What Do Prisoners Think of the Super Rich Dodging Tax?
We asked criminals for their thoughts on the corruption of the world's plutocrats.
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The recent Panama Papers leak has brought to light the staggering lengths super rich people will go to avoid paying tax on their vast fortunes. David Cameron, along with a selection of other world leaders, has been implicated, thanks to his father's involvement in an offshore fund that has not paid a penny of tax in the UK over the last 30 years. Today, Cameron's spokesperson said the Prime Minister and his family will not benefit from any offshore funds in future.
I teach at a prison, and the education department budget is shrinking. I'm often given comically substandard learning materials to work with, and today it's a box of mostly unusable cardboard rulers and three-inch pencil stubs. Funding for public services, like prison education departments, typically comes from tax revenue. I wanted to know if my group of students felt at least some of the blame should be apportioned to the super rich who, unlike them, have not – technically, at least – committed any crimes.
(Names and identifying details have been changed to protect privacy)
Leon, 38, is in the second week of a four year sentence for selling coke at his local boozer. He tells me he's been dealing on and off for the last decade and only got caught after an altercation with a neighbour led to the police visiting his home, seeing his £7,000 curve-screen TV and then suddenly developing an interest in what he did to pay for his Rolex and Louboutin high-tops.
I ask Leon if it makes him angry that extremely wealthy people can avoid paying tax without any consequences. "Nah, that's just man on road at the end of the day. All man would do it if they could. Don't lie, you would," he says. I say that I actually want to pay tax, which is greeted by a lot of laughter in the room, not least from Leon. I then talk about how tax pays for roads, hospitals and schools. Leon isn't convinced. "Listen, this is dog eat dog, survival of the fittest shit, yeah."
I'm not ready to let Leon off the hook. I ask him if anyone in his family has ever benefitted from an ambulance or needed to use a hospital. "Yeah, I hear you. But taxing man half, 50 fucking percent of what he earns ain't right," he says. "If I've got 50 million... you know no one's touching that."
THE CASH IN HAND WORKER
Owen, 29, is serving the last few days of his sentence, having been convicted of assaulting a bouncer outside his small town's solitary nightclub: "Twat wouldn't let me back inside with a bag of chips and a pizza," he laughs. Owen has worked as a carpenter since he was 17 and normally operates cash in hand, having observed this as the norm throughout his apprenticeship. He tells me he's seen friends in the building trade receive massive fines for not paying tax, often opting to not pay and do a bit of time inside instead.
Despite this, I'm interested to hear whether or not Leon sees any hypocrisy in the legal tax evasion employed by offshore holdings. "One rule for the rich and another for the rest of us, always been that way," he says. He goes on to describe how working cash in hand helped him save enough for a deposit on his house and pay for his wedding – but he also adds that he doesn't "take the piss with it" and declares probably around half of what he earns in total. "The rich are just greedy, no one needs that kind of money," he says. "But they're the same people who make up the rules, so of course they're going to let themselves get away with that kind of thing. People will have forgotten about all this next week – everyone's got their own problems."
'I'VE ALWAYS PAID... YOU DON'T GET A FUCKING SAY IN IT'
Tommy, 40, has never been in jail before. He split with his wife 18 months ago and found himself drinking and abusing drugs. He was eventually given, and then almost immediately breached, a restraining order against his ex, which has led to him doing six weeks inside. He recognises that he made a hash of everything and is adamant he won't be coming back to jail. A popular member of the group, it's accepted wisdom in prison that people like Tommy aren't "proper criminals", so I'm interested to hear whether or not his take will be any different.
I ask Tommy what he thinks about the apparently popular notion that taxing rich people is "the politics of envy", whereas regular folk on 20 grand a year are routinely expected to do what they're told and pay up. "I've always paid my tax. If you work for a company, it's there on your payslip – you don't get a fucking say in it," he says.
Tommy goes on to explain that while he doesn't think the tax raised is always spent wisely (limos, expenses and pay rises for politicians being prime examples given) he does in principle agree with the notion that tax should be paid, and everyone needs to contribute: "If every millionaire paid even 20 percent on their earnings, we'd be a lot less in the shit than we are now," he says. "But don't hold your fucking breath waiting for that."
Craig, 29, has been periodically in jail for most of the last decade for a truly eclectic series of crimes, ranging from dune buggy theft to assaulting one of his old schoolteachers. Like Tommy, he's currently incarcerated for a restraining order breach; although in his case it's the fourth time it's happened with the same person, and talking to him there's clearly a serious problem with how flippantly he interprets his behaviour in this context. He's also a huge fan of Dapper Laughs.
I ask Craig if he thinks it's fair that several prominent Tory donors have been implicated in the Panama Papers leak, individuals who would have contributed significantly towards successful Conservative election campaigns. "Even if I cared, no one would listen," he says. "As long as I've got enough to get on it four times a week, who gives a shit?"§
Apparently a senior governor is coming to look around the education department at some point in the morning and he won't appreciate prisoners playing Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? or watching parkour montages on the Smartboard, so I keep the conversation going. There's a little bit of anger in the room as we go through some of the intricacies of offshore accounts that I'd printed from the internet before coming into work, but mainly it's complete indifference – or in some cases even support for the mega wealthy.
I've grown accustomed to finding students adopting economically right-wing libertarian stances, but I think, certainly in this case, it's born more out of the resignation and sense of hopelessness they feel as opposed to them being Thatcherite ideologues. If compassionate economic policy and fairness seemed at all achievable to them, then ultimately I think they'd probably show much more of an interest in it.
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