Monday, 3 December 2012

The brass neck of Danny Alexander



Tax avoidance has become something of a hot political issue recently - mainly because of the tens of billions of pounds that big companies just find ways not to pay. It's a sum, incidentally, that dwarfs (let's see) welfare fraud, or the annual cost of tuition fees, or any number of other political 'costs' that politicians don't really like to tally up. So the Government's keen to bring in some extra cash (and a bit of much-needed popularity) if it can.

That's what's behind the Chief Secretary to the Treasury's tour around the radio and television studios today. Danny Alexander (above), the Treasury's Liberal Democrat number two, has been saying that the Government is devoting just over £150m to stopping up some of the loopholds and rat-runs that large corporations use to avoid paying their fair share towards the cost of austerity.

But it's just a sticking-plaster of an announcement, without much basis in reality, when Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs has been absolutely hammered by some of the largest administrative cuts Whitehall has faced (£2bn and counting, since you ask). Struggling staff won't exactly raise a cheer when, having been mugged at the station, they're given a fiver or a tenner back by their assailant's apologist. A spokesman who won't even poke miscreants in the eye by laying out exactly who they are, and what they've been doing. Or even say whether he uses their products.

It's not Mr Alexander himself. He's got only a slim chance of hanging on to his Parliamentary seat at the next General Election anyway - a fact that might help explain his willingness to stand up to his Conservative Coalition 'partners' over issues such as green energy.

It's the principle of the thing - and why American-style 'fact checkers' are springing up all over the place. We can't let 'post-fact' politics take root here, as it has across swathes of the fantastical American right. They called it right when the Prime Minister recently said that his administration was 're-investing' £900m to stop tax evasion. What he really meant, of course, was that No. 10 was intervening inside HMRC to move some increasingly-scarce cash around. It's exactly the same sleight-of-hand that we've seen today, and it's just not acceptable after all the misrepresentations, re-announcements and re-packagings of the Brown era.

The Government is, to be fair, talking about cracking down on notorious tax havens such as Jersey (which has been impotently threatening to sever ties with the UK as a result). And it's got a mixed, rather than absolutely terrible, recent record in the rather cloudy world of international negotiations over tax havens - the only level at which any sort of administrative action will work anyway. So it's not all doom and gloom.

But today's 'announcement'? What a joke.

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