When PM David Cameron earlier this month decided to have a go at Big Business legitimately – technically, if not necessarily morally – avoiding paying Corporation Tax, it is interesting to note that the throwaway soundbite picked up by the news services was “fancy corporate lawyers”. Not, you’ll note, “fancy tax accountants”.
Cameron was conjuring an image of battalions of pin-striped boffins wearing half-moon spectacles, speaking in Latin and chuckling over giant chests full of shining dubloons, inundated with requests from the likes of Vodafone and Goldman Sachs (thinking of two such organisations which have managed to successfully mitigate their tax burdens of late…) to chicane their way through the fiendishly complex and Byzantine UK tax code. Dastardly swine!
So I thought, by way of confirming (or otherwise) the PM’s headline-grabbing vision of those nasty people who are really wrecking the economy, I’d check just how many of these piratical pin-stripers there are. Clifford Chance has ten tax partners in London. Not really a battalion. Not even a platoon. Or even a squad. Linklaters has seven. Half a squad. Two teams and a bit.
And I’d like to lay a strong bet that these guys and gals aren’t sitting in their offices all day dreaming up wizard wheezes to slip past HMRC. I suspect most of them are engaged on the tax aspects of the M&A that make the world go round.
No, what I reckon is that Cameron’s latest careless piece of verbal flotsam was yet another example of ages-old lawyer-bashing. If you want battalions(a battalion contains at least 300 men, in case you were wondering) of tax-avoidance experts, it’s not the lawyers you want, dear PM, it’s theaccountants. Clearly Mr Cameron’s “years of experience in corporate Britain” (yeah, in PR, you twit) didn’t include actually figuring out that the accountants run the place, not the lawyers.
Right back to Shakespeare and Moliere, lawyers have been a juicy target, and have nearly always been their own worst enemy. Politicians – many of them lawyers themselves – rankle at the unelected judiciary thwarting them when they want to seem tough. The press loves to hate them. Accountants – grey, boring, unknown, untelegenic – always escape.
Later in the day, the PM followed up his salvo with another one – the commitment to scrap half (half, mind you) of our Health & Safety legislation, freeing up companies currently quivering in fear of litigation from fussing busy-bodies, newly fingerless-employees and, presumably, all those annoying vibration white finger, asbestosis and mesothelioma claims.
The government has, clearly, got the bit between its teeth as regards the legal profession, whether it’s slashing Legal Aid, bringing an effective end to ‘No Win, No Fee’ or bashing corporate lawyers for facilitating tax-dodging. And let’s not get started on canning employment protections and short-circuiting planning procedures. And what will happen to EU/Competition lawyers when, er, if we leave the EU?
How many of the UK’s other £25bn-a-year export-success-story industries would tolerate such a bashing? Makes you wonder why so many lawyers vote Tory…
Mark Brandon, managing director, Motive Legal Consulting