HM Revenue and Customs dramatically abandoned its attempts to keep details of
the ‘tax gap’ secret just before the Budget.
HMRC estimates the sum lost to tax avoidance and evasion to be somewhere
between £11bn and £41bn each year. Total government tax receipts for 2008 are
expected to reach £575bn. The take from corporation tax alone is only £52bn.
An information tribunal was due to hear HMRC’s appeal on 6 and 7 March
against an order by information commissioner Richard Thomas to disclose
estimates of direct tax lost to avoidance and evasion, following a freedom of
information request by Private Eye reporter Richard Brooks.
The hearing was slated for a full two day hearing with two Revenue officials
lined up to appear as witnesses. The afternoon before, however, HMRC withdrew
its appeal without explanation. HMRC admitted that its legal fees came to
For several days officials then refused to hand over the details, before
uploading them onto the Revenue’s website on Budget day this week, having
briefed the Financial Times. The paper reported the tax gap figures,
showing up to £41bn lost every year, as part of its extensive Budget coverage.
HMRC’s capitulation marks the end of a battle to suppress the information
lasting nearly three years. Among the many reasons it had given for refusing to
disclose the figures was that the information could benefit tax evaders by
’emboldening them to exploit areas of vulnerability’, and that public knowledge
of the tax gap could encourage non-compliance by indicating unfairness in the
tax system. Officials had even claimed that publishing the information could
unsettle the stock markets.
In June last year Richard Thomas rejected HMRC’s arguments, concluding: ‘If
the public realised the extent to which tax evasion is a drain on the economy,
it could create an atmosphere in which evasion and avoidance would be less
socially acceptable’. It is understood that his legal team were confident of
their prospects at the information tribunal.
An HMRC spokesman said that the department took the decision to release the
figures on Budget day as it was also releasing a renewed compliance strategy on
the same day.
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