Tax dodgers' dolce vita: Patricia Clough in Rome describes the Italians' other national pastime

THE KING of the tax-dodgers, until he went bankrupt, was Renzo Sosso, a Turin scrap-metal merchant alleged to have done the state out of 25bn lire ( pounds 11m). Now the fiscal police may have a new record-holder: a businessman who, in three years, is suspected of having dodged 121bn lire in tax.

At the bottom of the scale is Olga de Francescantonio, a 14- year-old fined because she walked out of a shop without a receipt for a 34p chocolate bar.

In between marches an army of Italians who wittingly or unwittingly - but mostly very wittingly - defraud the state. But for this fiddling, experts believe, Italy would not have a colossal state deficit, would not be enduring drastic cuts in pensions and health care, and might not have had to devalue the lira last week.

'If it weren't for tax evasion, I believe Italy's annual budget would be balanced,' said Salvatore Tutino, of the Institute of Studies on Economic Planning. If everyone paid what they should, it would come to at least 70 trillion lire (pounds 32bn) a year, or almost half the deficit.

No one was surprised, therefore, when the medicine the government prescribed last week to put its finances in order included efforts to thwart tax-dodgers. It will be more surprising if they work, and downright miraculous if they solve the basic problem: the Italian mentality. 'The fundamental difference between Britain and Italy is that here taxes are something absolutely to be avoided,' Mr Tutino said. 'It is not seen as a crime: the state is regarded as an enemy. We envy and admire people who manage to do it on a large scale. It is like a national sport.'

Another difference is that they get away with it. Statistics show that the taxmen check on each Italian about once every 100 years. The huge Finance Ministry employs 150,000 people, including 40,000 fiscal police, the Guardia di Finanza, but only a few thousand actually chase evaders. Of the 22 million tax returns filed every year, a mere 1 per cent are thoroughly checked. Taxpayers who can hide a part of their income will almost certainly do so.

If they are caught - and when they crack down, the authorities can be extremely tough - they can fight the charge through six courts. The process lasts up to 15 years. Evidently, it can pay, said Mr Tutino, for the sum and fines are usually reduced. 'Your average Italian just hides among the other 22 million, thinking 'They will not get me'. The fear of being found out is lacking. We need to have this fear.'

After 25 years of delays, parliament passed a law last October to make Italy's tax system more efficient. A year later, it is still not in effect: the government has not appointed the directors to run it. So the official contract to rent a flat declares only a part of the real rent to pay. If you ask a plumber for a receipt, his fee rises by 50 per cent. Your doctor or lawyer won't give you a receipt either, and if you want to keep on good terms, you don't ask.

By law you need a receipt for a restaurant meal or a purchase from a shop. You must take it with you, or you and the proprietor can be fined. But checks are rare. You can be sure that restaurant owners, hairdressers and lawyers declare incomes well below what they pay their staff.

Tax-dodging is easier for some than others. Factory workers, civil servants and white-collar workers have income tax deducted at source. Unless they moonlight or have a business on the side, they have little scope for evasion.

One problem is Italy's five million self-employed people: craftsmen, shopkeepers, dentists, lawyers, consultants. The government has imposed a 'minimum tax' on such people, equivalent to that paid by the average employee. But experts doubt it would survive a challenge in the courts.

Another problem is the very rich. Now their fast cars, game reserves, aircraft and yachts will be taxed, though many will doubtless declare that these belong to their firms. The government is sharpening up an instrument called the redditometro, or income-meter, whereby people's income is estimated on the basis of their cars, homes, servants and other visible signs of wealth.

Companies will pay higher taxes, but there were no measures last week to catch large businesses which know how to disguise tax-dodging within complex transactions. One company suspected of such evasion is a state-owned bank. The problem is not likely to go away, Mr Tutino believes, until Italian attitudes change. 'People have to get it into their heads that it isn't the state they are cheating. They are cheating each other.'

Suggested Topics
News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
News
news
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
New Articles
i100... with this review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Sport
footballTim Sherwood: This might be th match to wake up Manchester City
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
New Articles
i100
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
News
Blahnik says: 'I think I understand the English more than they do themselves'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
TVInside Downton Abbey series 5
Life and Style
The term 'normcore' was given the oxygen of publicity by New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February
fashionWhen is a trend a non-trend? When it's Normcore, since you ask
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam