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There are constant reports in the media of people wrongly claiming benefits, receiving hundreds, sometimes thousands more than they should have, because they have the nerve to cheat the system. The same happens in the tax world, with HMRC missing thousands of people that manage to put their money elsewhere, avoiding complying with Britain’s tax law. The recent scandal of the Panama Papers shows that even some of Britain’s trusted banks have helped their wealthy customers keep their money elsewhere, as tax evasions becomes a real and serious issue. The fact that both criminal offences are at large in Britain leaves us to beg the question; which is worse in the eyes of our government?
Council tax. The dreaded two words that affects every home owner, yet one that many try and get out of. Not a few weeks ago there was the case of Amin Mutyaba, who cheated the benefits system of a massive £30,000 by claiming benefit as a single person, yet sub -letting his property to over 50 people in less than ten years, failing to alert DWP or the council of the money he was earning from rental income. This meant he still received his benefit, and he was able to claim a single person discount on his own council tax. Needless to say Mutyaba was found guilty and is being forced to pay back every bit of benefit he was overpaid by, but he is surely just one case in thousands. In fact, a report released by parliament claimed that a 2013 survey found that almost a quarter of all benefits were claimed fraudulently, which shows how unaware Britain were of the scale of the issue.
Last year, The National Audit Office published incorrect payments made to claimants by the DWP, and in total it seemed claimants were overpaid a massive £4.6 bn, either by the mistakes of the DWP or because of fraud. Obviously when you look at the drastic cuts the government have considered in a bid to save money (disability allowance being one, NHS another) there is no surprise that these overpayments have angered the innocent tax payer.
Benefits – Free Money?
The ‘scrounger’ connotation that comes with benefits is definitely one known to us all, the mind-set that benefits are just free money for those that ‘can’t be bothered to work.’ The benefit fraudsters really do blacken the name of receiving money from the government, and as the economy begins to fail, the general public blame claimants under one big umbrella. Benefits are only ‘free money’ to those that steal it, not those in need of help.
Although the amount paid out in benefit fraud each year is shockingly high, it can be argued that the real issue affecting the financial state of the economy is the avoidance and evasion of tax, which has been brought into light once again following the Panama Paper revelations. According to HMRC, a massive £34 bn. worth of tax went uncollected in 2013/2014, this all amounted from issues such as uncollected VAT, uncollected income tax and although only an estimate, about £1.4bn of this was thought to be as a result of sheer tax evasion.
Research concludes that when all is said and done, the higher amount of money lost in total, comes from those guilty of tax evasion, rather than those cheating their way into benefits. However, figures (that have already been presented to Cameron in the House of Commons by the SNP) show that far more government inspectors are being employed to investigate benefit fraud than they are tax avoidance, arguably by the wealthiest residents of the UK, The figures show that 3,250 DWP staff have been employed to investigate welfare fraud, while only a mere 300 are dealing with the criminal activities of the rich when it comes to avoiding paying their taxes. Cameron’s unhelpful response was simply; ‘the predominant job of the DWP is to make sure people receive their benefits. The predominant job of HMRC is to make sure people pay their taxes.’ He also said that the claims presented to him in parliament were absurd. He was defended (obviously) by a spokesperson for the HMRC that said; the suggestion that only 300 HMRC people are working against evasion by the wealthy is plain wrong. We have over 26, 000 people working right across the range of our enforcement and compliance business focussed on stopping tax-evasion, avoidance and fraud, day in, day out.’
However, the creation of HMRC’s ‘affluent unit’ created in October 2011 has 320 workers that focus purely on those with assets worth over one million and an income of over £150 000 per year (the clue is in the name). In fairness, there is also the tax office’s ‘high net worth’ unit which does have a further 400 investigators and looks after those with £20m worth of assets (around 6,200 in the UK).The entire model is said to have been created in order to help those paying large volumes of tax, do it easily and conveniently, but again has been targeted by critics, saying it is basically allowing the wealthy tax payer to choose the amount of tax they will be paying. The entire system was described by John Cauldwell, founder of Phones4you as ‘open to be abused.’ It is worth noting that amidst this claim, he is also a millionaire.
Although not necessarily turning a blind eye, it does seem that government focus leans more towards the benefit fraudster. Whilst no cheat should be let off lightly, is the government paying less attention to the seriousness of tax evasion? What issue worries you more?