Tax collection. Now there's a moral crusade for the Tories | Polly Toynbee

Misgivings about the ideological nature of Osborne's cuts agenda could be dispelled by protecting the HMRC

The star chamber is in session. Any foot-draggers in the cabinet are due to be hauled before it if they fail to offer up 25% or even 40% cuts in time for the mass slaughter of the public sector next month. A wail of pleas for mercy has gone up to at least stop shortsighted purging that will end up costing the state more.

The recent cut in teenage pregnancy prevention programmes will add to future spending. Cuts in early mental health treatment will lead to more florid cases arriving in hospital. Cutting home care for the frail will send more into costly care homes. The arts can prove how every £1 the Arts Council spends generates another £2. Everywhere you turn, there are compelling arguments for upfront investment to save money later. But the Treasury is implacable, fingers in ears, sceptical about future savings that have a habit of vanishing into their departments. Myopia is part of Treasury DNA, pessimism about putative paybacks hardwired into its circuit board – now, more than ever.

But the Treasury should heed the voice in its own backyard, Revenue & Customs, which brings in the money, cash in hand, here and now: it could bring in enough to deal with the deficit. The World Bank estimates £70bn a year goes missing in Britain's shadow economy – and its last report found tax evasion rising.

On average a senior tax inspector on £50,000 brings in about £1.5m, while lower-level inspectors on £25,000 bring in £300,000 each – in all 10 times more than is recouped by Department for Work and Pensions fraud-chasers. Yet Revenue staff have already been cut by a third to 68,000. How can they now lose another 25%? Top brass is fighting hard to resist it, suggesting a state-financed "investment plan" to recover lost funds.

Revenue has been accused of going soft on using the law: the Association of Revenue and Customs union reports HMRC brought 200 cases last year, while the DWP brought 9,000 for considerably less lucrative benefit fraud. Three huge firms recently settled out of court, but critics said all three would have paid more if these cases had proceeded. Each handed over at least £1.25bn in unpaid tax: one had set aside nearly twice as much as a contingency. HMRC settled these cases at the door of the court as they had each already drained £12m from its diminished resources. Now they say only high-risk big businesses are targeted. Overt organised crime such as VAT carousel fraud and carbon-trading fraud have "hoovered up our resources", so most big evaders are under-scrutinised.

"There is a tipping point where without enough investigation, more of the fiddlers think they can fiddle more," senior officials warn Osborne. A culture of honesty soon evaporates without the constant threat of arrest. HMRC tells how a recent crackdown on doctors spread the word fast: 10% came forward and confessed to cheating. Now the HMRC says bluntly: "We need to send more people to jail so people recognise that it is not worth cheating." The honesty tipping-point comes when too many people know someone who is getting away with cheating: why pay if no one else does? Research shows the deterrent effect: every £1 detected deters another £1 in potential fraud.

HMRC says it needs resources for urgent scrutiny of the wealthy who are converting their income into capital to avoid the 50% income tax rate: City law partners are among the many awaiting investigation. The big four accountancy and consulting firms are still devising avoidance schemes, although they are required to register each new loophole. An honest rich man called a top tax inspector last month to report an approach by a big four firm offering a complex new capital gains tax wheeze involving "rescindable contracts".

A brisk official call sent the firm into a "flat spin"; it subsequently withdrew it. But the dangerous impression is that the taxman is always a plod behind, short of resources, depending on tip-offs and settling out of court to save money. The National Audit Office's report says "lack of funding" is preventing efficient debt recovery, with a 17m backlog of PAYE cases. Some £26.1bn is owed in back PAYE, according to tax expert Richard Murphy: "They haven't enough people to get on the phone and knock on the door to get the money in."

The Guardian's Tax Gap report showed the vast scale of corporation tax avoidance. Meanwhile, a meagre 100 HMRC inspectors do their best to police the entire country's employers for compliance with the minimum wage.

Britain is historically a nation of relatively compliant taxpayers, but that is changing. Lord Oakshott, the Lib Dem Treasury spokesman, told the Lords: "Tax-dodging in Britain is a deep-seated, pervasive, pernicious disease … Highly organised, aggressive, abusive tax avoidance which used to be a marginal and rather spivvy operation, that was frowned on by the main banks and shunned by top accountants and lawyers who were mainly concerned with reputational risk, has now mushroomed out of all recognition."

He questions why the government is willing to give the big four and City law firms state contracts while they earn fortunes helping to deplete the Treasury. Until its last year Labour turned a blind eye to tax havens and other dodges; can the coalition do better? The BBC's Robert Peston points out in his blog that the Conservative party is exceptionally beholden to donors from high finance and hedge funds. Sir Philip Green's bizarre appointment as an anti-waste tsar undermined the coalition's promise to "actively examine tax avoidance".

HMRC top brass fear George Osborne needs to prove he is cutting his own department as savagely as all others. But cutting any further on tax collection would show beyond doubt that government cuts are ideological and totemic, and not based on sound economics.

After the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed cuts falling hardest on the poor, the coalition could restore some credibility by ensuring at least that taxes are collected fairly from all, and not just paid by Leona Helmsley's "little people". Why not deny state contracts to the consultants who help the wealthy drain the Treasury? And strengthen HMRC so inspectors can put the fear of jail into tax-dodgers. Conservatives could find it easier than Labour to launch an unflinching moral assault on the greedy culture of evasion, avoidance, off-shoring and cheating that has become poisonously socially acceptable.


Polly Toynbee

The GuardianTramp

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