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How Corrupt is Britain?

People laughed when MP Neil Hamilton was found to have accepted money in a brown envelope – this is not the British way. But the bestowal of directorships and employment for family and friends is acceptable – ‘good form’ – lucrative and legal.

George Monbiot points out that many poor nations are plagued by the kind of corruption that involves paying bribes in that way, but adds that the British system already belongs to the elite.

cameron corruption

He notes that Transparency International’s corruption index ranks Britain 14th – why not lower? His explanation: “the definitions of corruption on which the index draws are narrow and selective. Common practices in the rich nations that could reasonably be labelled corrupt are excluded; common practices in the poor nations are emphasised”.

A former minister ran HSBC while it engaged in systematic tax evasion, money laundering for drugs gangs and the provision of services to Saudi and Bangladeshi banks linked to the financing of terrorists. Instead of prosecuting the bank, the head of the UK’s tax office went to work for it when he retired.

The Private Finance Initiative has been used by our governments to deceive us about the extent of their borrowing while channelling public money into the hands of corporations. Shrouded in secrecy, stuffed with hidden sweeteners, it has landed hospitals and schools with unpayable debts, while hiding public services from public scrutiny.

Monbiot reminds us that state police forces are alleged to have protected prolific paedophiles, including Jimmy Savile, and – it is now reported – a ring of senior politicians. The BBC has sacked many of those who sought to expose him while promoting people who tried to perpetuate the cover-up. He cites other forms of corruption:

  • our unreformed political funding system which permits the very rich to buy political parties;
  • the phone-hacking scandal and the payment of police by newspapers;
  • the underselling of Royal Mail;
  • the revolving door allowing corporate executives to draft the laws affecting their businesses;
  • the robbing of the welfare and prison services by private contractors;
  • price-fixing by energy companies;
  • daylight robbery by pharmaceutical firms and dozens more such cases.

Monbiot asks, “Is none of this corruption? Or is it too sophisticated to qualify?”

The power of global finance and the immense wealth of the global elite are founded on corruption, and the beneficiaries have an interest in framing the question to excuse themselves.

how corrupt britianA ground-changing book called How Corrupt is Britain?, edited by David Whyte, was recently published. It argues that narrow conceptions of corruption are part of a long tradition of portraying the problem as something confined to weak nations, which must be rescued by “reforms” imposed by colonial powers and, more recently, bodies such as the World Bank and the IMF. These “reforms” mean austerity, privatisation, outsourcing and deregulation and tend to suck money out of the hands of the poor and into the hands of national and global oligarchs.

Monbiot believes that How Corrupt is Britain? should be read by anyone who believes this country merits its position on the Transparency International’s corruption index.

Tax cheats (£34-120bn) cost far more than benefits cheats (£1+ bn) – yet far fewer are prosecuted

hmrcAnalysis of HMRC data shows that the political culture is sympathetic to tax avoiders

Summary of an article by Prem Sikka, professor of accounting at the University of Essex, which may be read in full here, adding official data confirming the thoughts of John Wight

Social security benefits come in many shapes, including the state pension, pension credits, income support, disability living allowance, employment and support allowance, jobseeker’s allowances and housing benefits.

  • The total cost of all benefits for 2013-14 is about £164 billion.
  • Around £1.2 billion or 0.7 per cent of the total is attributed to fraud. ‘
  • Benefit fraud has continued to average between 0.6 per cent and 0.8 per cent for the period 2005/06 to 20013/14.

The government has set up a benefit fraud hotline and people are encouraged the blow the whistle on their neighbours and anyone else suspected of fraud. The sanctions:

  • a £50 spot fine, without a court order, on individuals who mistakenly provide inaccurate information on their claims forms.
  • Those suspected of fraud may be able to pay fines of between £350 and £2,000 in lieu for prosecution. From April 2015, the upper limit of the fine will be £5,000.
  • Some may lose their benefits altogether for a fixed period.
  • Private debt collection firms, bailiffs and forced house sales are used to collect penalties.
  • Suspects can be charged under the Fraud Act 2006, which carries a maximum prison sentence of up to 10 years.

The data shows that most of the criminal convictions are for frauds of less than £10,000. In 2011, two-thirds of fines imposed were for £200 or less. The largest fine imposed was £5,000. For the period 2008-2012, some 1,306 offenders received a prison sentence.

Benefit fraud is officially estimated to cost £1.2 billion (2013-2014) but HMRC estimates an annual tax gap – that is tax avoidance, tax evasion and monies of £34 billion (2012-13).

HMRC’s model is challenged by others who put the tax gap at around £120 billion.

Even in 2004, a former World Bank adviser was saying that the UK is losing over £100 billion a year to tax avoidance and evasion. HMRC’s 2013-14 report states that during the year 421 individuals were detained after arrest by HMRC officers, but none were charged.

Preliminary conclusions

The amounts attributed by the government to tax avoidance and evasion are much larger than the amounts attributed to benefit fraud. But the number of prosecutions and convictions for benefit fraud are much greater.

The political culture is more sympathetic to tax avoiders. HMRC was made aware of the HSBC tax frauds in 2008, but so far only one person has been charged. An excuse offered by HMRC is that it likes to make financial recoveries and thus does not go for prosecutions.

The revolving door swings and tax avoiders go scot-free

Vodafone cio to HMRCWe add that in 2013, just as the Treasury was under pressure to review rules allowing Vodafone to avoid paying tax on its massive £84bn windfall from selling its stake in the American mobile phone giant Verizon, HMRC appointed Mark Dearnley, CIO at Vodafone, as its new Chief Digital and Information Officer.

Sikka points out that, on a number of occasions, the courts have declared some of the tax avoidance schemes to be unlawful. This has not been followed-up by any investigation or even recovery of the cost of fighting the schemes. Big accountancy firms are often the brains behind the schemes but no firm or partner has ever been fined even after the schemes have been declared unlawful.

  • The same firms are given taxpayer-funded contracts, such as those relating to privatisation and Private Finance Initiative (PFI).
  • Their partners advise HM Treasury and other government departments.
  • The firms fund political parties and also provide jobs for former and potential ministers.

In April 2013, the government introduced rules to ban companies and individuals who took part in failed tax avoidance schemes from being awarded government contracts. So far, no such business has been barred.