I had an interesting conversation on twitter last night with someone I don’t know from Canada – although I think he is British. The very topical subject was “why are wealthy people guilty of tax evasion not prosecuted?” And right from the start of the conversation my twitter friend, let’s call him Bill, made the point that in his view it would cost so much money and take so much time to prosecute them all, it would be counter productive. The cost would be more than the gain.
Bill is probably right. Tracking down the thousands of people identified by the Swiss Whistle blower (and let’s face it, as he says, his list is the tip of the iceberg) would cost a fortune and would probably result in very lengthy criminal trials where the only beneficiaries would be the lawyers. And Bill compared the situation to the gun amnesty used in the US. Hand in your unlicensed gun and we’ll say no more about it. Here the equivalent would be throw the tax man a few thousand pounds voluntarily and we’ll call it a day. I say a few thousand because, in the same way it wouldn’t be cost effective to prosecute these people, I can’t imagine HMRC have the manpower or even the will to do full on investigations into how much is actually owed?
My point was (and is) even considering the logistics of this situation, how can a democratic country ditch the law in the case of one section of society because it’s not cost effective to enforce law? Tax evasion is against the law and nowhere does it say “unless you are part of a rich minority who has been advised by your bank to shunt your money offshore.”
I also made the point HMRC will go through hell and high water to prosecute so called benefit cheats or even people on low incomes who may have been overpaid and then can’t pay it back. Similarly SMEs will be hounded for perceived VAT or tax issues and, if the man in the street doesn’t get all his tax returns in precisely on time and to their satisfaction, HMRC will be very efficient in sending out demands for what they calculate is owed or hefty fines. They also have no compunction about prosecuting for a few hundred pounds if they feel it is due. And that happens to thousands of people.
Bill made the point it doesn’t make any difference whether you cheat the tax man of £50.00 or £5M – it’s still against the law. I agree. So why do I have this horrible feeling you are less likely to be penalised for the £5M than the £50? And the same seems to be true of money laundering or other economic crimes. Big banks money laundering for drug cartels just get hefty fines paid by their shareholders but no one goes to jail. Here’s an extract from my book about HBOS (to be published in the dim and distant future) on these criminal but curiously acceptable transactions:
“And by the way, how does that happen? It’s common knowledge now that certain banks have done these totally illegal deals and, yet again, no one in any bank is to blame and instead, the shareholders have paid massive fines as a penalty for bankers conduct. But if no one’s to blame, how do the deals get done? Do the bosses of the drug cartels phone a special ‘money laundering’ call centre and listen to an anonymous voice giving various options: “Please dial 1 for drug deals, 2 for arms deals or 3 for off shore tax evasion. To hear these options again, please dial 4.” Or do the Banks have departments which deal specifically with these ‘dodgy transactions’ and where the staff work in the secure knowledge no one will ever go to jail for criminal deals because bankers are above the law?”
Then there’s other proven fraudulent products like IRHP – another fine. Out and out asset theft from SMEs – another fine. PPI, EFG, SFLG, it’s becoming like a game show – think of an acronym and the contestants get to guess the appropriate meaning and the applicable fine. Winner gets two weeks in the Caymen Islands all expenses (and of course taxes) paid by the FCA. But if you or I were to commit any deliberately fraudulent act to turn a quick profit, you could expect and get the full force of the law to come into force.
However, taxes and financial crime aside, what really disturbed me about my twitter conversation which, by the way, I thoroughly enjoyed because I love a good debate, was the apathy involved. While Bill agreed with me we shouldn’t have a two tier justice system, his very logical approach was, as Tony Soprano would say, wattayagonnado? We are where we are and there’s little we can do about it – apparently.
I am pretty sure the members of SME Alliance would not agree. Most of them (me included) have been victims of the many and varied banking scams which have devastated SMEs. Most of us have been fighting for justice for what seems like a lifetime and sometimes pretty much is and we are, putting it politely, extremely angry at the way banks, who have caused us so much damage, are never penalised except with shareholders fines. Neither are they obliged by the regulators to repair the damage done. So when we hear about people with very healthy off shore bank accounts, organised by their bank, becoming immune from prosecution, we are anything but apathetic, we’re furious. It’s another slap in the face of the British justice system and another reason we are losing faith in it.
But, being honest, I think back to my life before the consequences of fraudulent bankers and their associates kicked in – was I even aware of our two tier justice system? Admittedly inequality has got worse since the so called credit crunch but, if my business hadn’t been sabotaged and had instead fulfilled its full potential and made millions of pounds, would I be seriously concerned about the conduct of the likes of HSBC and its tax dodging clients? Would I be calling for prosecutions? Or would I be taking the rather detached and very logical approach Bill takes?
We have a saying in our house, “you can’t not know what you do know.” And that’s a shame because the things I now know after 7 years of investigating bank fraud and social injustice, very often stop me sleeping at night. I didn’t sleep much last night thinking it’s possible a massive segment of society may be so oblivious to what is happening to democracy or, more likely, just trying to get on with their own reduced circumstances in austerity Britain, they don’t even care about off shore accounts in Switzerland or Monaco. But I think (or should I say I hope) I would have been aware, albeit to a lesser degree, of the increasing dangers our democracy faces even if I hadn’t experienced the consequences personally. I’m a lyricist and a poet and I grew up listening to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez – so the spirit of protest has always been there. But who knows? As long as the comfortable remain comfortable, will they rock the boat? Hmmn. While apathy is, on the one hand a powerful tool for the State, it’s also a powerful tool for the individual conscience.
“If there is nothing I can do about injustice, no one can blame me for doing nothing.” It’s a scary concept but one that has helped permit every shameful human catastrophe.
Anyway, I don’t know what the resolution is to the HSBC tax evaders or the many other tax evaders who were no doubt advised by other banks. Quite frankly, I think those banks must be bricking it in case their own whistle blowers come forward. I agree with Bill, it is impractical to think HMRC can or will prosecute all of these people. But, and remembering this year sees the 800th birthday of the Magna Carta, if we are truly a democratic society, I cannot see how Government, or the appropriate authority, cannot prosecuted them? After all, one person has been prosecuted and surely that has set the precedent? And what was so special about that case? Seems a bit harsh – thousands do it but only one pays the price.
I wouldn’t like to be running this Country. Whatever good intentions any of our politicians have, there seems to be an endless barrage of obstacles in the way of good governance and most of those involve the necessity to compromise and close their eyes to the kind of corruption that is swamping the Country. Hard, I imagine, not to just go with the flow for the 5 years they are in power. And hardest for those in power as opposed to those in opposition where it’s easy to shout foul (especially if you have a short memory)!
If anyone thinks they have the answer to the current problem – is it possible to prosecute every criminal act in the financial system and the associated activities like tax evasion, I’d be happy to hear it and I’m sure many politicians would as well. If we did take this route, we’d have to build a lot more prisons because financial crime, without doubt, is more epidemic or contagious than the flu and we have no jab for it. We seem to have no cure for corruption.
I leave you with a poem I wrote in 2003. I rarely inflict poetry on my blog readers but this one seems entirely appropriate.
I am a member of
I am working my way up in the company
and should shortly become
a bored member.
Membership was free
and just slipped onto my shoulders
during a raging storm,
like a comfortable old raincoat.
The effects are almost unnoticeable
as is everything else now.
And, as in all such large organisations,
only non members receive active attention,
so I fully expect to disappear completely and painlessly any day now.
(Which I really can’t worry about).
But late at night I wake up
as a distant but unfiltered image of raw gaping wounds stabs me
and I can hear the hideous cackle of the devil’s favourite shareholders
and I recognise the voice of our beloved CEO crooning
and I think I will implode with panic.
But in the grey reasoned morning light
I think –
what could I do? Nothing.
So I don’t –
except to gently fondle my membership badge.
© Nikki Turner 2003