Saturday, December 04, 2010

Blind eye on tax dodgers, Met spies on protesters

AT a time when we are all supposed to be in it together, accepting cuts to reduce the deficit and pay for the bankers' crisis, protesters have been pointing an accusing finger at major businesses, with names familiar on any High Street, who avoid paying taxes.

But we should not worry. Scotland Yard is on the job, dealing with this issue.

It has deployed undercover officers. To watch the protesters.

A report in yesterday's Guardian says the surveillance officers were first used at a protest in October, despite an assurance given to parliament last year that only officers in full uniform kept an eye on demonstrations.

Some activists have said they can't see what the fuss is about. "We all now about snoops infiltrating demonstrations". Some protesters taking part in the campaign about tax avoidance, called UK Uncut, remember the campaign against Heathrow airport expansion, when a man hired by the airport interests posed as a militant in meetings to plan protests, and even turned up in full pirate gear at one demonstration.

Some people have murmured suspicions that agent provocateurs infiltrated recent student demonstrations.

But the obvious irony of the Scotland Yard surveillance is that the businesses being protected are not paying for it!

HM Tax Inspectors are, like Health and Safety officers, job centre staff, hospital workers, firefighters and even police, being hit by cuts. Chancellor George Osborne says jobs must go, and services be cut, to remove a massive £83 million deficit. Big emphasis has been put on alleged benefit fraud, with private companies hired to remove unemployed and disabled people from benefits.

Civil service union leader Mark Serwotka has said each member of staff in the merged Tax and Customs and Excise departments brings in an average of £658,000 to the revenue. But 19,000 of their jobs have gone, and more are threatened.

UK Uncut aims to draw attention to the estimated £25bn the Treasury loses each year in tax avoidance. While ordinary taxpayers are made to pay more for less, hundreds of big companies have invested in expert advice and complex arrangements to avoid paying their due.

Sir Philip Green, the billionaire owner of British Home Stores, Topshop, Dorothy Perkins, Burton and Miss Selfridge, has generously given of his time to be an "efficiency" adviser to this government. He is to give advice on spending for the next three years, reporting to Sir Francis Maude at the Cabinet Office and Danny Alexander at the Treasury. Sir Philip's high street businesses are mostly owned through Taveta, an investment company based in Jersey. In 2005 his business paid a £1.2 billion dividend to his wife Tina, who lives in Monaco.

UK Uncut has decided to target Sir Philip's stores after previously focussing on Vodaphone. Other companies that were being targeted for demos today include bankers Barclays, Lloyds and HSBC, as well as Boots the chemists.

Barclays used the courts last year to gag the Guardian and other newspapers from publishing reports on the bank's alleged schemes to avoid tax on a £1 billion in profits. A Barclays whistle blower had leaked information about the bank's affairs to senior officials of the Liberal Democrats' party, now of course forming part of the coalition government.

One of them said of the ruling: "This is a sad day for democracy. British taxpayers are being asked to underwrite Barclays' loans. I believe full disclosure of these documents, showing how Barclays use tax havens for tax avoidance, would be in the public interest. Banks use the finest legal brains money can buy to avoid tax, but HM Revenue & Customs is underpaid and overstretched, so it is far from a level playing field."

That was the Lib Dem's then Treasury spokesman, Vince Cable, MP for Twickenham, now Business Secretary in David Cameron's government.

Starting with a bunch of people talking in a nortth London pub, UK Uncut has been spread around the country, mostly by young people using Facebook and Twitter, and its campaign has inspired anti-cuts groups' participation, as well as support from the Jubilee Debt Campaign, War on Want and Compass. "Over 15 times more is lost to tax avoidance at the top, than is lost to benefit fraud at the bottom," says Compass campaigns organiser, Joe Cox. "We want to make sure the government acts."

On October 27, people who turned up at a rendezvous on Piccadilly for the first Vodaphone protest were joined by at least two undercover police officers working for the Metropolitan Police Forward Intelligence Teams (FITs), according to the Guardian. "Until then, FIT officers had always conducted 'overt' surveillance with cameras. This time they were dressed as shoppers. A press photographer, Jonathan Warren, recognised one FIT officer and took their photograph. "They suddenly became very shy, as if I had spooked them, and then they just disappeared," he said.

The day the teenagers turned on Top Shop:

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