The release of the Paradise Papers has unleashed popular outrage, but criminal tax evasion should be a much greater story than tax avoidance, says Robert Bruce
This article was first published in the January 2018 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
There is an enduring myth that comes down from childhood. In an early form it was Robert Louis Stevenson and his tale of Treasure Island. Beneath the palm trees of far-off islands lies buried treasure. But the location is a secret and you need to do battle with pirates and buccaneers to gain your rightful reward.
For our times the story is retold in the form of the Paradise Papers, sheaves of secret papers that could lead the righteous to the contemporary version of the treasure chest: millions of pounds and dollars of potentially unpaid taxes. It was revealed in early November that upwards of 13 million financial and legal documents detailing tax-related transactions had somehow found their way from a blue-chip Bermuda-based law firm to a global consortium of journalists.
And the buried treasure was being spread wide. The New York Times had fun at the expense of Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook. Back in 2013 a Senate investigative committee had found that the company had, legally, avoided billions of dollars in US taxes by moving profits to Ireland. Cook defended the company to the committee. ‘We don’t depend on tax gimmicks,’ he said. ‘We don’t stash money on some Caribbean Island.’ On the basis of what the Paradise Papers revealed, The New York Times could now respond: ‘True enough. The island Apple would soon rely on was in the English Channel.’
And at the other end of the spectrum the revelation that some of the actors in the British television comedy Mrs Brown’s Boys had put £2m into an offshore scheme prompted The Times newspaper’s political blog to say: ‘This must mean they actually get paid to make that show. Amazing.’ It is a flippant and funny aside. But even if unwittingly, it gets to heart of the importance of the Paradise Papers. The financial disclosures may undergo forensic examination and produce extraordinary detail. But the real value of having them out in the open is that it unleashes a tidal wave of popular outrage onto those palm-fringed beaches.
Derision is a great deterrent. The loss of reputation and the feeling of guilt by association are achieving a sea-change in tax behaviour. This is one of the main lessons that the publication of the papers underlines and it reflects a trend little understood by the public. The furore around the Paradise Papers, and the Panama Papers before them, obscures the fact that misbehaviour in this arena of tax is on the wane, certainly in the UK.
The latest UK estimates of uncollected but due tax, popularly known as the tax gap, suggests that, in the words of George Bull, senior tax partner at accountants RSM, ‘the solid downward trend of tax avoidance is quite remarkable’. The UK tax authority, HMRC, pulled in a record extra £29bn last year from its efforts in that field.
It is this sort of success that tends to be overshadowed by all the razzamatazz and assumptions behind the publication of the Paradise Papers. ‘After years of hard work and new tax laws, HMRC has brought the tax avoidance part of the tax gap down to £1.7bn,’ says Bull. Meanwhile pure criminal tax evasion such as the shadow economy, the figures show, is increasing significantly. And that is what doesn’t appear in any Paradise-type revelations. ‘There was a lot of tax planning but not much dirty money,’ as one veteran expert put it.
Tax evaders tend not to use official channels that involve lawyers and accountants. ‘By contrast, the hidden economy and tax evasion together cost the UK £8.7m a year in lost tax,’ says Bull. ‘Nevertheless, MPs and many outside parliament choose to concentrate on tax avoidance almost to the exclusion of all else.’
The blizzard of information also muddies the tropical waters in that much of the investment activity the Paradise Papers show is perfectly normal and legal, as investment funds put their money where lower costs provide higher returns, which is why all manner of respectable organisations like the UK parliamentary pension fund found themselves in the limelight.
Robert Bruce is an accountancy commentator and journalist
"The furore around the Paradise Papers, and the earlier Panama Papers, obscures the fact that misbehaviour in this arena of tax is on the wane "