Tax advisers 'ripping off the public purse', says Hodge

Calls for criminal prosecutions

Updated: 
BBC questioned over pay-offs

Tax advisers who help their clients avoid paying their fair dues should face criminal prosecution, says Margaret Hodge.

Hodge, who chairs the Commons public accounts committee, says that lawyers and accountants are making £2 billion a year by helping wealthy people minimise the amount of tax they pay.

"It is crazy that only those who put their money into tax avoidance schemes are properly punished, and not those who design, promote and sell them," she says.

""One promoter brazenly told my committee that the sole purpose of his business was tax avoidance. That is simply unacceptable. We cannot have an industry in this country based solely on ripping off the public purse."

Over the last couple of years, large numbers of celebrities have been named and shamed for taking part in complicated tax avoidance schemes. While these were at the time ruled legal, they relied on allowing investors to rack up huge offshore losses that could be written off against their tax bills. In this way, investors could reduce the amount they paid in tax to 7% rather than 40%, while higher rate taxpayers could earn £1 million each year tax free.

This summer, George Michael, Sir Michael Caine and Gary Barlow were called out for belonging to the Mercury Tax Group's Liberty scheme, while David and Victoria Beckham were linked to movie investment company Ingenious Media. Barlow was already in trouble for belonging to another similar scheme, leading to calls for him to return his OBE.

Meanwhile, large companies, from Starbucks to Amazon, have been getting away without paying corporation tax.

But, said Hodge, "Inevitably, when we talk about tax avoidance the spotlight falls on the high profile cases, like Gary Barlow or Jimmy Carr, Starbucks and Amazon. But tax avoidance is not confined to a small number of wealthy companies and individuals - it is a whole, grubby industry."

The Treasury is currently working to try and claw back around £5 billion in unpaid tax through a clamp-down on "aggressive and contrived" tax avoidance. However, Hodge has accused it of being unacceptably slow.

In his Autumn Statement today, chancellor George Osborne has announced a new "Google tax" of 25% on multinationals that divert their profits abroad to offset taxes. But there's no word on tax avoidance by wealthy individuals - nor any sign of measures to penalise the tax avoidance industry.

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Margaret Hodge: HMRC Needs to Get a Grip Over Tax Avoidance