When we created TaxWatch a little over two years ago, our intention was to build an institution that represented the public interest in tax affairs.
The importance of this mission is clear. We are all taxpayers in one way or another. Whether this be the VAT on products and services we all buy, or income tax on our earnings. With tax at around 1/3rd of GDP, the shape of the tax system and how tax law is applied has a broad impact on the economy and society as a whole.
So much of the discussion on tax has been dominated by small, exclusive communities of tax professionals. Often these individuals are highly conflicted in terms of the interests they represent and have an interest in making tax inaccessible.
We believe that the near universal importance of the tax system to our daily lives means tax policy can only be properly developed when the public have access to clear, independent, and above all accessible information on tax issues – and in particular issues of major public concern such as tax avoidance.
To that end, we have sought to engage in high quality research which sets out the facts.
However, no matter how important that part of TaxWatch’s mission has been, our public interest mission extends beyond the production of information. We want to use the knowledge we have gained in order to make sure that the law is enforced to the benefit of all.
Today, we are launching an initiative which opens up a new, innovative and exciting front in our public interest mission – our Tax and the Rule of Law project.
This initiative will seek to improve both the application of the rule of law in tax administration by ensuring that the public interest is more sufficiently and more effectively represented in the courts and by regulators. This will involve a number of activities which we believe are ground breaking.
Intervening in the public interest
When judges decide cases brought to them in the courts, the importance and effect of the decisions they make often go beyond any immediate impact on the people contesting the claim.
For that reason, it has long been established that there is a role to play for NGOs in making interventions in court cases to make submissions in public interest.
As set out by Lord Hoffmann in E v The Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission intervening)  UKHL 66,  1 AC 536:
“Leave is given to such bodies to intervene and make submissions, usually in writing but sometimes orally from the bar, in the expectation that their fund of knowledge or particular point of view will enable them to provide the House with a more rounded picture than it would otherwise obtain. The House is grateful to such bodies for their help”
Public interest interventions are common in various areas of law, such as human rights and environmental law. However, we believe that these kinds of interventions have never been made by an NGO before concerning UK tax law.
Holding HMRC to account on tax compliance
As the government agency responsible for the collection of tax, HMRC play a key role in enforcing the tax system. Our Tax and the Rule of Law project will seek to ensure that the law is enforced fairly, equally and appropriately. We will do this through research and advocacy looking at how the law is applied in the field of taxation.
Holding regulators to account
Another key area of our work will be holding regulators to account. Regulators play an important role in making sure that tax professionals act in the public interest. But to ensure that duty is being carried out, the public interest has to be represented, particularly in an area where so much regulation is carried out my membership associations.
Recent years have seen a number of scandals involving regulated professionals involved in unethical and unlawful tax practices. We want to ensure that regulators are playing their role in preventing and rooting out such practices.
In order to take forward this project we are hugely pleased to announce that we have hired Dr Osita Mba. Osita comes with a vast amount of experience in tax law, having been an HMRC lawyer for seven years and completed a PhD in tax law.
His PhD research, which studied the nature and meaning of ‘Tax Avoidance’ and ‘Tax Evasion’ in English law, has an obvious relevance to much of the work TaxWatch does and a particular relevance to our new initiative. As such he will make a huge contribution to the team to advancing research and thinking in this area.
We are also pleased to announce we have secured the backing of the Joffee Trust, who has pledged £25k a year to support this project over the next two years.