One expected a tactical Conservative prime minister leading a pragmatic Conservative Party in an expedient Liberal-Conservative coalition to propose or perform the occasional un-conservative thing. It was reasonably politic, not to say politically reasonable. So when, in May 2014, David Cameron said (basically) that “taxes will have to rise unless officials are given new powers to raid people’s bank accounts“, it seemed like the sort of illiberal and undemocratic proposal one had come to expect from the Liberal Democrats. The proposal was, after all, not only illiberal and undemocratic; it was un-conservative, not to say scandalous and immoral, for it offends against justice and nullifies the rule of law. Why should a government in a liberal democracy have the authority to raid bank accounts and seize assets without due process?
Out of coalition, the idea appeared to have been abandoned by the Conservative Party. George Osborne didn’t mention it in his Budget speech; nor was it alluded to in the Budget Red Book. But tucked away in a fairly obscure guidance document entitled ‘Summer Budget 2015: HM Revenue and Customs overview‘, we read in Section 11.1:
This government will introduce legislation to modernise and strengthen HMRC’s powers to recover tax and tax credit debts directly from debtors’ bank and building society accounts, including funds held in cash ISAs. Having widely consulted. (sic) This measure will be subject to robust safeguards including a county court appeal process and a face-to-face visit to every debtor before they are considered for debt recovery through this measure.
That word: ‘modernise’..
HM Revenue and Customs is an office of the state. To grant it the draconian authority to remove money from private bank accounts without a court order is to give the state power to appropriate private savings, whether or not taxes are fairly due. Of course, HMRC will insist that they are, but the taxpayer may quibble or demur, for Caesar is not infallible when it comes to swelling his own coffers, and neither is he always just in the administration of taxation law.
HMRC made 5.5 million mistakes last year, of which some two million involved over-payment.
But Caesar is adamant, not to say dogged and determined. Presiding over the Coalition Quadrumvirate a year ago, in the wake of a Coalition budget, David Cameron told Sky News: “We have a choice here. If we don’t collect taxes properly and make sure people pay their taxes properly we look at the problems of having to raise tax rates. I don’t want to do that, so I support the changes the Chancellor set out in the Budget which is to really say that not paying your taxes is not acceptable. It is very clear that they can only do this if there is a debt of over £1,000, they can only do it if there’s £5,000 or more in the account after this has been completed. The general principle – do we want to pursue every avenue of making people pay their taxes they are meant to pay before we put up taxes, because that’s the alternative – absolutely, yes we do.”
And so now, under the proposed measures, Caesar will have the automatic power to take money from a private bank account when the taxpayer appears to owe tax and has failed to obey formal requests for payment. Henceforth, Caesar will have direct access to millions of taxpayers’ bank accounts, on the assumption that he will accurately calculate and infallibly determine who must render what and when.
It is wise to be very wary of religious leaders who purport to play God, but it is an absolute imperative to abominate politicians who presume to do so. Where power is concentrated, corruption abounds. The human heart is inherently sinful, and every human institution inclines toward error. Greed lurks, aggregates and infects the body politic. To disperse power and ensure justice is why the Barons demanded that King John sign Magna Carta: the Crown is not above the law.
HMRC is an office of the Queen-in-Parliament. It, too, ought to be subject to the precepts enshrined in Magna Carta, for we have learned by experience how an omnipotent Crown, persuaded of its own infallibility and sense of divine right, may oppress the people and deprive them of their liberties.
Moral concern has guided the development of our taxation law: HM Treasury is not fundamentally required to express love and compassion, but it is expected to deal justly, which is the first ethical demand placed upon it. And freedom is the goal of politics – especially of conservative and liberal politics: not simply freedom from compulsion or restraint, but freedom for forming and carrying out a purpose. This implies discipline – at first external, but afterwards self-discipline to inculcate the citizen in the capacity for freedom and to give him or her scope for free action. This is the supreme end of all liberal democratic politics.
But what is the point of exhorting people to moral fiscal action, noble budgetary reason, right commercial judgment or fraternal economic community, if Caesar is simply going to redefine property rights and bypass the civil magistrate to declare himself omnipotent and infallible in all matters? It is kind of the Chancellor to offer the taxpayer “robust safeguards including a county court appeal process”, but (as anyone who has dealt litigiously will know) such appeals may take many months to bring before a judge and cost an awful lot of money. How is a man supposed to live while his assets are frozen and all bar £5,000 (if he has it) is seized? How are people supposed both to eat and pay for their appeal should it take forever and day to prepare a case? What is the time-limit imposed upon HMRC to consider and respond?
Property is importantly implicated in the ‘power’ side of exploitation, and so rests plausibly at the centre of all assertions about justice – or, in this case, injustice. If the humble worker is coerced to earn a wage in order that he might live, it is abhorrent that the Government – a Conservative government – should presume a monopoly of ownership of the means to buy the bread.
And coming in the year we commemorate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, it is as invidious as it is bewildering.