Tax cheats cost far more than benefits cheats – yet far fewer are prosecuted

Analysis of HMRC data shows that the political culture is far more sympathetic to tax avoiders

Social security benefits come in many shapes, including the state pension, pension credits, income support, disability living allowance, employment and support allowance, jobseeker’s allowances and housing benefits.

The total cost of all benefits for 2013-14 is about £164 billion. Around £1.2 billion or 0.7 per cent of the total is attributed to fraud. Benefit fraud has continued to average between 0.6 per cent and 0.8 per cent for the period 2005/06 to 20013/14.

The government has set-up a benefit fraud hotline and people are encouraged the blow the whistle on their neighbours and anyone else suspected of fraud. The sanctions instituted by the government include a £50 spot fine, without a court order, on individuals who mistakenly provide inaccurate information on their claims forms.

Those suspected of fraud may be able to pay fines of between £350 and £2,000 in lieu for prosecution. From April 2015, the upper limit of the fine will be £5,000. Some may lose their benefits altogether for a fixed period. Private debt collection firms, bailiffs and forced house sales are used to collect penalties.

Suspects can be charged under the Fraud Act 2006, which carries a maximum prison sentence of up to 10 years.

The ministerial replies in parliament have provided data about the number of cases investigated by the Department of Work and Pensions’ Fraud Investigation Service:

Fiscal Year

Cases closed with recoverable overpayments

Cases prosecuted
















The data for the criminal convictions for England & Wales is as follows:

Fiscal Year

Custodial Sentence

Non-custodial sentence








Number of criminal convictions for benefit fraud offences for overpayment amounts within specified data range in England and Wales:

Fiscal Year












Over £10,000



Grand total




The number of prosecutions for Scotland is as follows:

Fiscal Year












Over £10,000



Grand total




The above data shows that most of the criminal convictions are for frauds of less than £10,000. In 2011, two-thirds of fines imposed were for £200 or less. The largest fine imposed was £5,000. For the period 2008-2012, some 1,306 offenders received a prison sentence.

Now let us look at tax avoidance and evasion. HMRC admits to an annual tax gap – that is tax avoidance, tax evasion and monies not yet collected – of £34 billion for 2012-13, which is about 6.8 per cent of total tax liabilities.

HMRC admits to tax evasion of £4.1 billion and claims that avoidance schemes subject to scrutiny account for £3.1 billion. HMRC’s model is challenged by others who put the tax gap at around £120 billion. Even in 2004, a former World Bank adviser was saying that the UK is losing over £100 billion a year to tax avoidance and evasion.

HMRC statistics do not attach adequate weigh to profit shifting by companies to avoid taxes. These practices have been highlighted by the Public Accounts Committee and media coverage relating to Microsoft, Shire, Amazon, Starbucks, eBay, Google, Apple and others. It does not include the scams highlighted by the recent HSBC scandal which show that for the period 2005-2007 over 100,000 individuals, including 8,844 UK residents, may have evaded taxes on $120 billion of wealth.

The Luxembourg leaks showed that PricewaterhouseCoopers manufactured tax avoidance schemes at an industrial scale to enable large corporations to avoid tax, but HMRC methodology does not adequately account of such matters. So there are big questions about the poverty of HMRC data.The prosecution and conviction data is scattered but the following ministerial statement in parliament provides a good indication of the trends.

Total number of individuals prosecuted and convicted for tax offences:




















HMRC’s 2013-14 report states that during the year 421 individuals were detained after arrest by HMRC officers, but none were charged.

Like all statistics, the above is incomplete and begs many questions. Nevertheless, some preliminary conclusions can be reached. The amounts attributed by the government to tax avoidance and evasion are much larger than the amounts attributed to benefit fraud. But the number of prosecutions and convictions for benefit fraud are much greater.

The political culture is more sympathetic to tax avoiders. HMRC was made aware of the HSBC tax frauds in 2008, but so far only one person has been charged. An excuse offered by HMRC is that it likes to make financial recoveries and thus does not go for prosecutions. Yet the same standard is not applied to benefit fraud.

On a number of occasions, the courts have declared some of the tax avoidance schemes to be unlawful. This has not been followed-up by any investigation or even recovery of the cost of fighting the schemes.

Big accountancy firms are often the brains behind the schemes but no firm or partner has ever been fined even after the schemes have been declared unlawful. The same firms are given taxpayer-funded contracts, such as those relating to privatisation and Private Finance Initiative (PFI). Their partners advise HM Treasury and other government departments. The firms fund political parties and also provide jobs for former and potential ministers.

In April 2013, the government introduced rules to ban companies and individuals who took part in failed tax avoidance schemes from being awarded government contracts. So far, no such business has been barred.

Prem Sikka is professor of accounting at the University of Essex

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18 Responses to “Tax cheats cost far more than benefits cheats – yet far fewer are prosecuted”

  1. LB

    When Ed pays his inheritance tax, you might come across as relevant.

    Meanwhile, since you claim to be a professor of accounting, perhaps you can answer one question.

    Why would the state do a Bernie Madoff and leave the pension debts off the books?

  2. Guest

    Ah yes, the latest wheeze as to why you won’t admit the possibility you owe tax,

    And they haven’t used your strategy, sadly for you. Pay tax.

  3. Kryten2k35

    The government brands it benefit fraud if they overpay you and you don’t say anything about it. Because you’re in the same level of know about what you’re entitled to as them.

    Now, sure, if you start getting child benefit, when you don’t have children, then that’s fraud. But if they’re overpaying you and you give them 100% correct information, that’s hardly fraud, or your fault. But they treat you like a criminal for their fuck up.

  4. Cole

    Sounds like don’t think anything should be done about tax dodgers. All you can do is come up with some old and discredited Tory smear about about Ed Miliband. Like the rest of the right wing, you’re trying to distract us on to something – anything – else.

  5. Jacko

    Ah yes, no suprise that you keep on spewing hate against the Other (anyone with money) as you seek to justify your low levels of career achievement and general apathy. Unlike you I work hard. *sigh*

  6. LB

    Not at all. I think all tax evaders should be prosecuted.

    Tax avoidance is down to the individual. That’s why Ed dodged his inheritance tax. He didn’t want to pay it.

    It’s why Tony Benn did the same.

    it’s why Margaret Hodge uses trusts

    It’s why the Guardian uses tax havens.

    Tax is for the little people, no the likes of Ed

  7. Leon Wolfeson

    Then there’s councils and housing benefit. For some UC would be worse, but only barely.

    I wish I was kidding.

  8. Guest

    So you think you should be prosecuted? I see. But no, you don’t, you’re after your political oponents, only, and for your “Correct” right to be able to pay no tax, right.

    Keep making excuses for not paying tax.

  9. Guest

    No, plenty of people have money and pay tax. Keep justifying your leeching as you scream hate at workers like me, the 99%, you have no use for us.

    You work very hard to ensure as many people lose their jobs, as many kids die as possible, etc. right – while collecting your corporate welfare cheques and hiding your income from tax. Such a HARD life.

    Pay tax. Or you can keep screaming how you hate Britain and trying to mouth off, as ever, Lord Blagger, you genocidal…

  10. Alison Wunderland

    My mother was widowed in 1942 when my father, a pilot in the RAF was killed. She received a war widows pension until 1957 when she went to Kenya. She returned to England in 1975 and applied for her war widows pension to be reinstated. The DHSS officer told her there was no record of her having a war widows pension in the past and put her on income support, which, he said was as good as her war widows pension. After she died, HMRC demanded £11,000 from her estate for overpayment of income support. I challenged the demand and wrote to the Veterans Agency who supplied every bit of information required for my mother’s pension. The DWP officer in his statement to the tribunal claimed that he had contacted the VA who had told him there was no record of my mother’s pension. The tribunal ruled against me, believing the lies of the DWP officer over the letter I had from the VA. This begs serious questions, first, who had my mother’s war widows pension? Second, why did the tribunal accept lies in preference to positive proof? Third, over the 6 year period that the DWP calculated my mother had been over paid, the difference between her pension and income support worked out in excess of £55,000, this is how the UK treats the families of those who give their lives to secure our freedom and the sacred cause of justice, a sacred cause abused by the criminal bankers, tax evaders and the accountants and lawyers that perpetrate such schemes, all to the detriment of our society.

  11. Douglas Andrew Town

    One sometimes gets the impression that people at the bottom of society are hardly considered to be human beings at all.

  12. Leon Wolfeson

    Well of course they don’t consider them equal to the “people who matter”.

    Remember, “We (the Tories, or maybe the Coalition) are all in together (against the rest of you)”?
    Subtext matters!

  13. Douglas Andrew Town

    You mean on the lines of: “Why pick on HSBC when there are so many fat people in pictures of food banks?”

  14. David Davies

    Tax dodging fraudsters vote tory.

    Tax paying plebs do not.

  15. Riversideboy

    Fascists who hate a state that is built on society who are expressing their class biased views on this page are a danger to a civilised society. As long as decent people realise these people will see others go without proper medical care and work for a pittance as long as their bank accounts are full then we will always be on guard against them. It is a form of Fascism and elitism that propelled Hitler and Mussolini to power, Might is Right, and I’m sure they are in the sights of MI5 and other government agencies just as much as any other extremists who endanger a civilised country.

  16. Patrick Nelson

    If you work so hard how do you have so much time to spent trolling on left wing sites via disqus?

    Work hard, yes I imagine your office day, work when they are looking, lots of unnecessary trips to the washroom and 50% of computer time actually online dossing about.

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