Conference platforms can turn even quite decent ministers into smoke-and-mirrors artistes. Take those press reports from the Lib Dem conference in Birmingham about HM Revenue & Customs recruiting thousands of staff to launch a crackdown on the rich. “Extra inspectors recruited to target wealthy tax avoiders,” proclaimed the Independent. Under the banner “Soak the Rich!” the Daily Mail reported that Treasury chief secretary Danny Alexander was “recruiting a team of 2,250 tax inspectors to launch raids on the wealthy”. I trust Notebook readers were not taken in.
Well you didn’t think that the auburn-haired Mr Alexander meant that extra people were being recruited did you? Surely you were savvy enough to spot the weasel words? What the minister said was that “an additional 2,250 staff will move into new anti-evasion and avoidance jobs”. In plain English, existing HMRC staff will move from their present jobs to work on tax evasion by the rich in a new “affluent” unit. Mr Alexander told the Lib Dems that “this month over 1,000 of these jobs are being advertised”. And so they are – all of them internally. (No, I wouldn’t dream of describing him as Duplicitous Danny. He is just dexterous with words.) Meanwhile, the cull of HMRC staff from the present 66,000 to 56,000 in 2014/15 continues.
HMRC insiders are cynical about the whole exercise. “It takes four years to train a tax inspector,” says one. “You can’t just whistle ’em up. And you’d need the best ones – senior civil servants – to tackle rich people who hire top accountants to advise them how to avoid tax legally.
“The risk is that by taking staff away from chasing ordinary people, who provide the bulk of tax revenue, the Exchequer will lose out. It’ll be interesting to see if the numbers will really add up.” HMRC’s new “affluent unit”, whose old staffers will concentrate on the 350,000 people earning more than £150,000, has been told to bring in an extra £560m for the Exchequer by 2014/15. That will be election year. The punters will not want any tricksy interpretations of the word “extra”.
Load of old Balls
Mr Alexander raised barely a flicker from his conference audience when he described the advice given to Gordon Brown as “all Balls”. The joke about GB’s former adviser, Ed Balls, was plagiarised from Tory Michael Heseltine. When Lord Heseltine used it, new minted, at the 1994 Tory conference, he brought the house down. Perhaps politicians should follow the lead of Independent writer Johann Hari who has apologised for plagiarising quotes from other hacks and by way of penance is taking unpaid leave and going back to journalism school.
The nuclear industry is working to rebuild credibility after the disaster at Fukushima in March. Chairing a conference fringe meeting on the subject, I was struck by how much easier the task is in some countries than in others – and why. During the debate, sponsored by EDF Energy, Malcolm Grimston, an energy specialist and associate Fellow at Chatham House, said that while Germany’s decision to close its 21 nuclear power plants following Fukushima was a matter of short-term political expediency on the part of Chancellor Angela Merkel, that was not the whole story. “Many believe that after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Berlin would have been next for an atomic bomb had world war two not ended when it did,” he said. “This has fostered a deep-seated suspicion of nuclear power among many Germans.” Not that he expects them to stop using nuclear power. “They’ll simply use French and Czech nuclear power,” he said.
France has few problems with nuclear generation, a point made by Lib Dem MEP Chris Davies. “The French never have any problems because they never talk about them,” he said. “Transparency has escaped them.” Mr Davies, Lib Dem environment spokesman in Brussels, was once a nuclear sceptic. Now he sees nuclear power as one weapon against climate change. Polls show that across all major parties in the UK, 64 per cent think nuclear should be part of the UK’s energy mix.
Yet here there is still more opposition to new nuclear power plants than in France. Why? A French minister once explained: “When we drain the swamp, we do not consult the frogs.”