A fundamental principle of biblical justice is that we are all equal before the law. The book of Leviticus reminds us: ‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly.’ (Lev 19:15) Yet a new report this month from Tax Watch reveals that such equality does not seem to apply to the way we pursue benefit fraud and tax fraud. While tax cheats costs the exchequer nine times as much as benefit cheats, you are 23 times more likely to be prosecuted for benefit fraud than tax fraud. This is surely unjust.
As Scripture makes clear, the temptation to show such partiality in judgements is perennial which is precisely why both the Old and New testaments rail against it.
There are in fact two counter-cultural realties expressed in the fact that we are all created in God’s image. On the one hand, the fact that everyone is created in God’s image (however marred that image subsequently is) means that we are all of equal worth and dignity in God’s sight. The second is that because everyone is created we are all under God’s authority and judgement. When we show partiality in law, we deny both of these realities. On the one hand we are treating people as if they are not equal – as if there is some significant, judgement-bearing difference between them. On the other hand, we are also setting ourselves up as some kind of authority in the place of God. We are claiming that we are able to determine someone’s value as opposed to the equal judgement that God has made. As such, partiality in law is simply an example of that age old sin – idolatry – in this case, a form of self-idolatry where we assume the place of God in judgement.
Yet that is what seems to be happening in the way we treat benefit and tax fraud respectively. As the Tax Watch report shows there is not a level playing field in the way these two crimes are treated. They point out how:
In highlighting this, I need to make it clear that I am in no way criticising the hard work of HMRC staff who diligently chase up as many tax fraudsters as they can. My criticism here is levelled at a succession of governments from both parties for their chronic failure to adequately resource HMRC, especially in respect of its compliance work which has seen a reduction of 800 staff over the last 4 years. While it is true that in the most recent budget the Chancellor announced an extra £100 million to chase down fraudsters, even here the emphasis was not specifically on tax fraud but on furlough fraud.
The question remains of course why is this the case? Why is it that we treat tax crime so differently to benefit crime? In answer to that, I am unavoidably drawn to the question of who benefits from the relatively light touch given to tax fraud, and to the issue of party funding. As such, I wonder if Micah’s advice remains as pertinent as ever.
Hear this, you leaders of Jacob, you rulers of Israel, who despise justice and distort all that is right;…Her leaders judge for a bribe. (Micah 3:11)
Dr Justin Thacker
Director, Church Action for Tax Justice
Dr Justin Thacker is the National Coordinator for Church Action for Tax Justice