It is a trite and well-trodden path of recent societal commentary that trust in public services, and in general trust in those in public life, is at an all-time low. Recent statistics show us that Brexit, a poorly considered election, the rise of populism and the politically skewing effect of social media have all knocked our confidence in those who seek to, and those who do lead us. The UK languishes in 22nd place on Edelman’s 2018 Trust Barometer. In case you were wondering the US is at 8th. If you have a spare week you can try and unpack that one if you must.
In modern UK public life this is very much business as usual but it has almost always been the case that those in the civil service, chaste with actual opinion and piously non-political as they are, were able to keep their heads, hearts and souls above the cut, thrust and agenda of our increasingly polarised politics.
Not so anymore.
The dark and evil exciseman of the real Whisky Galore is a world away from the prim, bookish and process driven Charlie of Darling Buds of May’s Charlie but since their union in 2005 has this changed? Is the taxman picking up some of the darker habits of their darker cousins? On recent evidence, one must say yes. The Beatles may have sung about The Taxman in less than glowing terms (85% marginal rate and a 14% surcharge anyone?) but they never thought they he would be active in trying to stitch them up.
This, allegedly, is precisely what has happened in the case of Frank Dowling, a successful restaurateur. Mr Dowling ran several restaurants at the O2 until 2013 when he was arrested for non-payment of tax and leases worth £13 million were seized.
A 4-year investigation, run at a cost of £250,000 to the taxpayer, collapsed in 2017. Investigators were unable to produce any evidence to support the 3 charges of cheating the public purse and Mr Dowling was awarded £274,000 in compensation.
The fun does not stop there. An internal investigation, started in May 2018, was launched to look at allegations of collusion between HMRC officers, accountants and insolvency practitioners with the intent of framing Mr Dowling. Quite why remains to be seen.
In his written testimony to the Treasury Subcommittee into “The conduct of tax enquiries and resolution of tax disputes,” Barrister and Chartered Tax Advisor Keith Gordon wrote:
“It saddens me that a fundamental aspect of this country’s economic well-being is no longer functioning in accordance with principles of fairness.”
Plainly this cannot be allowed to continue.
Making a success of Brexit will rely on the UK continuing to be a business-friendly environment. If we allow trust to continue to erode in public services to this degree then it is Madrid, Paris and Berlin who will toast our misfortune and our children who will pay the price.