UK Uncut have made a fatal error

Posted on December 10, 2012

UK Uncut has a pretty simple mission. They think corporate taxes should be higher than they are. Therefore they protest at the shops and outlets of the brands they have judged are not paying enough. The objective is to force the companies to cough up over and above their legal requirements out of a combination of shame and commercial inconvenience.

It’s a pretty messy approach, catching customers and ordinary staff in slanging matches which should really be between activists and Chief Executives. It has also led to UK Uncutters getting remarkably outraged about the idea that a company might have the right to not allow them on their property.

Last week, the movement had its first major victory. Starbuck’s buckled under the pressure and agreed to pay £20 million to the taxman which it does not legally owe. It was a jubilant moment for the high tax pressure group, but within days they have managed to turn their first victory into what may very possibly be their last.

Successful political campaigning is about stick and carrot, pleasure and pain. I want you to change your position, and to persuade you to do so I need to do two things: 1) make your current position extremely uncomfortable and 2) make the new position I am proposing much more attractive.

UK Uncut have done the first thing pretty well. Aided by the Guardian, which itself uses some complex but entirely legal jiggery pokery to keep its tax bill at a minimum, they have driven large amounts of negative media exposure for the firms they target at the same time as besieging their shops and cafes until they are forced to close. Like the Sith, they may be using their powers in the pursuit of the wrong ends, but you can’t deny their Force is strong.

So, having hammered Starbucks into submission and extracted voluntary payments into the Exchequer as planned, the next step would naturally be to congratulate them. End the boycott and move on to other targets, now the precedent has been set, proving to others that doing what you ask will bring rewards.

But, instead, on Saturday HMRC’s little helpers were back at Starbucks’ door – shouting at customers, grappling with police and making a general nuisance of themselves. Just as they did before the baristas opened their wallet.

This is a fatal error. The message UK Uncut have sent is that if you do what they ask in response to their beating you with the stick, they will put the carrot away and hit you some more.

Other UK Uncut targets will have been watching closely. When Starbucks took the plunge, they will have wondered if they should follow suit – particularly if it would be worthwhile to save them the disruption caused by these fiscal versions of Mary Whitehouse.

The lesson they will take now is precisely the opposite. Why bother bowing to UK Uncut’s demands if your reward is more punishment, more heckling and more trouble? Unless their tactics change, I suspect we won’t see anyone else do what UK Uncut want for quite some time to come.

A funny idea of justice

Posted on September 15, 2010

Here’s a stark contrast.

Today saw the welcome rejection of a Labour proposal to make taxpayers compensate those people who voluntarily bought ID cards should the cards be abolished.

Shadow Home Affairs Minister Meg Hillier accused the Government of having “diddled” ID card enthusiasts, while Denis Macshane hilariously objected to the idea of the State having “confiscated” people’s property. Of course Denis would never otherwise support the forcible seizure of property by the state – through tax, for example – would he?

It’s absolutely right that this amendment was slung out. Governments change and policies are scrapped, that’s the way democracy works. The Conservatives and Lib Dems have long made perfectly clear that they would scrap the intrusive monstrosity of the ID card system.

While the erstwhile MPs on the Opposition benches spoke keenly today of Governments not swindling people, their involvement in the HMRC scandal tells a different story. The tax miscalculations that are landing huge numbers of people with massive extra bills took place on their watch, and were certainly made worse by the complexity they introduced to the tax system.

While Meg Hillier demanded “justice” and “fairness” for ID card holders she turned a conveniently blind eye to the injustices of the system for dealing with tax miscalculations. If you overpay tax, you only have the right to backdate claims for recompense from HMRC for four years. However, if you underpay then the taxman can backdate his demand for six years.

Such a system is unfair and unjust – but Meg Hillier should know that, seeing as she was a Minister in the Government that introduced the imbalance to the system. Perhaps she could take that up as her new crusade?

Abolish HMRC – and bring in the little old ladies

Posted on September 13, 2010

In my first few days at the TaxPayers’ Alliance, the HMRC data loss scandal broke. An agency that compels people to hand over their money and their personal details had exposed a horrific inability to fulfil its responsibilities to the public.

And now they’ve done it again. The announcement that 5.7 million people were taxed incorrectly, and at least 1.4 million are left facing huge bills to repay, shows that if HMRC has changed at all it has gone from embarassingly mediocre to irretrievably catastrophic.

The one redeeming feature of the taxman’s behaviour when they lost all that personal data was that its Chairman, Paul Gray, resigned as soon as the scandal came to light (though that was swiftly tempered when we found out how much he was being paid to leave). This time, the opposite happened – Dave Hartnett, HMRC’s permanent secretary for tax, swanned about at the weekend saying “we didn’t get it wrong” (which they clearly did) and there was therefore no need to apologise (which there obviously was).

Under pressure from the Treasury, Hartnett has now changed his tune and said sorry. But sorry is not enough – numerous senior heads must roll for this appalling and repeated incompetence.

The people deserve to see blood, the people responsible deserve the axe and HMRC itself a proper bloodletting if it is ever to recover. HMRC’s boss should get out his chopping block, or the Chancellor should do it – and sack him too.

In the short term, the tax authorities need a kick up the backside. In the long term, the only solution to the continued failure to administer the tax system properly is vastly simplifying our taxes. If we had simple, flat taxation there would be almost no need for an HMRC at all – people could work out their own taxes and instead of this blundering behemoth all we would require would be a few little old ladies to open the envelopes and cash the cheques.

They couldn’t be any less competent than the current bunch, and they would have a lot fewer ways in which they could ruin people’s lives.