 31st deadline for submitting tax returns. Like me, you’ll have settled any outstanding moneys and you’ll be looking at how you do that and deal with the Christmas credit card bills. That’s life. Over recent weeks, like me, you’ll have been waching with growing anger as more and more revelations emerge regarding the HSBC bank and its role in tax dodging. HSBC now faces reputational disaster after secret bank files leaked to UK newspapers showed that the bank’s Swiss subsidiary encouraged massive tax avoidance and allowed clients to withdraw ‘bricks’ of cash.

This anger has turned into a boiling fury as No.10 Downing St continues to resist calls from Labour and the Lib Dem cabinet member, Vince Cable to investigate why Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs – the same people who hound disabled people ‘on benefits’ – failed to pursue those guilty of tax evasion with anything like the vigour they pursue the most vulnerable in society. Why would the Prime Minister resist such an inquiry? Could those named in the secret files perhaps donate large sums to his party?

Why does this matter? I’ve never yet met anyone who would like to voluntarily pay more in tax than they have to and I doubt I ever will. There is an enormous difference between tax avoidance (legal and understandable) and tax evasion (illegal and immoral). Because when people don’t pay their due taxes it isn’t about whether or not you or I like them spending their windfalls on a new yacht – good luck to those who can legitimately afford to do that. No, when people evade due taxation I don’t think about the Bentleys or the homes in the Bahamas. I don’t think about the dirty money being syphoned off to the Conservative Party or any other political party. I think about our Civic Hall, the public toilets, grass cutting, our closed courts, the West Cumberland Hospital, and our secondary schools that had a rebuilding fund of almost £70 million taken away from them in West Cumbria alone when this government came into office. I think about those isolated elderly people trapped in their homes, unable to afford home care visits. I think about all the public sector workers in our community who face pay freeze after pay freeze. That’s what you should think of when you think of tax evaders, too, because their actions have a profound effect upon us all.

American businesswoman Leona Helmsley, nicknamed the ‘Queen of Mean’ was convicted of income tax evasion and other crimes in 1989. Although having initially received a sentence of 16 years, Helmsley was required to serve only 19 months in prison and two months under house arrest. During the trial, a former housekeeper testified that she had heard Helmsley say: “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”

The longer the Prime Minister blocks an investigation the more it appears that this is a sentiment that both he and the strangely invisible George Osborne agree with wholeheartedly.

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