The vast majority of people think that even legal tax avoidance schemes are wrong, according to new polling.
A new survey by YouGov found that 59 per cent of people think it is “unacceptable” to legally avoid tax, compared to only 32 per cent who think it is reasonable.
Strong opposition to the practice was recorded despite pollsters going to great pains to emphasise the difference between legal tax avoidance and illegal tax evasion.
Many legal tax avoidance schemes are openly advertised by financial services companies and some Conservative MPs have gone as far as to defend the practice.
In a debate on tax avoidance in Parliament this week Conservative MP Jacob Rees Mogg said that “respectable families” engaged in the practice and argued that it was totally different to illegally evading taxes.
“There is no obligation on anybody to pay more tax than the law requires and even the most respectable families have schemes of arrangements to minimise things like death duties, whereas tax evasion is a very serious criminal offence which should be come down on with the full force of the law,” he said.
In 2003 a young George Osborne appeared on BBC Two’s the Daily Politics programme advising a caller on how to avoid paying tax using “clever financial products”.
Although the public as a whole are against the practice, respondents were spilt by social class: Those in the upper middle class (“ABC1”) were far more likely to defend the practice than those in working class occupations.
Labour, Ukip and Green supporters believe that avoiding tax is wrong by large margins, while Conservative and Lib Dem supporters tended to think legal tax avoidance is acceptable by a small margin.
The wording of the question asked by YouGov, who conducted the survey on behalf of the Sunday Times newspaper, was:
“As you may know, there is a difference between tax AVOIDANCE, whereby companies/people use artificial but legal methods to minimise the tax they pay, and tax EVASION, where companies/people act illegally to pay less tax, or no tax at all. In general, do you think it is acceptable or unacceptable to LEGALLY avoid paying tax?”
The UK’s tax authority HMRC estimates Britain’s tax gap to be £32bn a year, though some researchers have suggested it could be even higher.