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Challenging the tax dodgers

Tom Holness on the targets of UK Uncut

Last year, wealthy individuals and large multinational corporations avoided £25bn of tax using convoluted and contrived schemes whose only purpose is to shift income and profits offshore. They do this every year. But this year, the ConDem coalition are planning to cut £20bn of government spending, which is hitting low and average earners hardest, destroying vital public services and making many people redundant.

In October 2010, Private Eye revealed that Vodafone had been running a scam involving profits being shifted from its UK company to Lichtenstein which Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) ruled illegal.  Private Eye estimated that Vodafone was liable for a tax bill of around £6bn accumulated between 2000 and 2008 and Vodafone itself had put aside £2.1bn in its accounts for 2004 to cover the tax liability.  HMRC decided to settle with Vodafone for £800m initial payment plus a further £450m over 5 years.

In protest at this huge tax dodge, which could have paid for much of the UK council spending cuts, activists decided to occupy Vodafone’s flagship Oxford Street store.

UK Uncut does not have a central organising committee.  Local groups choose their own ways to organize and their own targets. There have been meetings held on Twitter, and the original group of activists maintain a UK Uncut website and twitter feed, which act as a central dissemination point for information.  It would be wrong to describe this as an online movement – social networking sites facilitate UK Uncut but it is local organising and real world activism that defines it.

Since October 2010, there have been hundreds of actions.  On the 18th December (the last Saturday before Christmas), 55 towns and cities took action against a variety of high street tax cheats – Vodafone, TopShop, Burtons, Bhs, Boots, HSBC and M&S have all been targeted.  This is now a truly UK wide movement with actions in major metropolises like Manchester and Birmingham, large towns like Brighton, Belfast and Dundee and small towns like Truro and Eastleigh.

What unites the local groups is the notion of taking non-violent direct action against tax dodgers by occupying shops and disrupting the business directly – indeed many shops have decided to close, often before anyone even entered them.  In doing so activists draw attention and have the opportunity to speak to the public and inform them about the scam that the company or individual is running.  All this tarnishes the brand image of the companies involved, reducing business further.

At this point in time – less than six months since the campaign began – it is difficult to judge its success.  We have not heard of any companies shutting down their offshore operations and moving profits back into the UK to become tax compliant. Mrs Green has not transferred her ownership of Arcadia groups companies back to her husband and no company has adopted country-by-country reporting.

However, the National Audit Office has announced they will be investigating how HMRC does deals with companies, an important event if HSBC are to be chased for the full £2bn they owe.  We have also seen high street companies employing PR agencies to help them deal with their shops being occupied – a clear sign they are worried about their brand image.

Polls now show that Government approval has changed from positive to negative, and that more people think the cuts are unfair than fair – a huge shift from the middle of 2010.

UK Uncut actions have played their part in this, receiving national and local press – not just in the Guardian and Independent but in traditionally right wing press such as the Daily Mail (which has been very supportive, despite being a tax dodger itself) and the Sun (which has not been supportive, perhaps because NewsCorp are notorious tax dodgers).

Even the Financial Times has come on board with UKUncut’s aims (though it hasn’t endorsed the methods), and has called for companies to adopt country-by-country reporting to increase the transparency of tax affairs and ensure that tax is paid to the communities that profits have been extracted from, to help pay for the services that the companies depend on for their businesses to operate.

Remember, if you are an average earner, you pay more tax than Philip Green, the 9th richest person in the UK, who in 2005 paid a £1.2bn dividend to his wife (who lives in Monaco) in order to cheat the UK taxpayer out of £300m.  If you think that is wrong, then get involved. 

 

Go to www.ukuncut.org.uk and have a look at their actions page to see when the next action in your locality is.  If you are on Twitter, follow @UK Uncut or search for an uncut feed for your town (eg: @BrightonUncut).  If you can’t find anything near you, then why not organise something yourself?

UK Uncut is becoming a global movement with USUncut and CanadaUncut taking actions on the 26th February. France Uncut has its first action on the 17th March. Netherlands, Sudan and Australia also have Uncut groups on Twitter, though no actions yet.