The Artful Dodgers

Sometimes The Times prints useful or interesting information – not often, but sometimes; which means it does need to be checked from time to time. Last Saturday (17th July), there were two related pieces that were worth reading (I could supply the links – but these days you have to pay for The Times’ online content, and it ain’t that good).

An article by Andrew Ellson was all about how benefit fraud is routinely punished in British courts with a jail sentence, and how tax evasion almost never is. Beginning with the legendary quote from US billionaire, Leona Helmsley, that “only the little people pay taxes” Mr Ellson relates a couple of cases to help illustrate his point.

We learn how one Susanne Rees was sentenced to 60 days in prison for defrauding her local council of £19,000 in benefits, but how a certain Michael Frost, who admitted evading payment of £65,000 income tax, was punished with a mere 60 hours community service. Mr Frost is no doubt a relatively small player – otherwise it’s unlikely he would have had to suffer even that small indignity. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, for example, a very big player indeed, pays “almost no tax worldwide” – according to Boyle and Simms in their New Economics – A Bigger Picture; but as Mr Ellson works for one of Murdoch’s papers I’ll excuse him from reminding us about that.

Also omitted from Mr Ellson’s piece was any reference to the glee with which the entire nation’s media always and routinely leap upon any story of benefit fraudsters (and it’s even better if they’re immigrants), but how they usually appear to be looking the other way when it comes to cases of tax evasion.

Mr Ellson went on:

A quick trawl through court records shows that defendants convicted of benefits fraud of more than £20,000 are often sent to prison… Yet fewer than one in every 1,000 people subject to HM Revenue & Customs investigation for tax evasion is prosecuted to the degree that a criminal sentence even becomes a possibility… Paul Malkinson, the chairman of Boston United Football Club, avoided jail despite defrauding the taxman of almost £400,000. Had Mr Malkinson’s cleaner fraudulently claimed even a tenth as much in housing benefit, you can be sure that she would have ended up in prison.

The second article related to today’s theme was by Christine Seib, writing from New York. Her piece was about banking giant Citigroup.

Citigroup is having a hissy-fit because the British government has dared to send them a tax bill. The bank, with assets of around $2trillion, is squawking about a $400million tax bill (50% of which it paid out in discretionary bonuses), and has “threatened to pull out of Britain if the Government imposed further swingeing taxes (sic) on banks.”

Our trusted leaders, clearly concerned about upsetting the corporate world, humbly rub their hands Uriah Heep-like and assure them that the tax bill is a “one-off.” Why the British government should be so anxious to appease foreign companies who don’t want to pay any taxes whilst imprisoning home-grown petty fraudsters is a fairly interesting question. It’s yet another example of how far removed our government is from its people, most of whom would respond by offering to help hasten the bank’s departure (or words to that effect), AFTER they’ve paid up, of course, or done their time just like any other villain should.

Britain arguably leads the world in the gentle art of tax evasion. It has for many decades hosted the wishes of the world’s super-rich through the super-discreet services of the shadowy operators residing in its numerous island dependencies, safe and sound from any prying eyes. (Poacher-turned-gamekeeper John Christensen’s superb essay ‘Dirty Money: Inside the Secret World of Offshore Banking’ is a must-read for anyone slightly interested in this quite obscene little subject.)

So whilst your average working stiff struggles to pay her taxes like a good girl, and meekly accepts our trusted leaders’ exhortation to tighten her belt and wave goodbye to the public services she hopes her taxes are paying for, because There Is No Alternative; whilst we meekly accept the right of US investigators to pry into almost every personal bank account in Europe in the holy name of the ‘war on terror’, the super-super-rich are sulking about trifling tax bills and thinking about taking their custom elsewhere…

Well, allow me to get the door.

John Andrews is a writer and political activist based in England. His latest booklet is entitled EnMo Economics. Other Non-Fiction books by John are: The People's Constitution (2018 Edition); and The School of Kindness (2018 Edition); and his historical novel The Road to Emily Bay Read other articles by John.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. MichaelKenny said on July 22nd, 2010 at 1:07pm #

    Mr Andrews asks why the British government should be so anxious to appease foreign, in plain English, American, companies who don’t want to pay any taxes whilst imprisoning home-grown petty fraudsters and answers his own question when he talks about US investigators prying into everything. As the attacks on Greece and Latvia show, the American dinosaur is lashing out wildly in its death agonies and common sense suggests that the wisest strategy is to keep out of its way until it keels over. I would guess that is why the British and other European governments are simply grinning and bearing it for the moment. As with the collpase of the Soviet Empire, the collapse of the American Empire will make many things easier.

  2. John Andrews said on July 23rd, 2010 at 11:48pm #

    It’s probably a little premature to be writing obits… and don’t forget, if the world wasn’t being oppressed by the US government, history suggests it would be struggling for air beneath someone else’s jackboot. It is an inevitable consequence of the fact that war and slavery are highly profitable… for those who run empires.