The Budget And HMRC

With all the silliness on and immediately after 19th March surrounding the recent Budget and measures regarding Bingo and Beer duty it was tempting to ignore it – very much like Parliament will largely do contrary to their primary duty of scrutinising it.

However one particular measure – tucked away – demonstrated more than anything the absolute need for the Harrogate Demands:

Buried deep in the Budget document, there’s a pretty significant HMRC power grab.

If officials decide you owe them money, they now have the ability to take it directly out your bank account. No insolvency proceedings, asset freezes or debt collection agencies. Just the government taking out whatever it thinks it’s owed.

Anyone who has dealt with HMRC as part of a SME will read that and quake in their boots. With this in mind I post a copy of an email sent by TBF senior (an independent financial advisor of many decades) to his local MP in response – it articulates many of the deep concerns and frustrations regarding this measure:

The Chancellor’s recent Budget introduced radical pension reforms, a welcome help for savers and encouragement for businesses.  George Osborne continued his theme of ensuring that everyone pays their fair share of taxes.  It’s one of the small proposals under the “Debt Recovery” section of the Budget that gives me serious concern.
It is proposed that new powers are given to HMRC so that they are able to access Bank Accounts of people who, allegedly, refuse to pay their taxes.  On the face of it this seems reasonable as people should pay their fair share of tax but this power is a fundamental change in the principle of British Justice.  In the UK, the courts decide the law and who is guilty.  If this power is passed to HMRC then they decide the tax that is due, determine that the person has consistently refused to pay and will then be given the power to raid their Bank Account.  In other words HMRC becomes the Judge, Jury and Executioner.
We have been told that there will be safeguards and this new power will only be used where HMRC have tried to contact the Tax Payer on a number of occasions and receive no response.  It appears that HMRC will decide whether or not these safeguards have been met and regrettably, their reputation for mistakes is well known.  There may be a simple and valid reason why a person has not responded such as they are in Hospital, they have moved house, they may have a mild form of Dementia or indeed HMRC may have the wrong records.
The lower limit of £1,000 of tax owed is miniscule for this draconian measure.  It will affect somebody who may have just had a company car, a change in respect of Child Credit or purely a miscalculation by HMRC in previous tax years.  This is not a measure that is aimed at the person who is deliberately evading large amounts of tax, it is targeting normal people and small businesses.
We are told that HMRC will leave a minimum of £5,000 across Bank Accounts and if this is also going to apply to small businesses, this could be purely the amount that is needed to pay their staff at the end of the month.
My understanding is that the Enterprise Act 2002 abolished preferential status for Crown debts from 15 September 2003.  This proposed measure could circumvent this by allowing HMRC to recover their debt in preference to the other Creditors by taking taxes from the individual’s account prior to insolvency.
HMRC already have powers to recover unpaid debts.  Why are they not encouraged to use them rather than giving them further power?  We are told that Tax Authorities in other countries such as the US and France already have this power.  This is no reason whatsoever for us to follow suit.  After all we live in Britain, not France or the US.
If we give this power to HMRC then what next?  There are many people that do not pay their Council Tax and therefore shouldn’t Local Authorities be given the power to take this money from their Bank Accounts.  After all we all have to pay for people that don’t pay their Council Tax.   How about Motor Insurance Companies.  We all pay additional premiums for people that do not pay for car insurance, so should they be given the power to deduct car insurance premiums from our Bank Accounts.  I am sure that MP’s from all sides of the House would be up in arms if this was proposed.
We have seen powers introduced in the past for what appears to be the right reasons but is subsequently used for other purposes. For example the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 being used to catch people putting out their wheelie bins too early!  It might well be that the current Government is bringing in these new powers with every good intention but there is no guarantee that future Governments may not decide to use this power to implement further draconian measures.
As one of your Constituents, I urge you to oppose this new measure.  We do not want to have to wait until there is a public outcry over people who have suffered under these draconian measures.  There will inevitably be an inquiry with the usual infuriating reply that “lessons will be learned”.  For once, let us learn from our history lessons.  It is with some irony that with the 800 anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta due next year, George Osborne is proposing that we give HMRC the power to determine the tax that is due and deduct it direct from Tax Payers without any recourse to an independent Arbitrator; a very dangerous step.

Of course both of us are under no illusions that any objections will make any difference, especially given the sycophantic nature to Cameron of his local MP. Yet again it demonstrates how broken our so-called Parliamentary democracy has become – at the next election there will really be only two contestants: the political class and the people. Oh how we wish for Demand number 5:

5. No taxation or spending without consent: no tax, charge or levy shall be imposed, nor any public spending authorised, nor any sum borrowed by any national or local government except with the express approval the majority of the people, renewed annually on presentation of a budget which shall first have been approved by their respective legislatures;

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Poll Blow For EU Exit

Ahead of tonight’s debate between Farage and Clegg on EU membership broadcast on LBC (7pm) and also shown on Sky News Political Betting has the latest poll from YouGov on EU exit.

We can see quite clearly that those who wish to remain in the EU is 6 points ahead. Factor in the “don’t knows” with the status quo effect and the out campaign is in deep trouble. The problem is that those in favour of the EU membership do not have to win the argument, all they have to do is sow enough doubt to keep the status quo. We face an uphill battle.

That’s why Richard North’s submission was so essential – to nullify that status quo threat. Failing to neutralise the economic argument will mean we lose. Thus tonight Farage has to show he appreciates this massive threat to exit and step up to the plate big time.

Failure to do so and we’ve all lost…

Brexit: Not Shortlisted

“The European Union is, and always has been, a political project, even though this has not been something that has been as openly acknowledged as it should have been in Britain” Labour MP and IEA judge Gisela Stuart

Today we learnt the names of the final six to go forward to the IEA Brexit prize. Unfortunately the entry by Richard North was not selected; it can be read or downloaded from here.

In many ways it was not a surprise. We had doubts from the start that a submission which aims to negate the economic arguments in order to win a referendum against FUD would be in direct contrast to the economic bias of the IEA.

Despite that a number of the judges acknowledged publically that the EU is a political project not an economic one, a feeling persists the IEA in general and indeed this country still cannot get to grips with the true nature of what the European Union is. This is reflected in the obvious concentration of economic interests in the final six.

What compounds the disappointment though is that after many months of hard work the news was received by a rather terse email from a press person:

The words “good and intriguing” are rather patronising to say the least. “Intriguing” is clearly a euphemism for not what we were looking for. After months of hard work by Richard researching a very complex and important subject and producing an original thesis of “Flexcit” contestants deserve much better than a patronising, bland and standard email.

Despite that it’s encouraging that we now have a very detailed, layered and practical document on how the UK can exit the EU, that in itself is progress.

Finally I would like to thank Richard for his enormously hard efforts since October, much of it unseen, in producing a very valuable and useful piece of work. One that needs to be re-read a few times to fully appreciate its scope.

The Tree, The Council and The Street Lamp

Regular readers may remember a blog post from late 2011 regarding a street lamp outside my house and a tree that has grown to such an extent it was blocking light and maintenance access. The council at the time, citing the Highways Act 1980, gave me 14 days to complete the work or they would do it themselves and seek to recover the costs.

One small problem the tree and the lamp post is on land which is not mine, so I’m not liable. This was pointed out to them at the time which had a confirmation reply that my response was noted and recorded.

2 ½ years later the tree remains untouched. Funnily enough when they thought it grew on my land it was urgent yet when it turns out to be their problem it was less urgent.

And so the lack of pruning of the tree has resulted in another letter to me from my local council, virtually identical in wording to the original, that as a result of a maintenance inspection (nice to know they happen on such a regular occasion) I need to carry out the work in 14 days “or else”. My original email been lost then?

Just to “help me on my way” I have been given a sheet of illustrations that demonstrate the “council requirements for trimming trees around S/L columns – scanned below (click to enlarge):

Apparently they require that:

Clearance to be sufficient to be effective for at least 12 months but preferably as a long term solution

I’m not sure how they would know it was effective for at least 12 months given inspections seemingly happen only every 2 ½ years. Clearly then what apparently applies to me does not apply to the Council (the tree is on Highway Agency property). They admit themselves the current situation is contrary to the Highways Act so that then applies to them as well.

One is now having mischievous thoughts…

Farage Compares UKIP To Millwall Football Club

Autonomous Mind today highlights the contrast in coverage of the Conservatives and the coverage of UKIP. The UKIP’s stories clearly concentrate on the antics of leader Nigel Farage which is hardly surprising given that the man is the party and the party is the man.

As a consquence it’s not UKIP policies that take precedent but Farage himself still having to justify and deny allegations yet again about his private life – all the while consuming yet more copious quantities of alcohol.

Now it’s true that the Mail on Sunday article portrays a far from sympathetic tone, for example this particular paragraph:

[Farage] had no time for the homeless man who tried to sell him The Big Issue, ignoring him completely.

After the bedraggled toothless chap eventually gave up and trudged off, Farage quipped: ‘That’s the first Big Issue seller I’ve come across for a while who isn’t a Romanian immigrant!’

He doesn’t ‘do’ compassion.

In another article we have this:

UKIP leader Nigel Farage has come under fire for using taxpayers’ money to pay for a swanky penthouse suite in Brussels.

The Euro MP, who has previously criticised the European Union for its wastefulness, is renting the luxury property in one of the most exclusive addresses in the Belgian capital.

In many ways it comes as little surprise that newspapers adopt a hostile tone. When a party aims to overturn the establishment status quo in terms of EU membership, the cosy alliance of the three biggest parties and the media’s self-interest in maintaining that status quo, any upstart is undoubtedly going to be treated unfairly.

The crucial strategy when fighting the status quo is to become grudgingly respected if not liked. This can be achieved by dealing with policy detail, establishing oneself as an authority on a subject (in UKIP’s case the EU) and – in contrast to others – being seen to be above board in honesty; for example not employing your wife, and mistress, on the taxpayers’ expense.

Thus that UKIP would be subjected to smears is no surprise. However shallow smears can always be conteracted by substance. Without substance empty rhetoric is no defence.

The crucial point with UKIP is how much are smears and how much is true? Ironically we turn to Farage to answer this question. He does so by comparing UKIP to Millwall Football Club:

‘We’re like Millwall Football Club, “Everyone hates us and we don’t care!”

Firstly I would suggest that as a leader of a political party it’s not entirely conducive to revel in the principle of “everyone hates us, we don’t care”. It tends not to result in many votes.

It’s true that Millwall’s famous chant of: “no-one likes us, we don’t care” is a masterpiece of defiance, in tune I guess with some aspects of UKIP which Farage indulges in. Yet conversely it is also a masterpiece of irony. If Millwall supporters truly didn’t care, their club would not be defined by a chant that said they didn’t.

But more importantly why has Farage compared UKIP to Millwall at all – a club that is associated with thuggery and violence? Even those of a non-football persuasion are fully aware of Millwall’s toxic reputation. Is Farage suggesting they’re all angels simply misunderstood?

We do not doubt that many Millwall fans are normal law-abiding supporters, unfortunately tarnished as they are by their club’s reputation. Yet as a club they didn’t earn their infamy through unfairness.

No-one sat looking at a map and stuck a pin highlighting South Bermondsey saying let’s just pick on these chaps for no reason. Millwall earned their reputation. They can complain all they like that they are singled out but a mirror is sometimes useful. Yes their coverage is often unfavourable but a significant number don’t do the club any favours.

So in many ways Farage’s analogy was correct in a way he probably did not intend. Many of those in UKIP are hardworking volunteers let down by a minority. With no exit plan, a lack of a decent website, a party bereft of policies that are not “drivel” is it any wonder that the media have little else to concentrate on?

So a great deal of one of the Daily Mail articles contains Farage having to deny that he had an affair with Annabelle Fuller:

Has he had sex with Annabelle Fuller? ‘I don’t think we should go into the grisly details.’

Has he slept with her? ‘No.’ Has he kissed her? ‘No. When you work in a tight team, I understand why people might get the wrong idea.’

Why hadn’t he denied it immediately in the European Parliament? Farage falls back on his best weapon: wit. ‘There’s an old saying, if you pick a fight with a chimney sweep you get covered in soot!’

A denial despite that this has been an open secret in the party for years and Fuller herself has openingly boasted about said liason to UKIP delegates in the past. Farage is being less than candid here. Ultimately regardless of Farage’s unconvincing response the entire episode detracts from any kind of important issues that UKIP might campaign on. His personal life, paid for by the taxpayer is becoming a hinderance.

And still there is much more to be released about Farage and his entourage. That they have not been made public in media is down to use of Carter Ruck. Thus we suspect that some of the current “smears” are schadenfreude on behalf of journalists who have been on the receiving end of Carter Ruck when investigating numerous alleged misdemeanours – resulting in non-disclosure settlements. For some journalists, with fingers burnt, it’s become personal.

Like Millwall, there are smears and facts – and often the former depends heavily on the latter. Criticising those that point out that the emperor has no clothes does not necessarily make them incorrect however uncomfortable the truth.

In the spirit of Farage we’ll use another football analogy – we may criticise the manager if he’s not up to it, but to do so does not make us a lesser supporter of our club.

Labour’s Referendum Promise

Last Saturday I raised the possibility that Labour’s promise to use an ‘in-out’ referendum to try to ratify a new EU Treaty would not be looked upon favourably by the Electoral Commission. With that in mind I wrote to them seeking clarification, and this is the response I received:

Dear TBF

Thank you for your email to the Electoral Commission.

If a referendum were called the Commission would comment on the intelligibility of the question. In addition under PPERA we would formally nominate ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ organisations. We would also ensure that the public had information to enable them to make an informed choice.

Unfortunately we cannot comment on the nature of the question, that would be for parliament to decide and frame the question. We would only comment on the wording.

Kind regards

Mark Nyack             
Public Information Officer
The Electoral Commission

To me that answer is unsatisfactory. While Parliament can decide and frame the question, the Electoral Commission has to decide whether the question is unambiguous. To frame the question in such a way that it poses 2 questions in 1 is far from unambiguous and thus comes under the EC’s remit. The EC is being deliberately elusive here – therefore I have written back to them seeking further and more specific clarification. Again their response will be posted here.

EU: Another Empty Referendum Promise?

It’s rather symbolic when in a week where we lose two eurosceptics of “Labour past”, that their successors in the form of Miliband et al reveal their intentions to try to rig a future referendum ensuring we stay as EU members.

This blog and Richard North expressed our deep concerns that with Labour changing the dynamics of a future referendum by shifting the status quo effect in its favour we would inevitably lose an in/out referendum under Labour. This shift was expressed with this promise: “[Labour] guarantees that there will be no transfer of powers from Britain to the European Union without an in/out referendum”.

This scenario was most likely given that Labour is very much expected to win the General Election in 2015. Even the Tories are now apparently giving up.

There can be no doubt that Labour knew what it was trying to do. It has been alleged that privately Ed Balls has been arguing that Ed Millband goes for a referendum precisely for the very reasons Richard North urges caution. The out camp is likely to lose and it will settle the question for a generation at least.

Labour cannot be unaware of the status quo effect. Peter Kellner President of the pollster YouGov has written about the status quo effect inherent in referendums in the Guardian:

As in so many referendums round the world, when there is no settled national consensus, the status quo will prevail.

Kellner is also married to the unelected EU representative Baroness Ashton, so we can safely assume that that the issues of the status quo and the impending EU Treaty has been well-discussed domestically thus helping to influence Labour’s latest referendum position.

However one problem has emerged with Labour’s position – the Electoral Commission.

As it notes itself the Electoral Commission is required under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 to comment on the “intelligibility of referendum questions”. This it did most recently with this 81 page report in response to “The European Union (Referendum) Bill” – a private Members’ Bill introduced by James Wharton MP, which passed its second reading on 5th July 2013.

Thus the Electoral Commission had to initiate their standard question assessment process. And as per page 49, and here, the Electoral Commission question confirms that its assessment guidelines are as follows, the question should:

  • Be easy to understand
  • Be to the point
  • Be unambiguous
  • Avoid encouraging voters to consider one response more favourably than another
  • Avoid misleading voters

And here Labour’s promise clearly fails the Electoral Commission guidelines. By throwing in the prospect of leaving the EU in a referendum on whether to answer a simple question on a new treaty Labour’s proposal effectively becomes two questions in one. For example those who may wish to oppose a new EU treaty but support EU membership will be forced to vote for a Treaty they oppose or vote against the Treaty and so consequently for exit which they don’t agree with.

Unambiguous Labour’s proposals are not, and nor can it be said it “avoids encouraging voters to consider one response more favourably than another”. The prospect of the “nuclear option” does precisely that.

Regarding misleading voters, one considers that even on the basics of a simple ‘in or out’ question still left voters’ confused, as per page 24:

“If you ask me to leave the Tory party, you first have to find out if I’m a member before you ask me to leave.”
(Male, aged 55, mini-depth, London, English as second language)

“Not everyone understands that we are in Europe already?”
(Focus group participant, aged 25-44, C2DE, Colwyn Bay)

“I don’t think we are a member – I’ve never heard of it [European Union].”
(Female, aged 63, mini-depth, Nottingham)

Labour’s two questions in one clearly breaches those guidelines. By reading the report in full one can see that the Electoral Commission is nothing if not pedantic. We have similiar examples on the AV referendum and the Scottish referendum (page 12):

  • Completion: participants were asked to answer a proposed question as if for real and identify any words or phrases they found clear, or more difficult to understand .
  • Understanding: participants discussed what they thought the question was asking and any difficulties they had with the question, and the reasons for this.
  • Neutrality: participants were asked to consider whether they felt the question was encouraging people to vote in a particular way, and if so, why they felt that.
  • Improvements: participants considered what improvements they would make to the question wording and discussed their suggestions
  • Comparing alternatives: participants were shown alternative question wording and asked to compare it to the original, and consider whether or not the changes improved the question

Which led to this:

The Scottish government has agreed to change the wording of its independence referendum question, after concerns it may lead people to vote ‘Yes’.

SNP ministers wanted to ask voters the yes/no question: “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” in autumn 2014.

The wording of the question will now be altered to: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” The change was suggested by the Electoral Commission watchdog.

With this in mind this blogger will be contacting the Electoral Commission asking them to clarify their position on Miliband’s promise. I will update readers on any response I receive.

What is becoming very clear is the Tories can’t deliver on a referendum by 2017 as Cameron as promised and now Labour almost certainly can’t deliver on a referendum promise because it contradicts electoral law. Again we see our political parties desperate to appear in touch with a domestic audience while actually being completely and hopelessly out of touch with political reality.

One would expect the UK’s most prominent Eurosceptic party to point this out, but I guess its leader has trouble multi-tasking