Acknowledging alternatives is a human right: a UKUncut activist speaks out after her trial

Following a two-week trial for protesting against tax avoidance, an anti-cuts campaigner asks who the real criminals are: herself and her fellow protestors, for taking direct action, or those telling the British public that there is no alternative to the government's stringent austerity programme.
Tess Riley
27 September 2011

Following a two-week trial for protesting against tax avoidance, an anti-cuts campaigner asks who the real criminals are: herself and her fellow protestors, for taking direct action, or those telling the British public that there is no alternative to the government's stringent austerity programme.

We are in massive debt, says the ConDem government. We must take action to deal with the debt, says the ConDem government. We must cut public spending, says the ConDem government. Only this way, says the ConDem government, are we going to get ourselves out of this mess.


The Brighton 9 protesting. Image: Nicholas Adams

Since May 2010, when the coalition government came into power, the UK public have been bombarded with the message that there is no alternative (T.I.N.A.) to the widespread public spending cuts, rhetoric that harks back to the Thatcher years in which T.I.N.A. free-market capitalism triumphed.

What’s clear from the outset is that there are alternatives to the cuts. In fact, to borrow an acronym from political scientist Susan George, T.A.T.A.  – there are thousands of alternatives – from tax reform and stricter financial regulation to initiatives like the Green New Deal. Notably, all these alternatives make clear that reducing the deficit is not synonymous with cutting spending. Instead, they recognise public spending for what it is, an investment rather than a debt.

This is what we, the nine Brighton Uncut activists, were highlighting last year when we took part in a demonstration at Topshop in Brighton. The message was simple – one clear alternative to the spending cuts is to put an end to the sort of tax avoidance undertaken by Topshop boss Sir Philip Green.

Let’s begin by getting some terminology sorted. The ‘tax gap’ consists of three components. Tax evasion is the illegal non-payment of taxes through a false declaration – or none at all – of taxes due. Unpaid/late tax is that which has been declared by a taxpayer but is either paid late or not at all. Tax avoidance is different and slightly harder to define but Tax Research UK puts it like this:

...seeking to minimise a tax bill without deliberate deception (which would be tax evasion) but contrary to the spirit of the law. It therefore involves the exploitation of loopholes and gaps in tax and other legislation in ways not anticipated by the law.

It is estimated that the total cost of tax avoidance carried out by individuals and companies in the UK totals £25 billion a year. While HMRC disputes this figure, there are strong justifications for accepting it. Indeed, even if only half that figure were correct, such a sum would pay for the 2010-11 spending cuts almost twice over. Clamping down on tax avoidance is not the only way to close the tax gap but it was the particular aspect we were highlighting last December.

When the current government came into power last year, it published ‘The Coalition: Our Programme for Government’, a report outlining its strategy for the following five-year period. In it, the government promised to make “every effort” to tackle tax avoidance (p.30). Not only did these turn out to be empty words, with very little action taken on tax avoidance over the subsequent year, but also the coalition subsequently appointed notorious tax avoider Sir Philip Green less than four months later to lead the external review of the coalition’s spending cuts. In other words, a man who had, for example, avoided paying £285 million in one single transaction was chosen to advise the government on austerity measures. Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, welcomed the appointment, celebrating Sir Philip’s “fantastic track record at managing large organisations”.

Amidst such hypocrisy, stories were emerging left, right and centre over the immediate impact of the spending cuts. Within a fortnight of coming to power, George Osborne had committed to shaving £6.2 billion off public spending in the first year alone, with the intention of reducing spending by £60 billion by 2014. Everything was at stake, including education, public transport, libraries and frontline services. The nominal 0.084% increase in the NHS budget in fact equates to a cut in real terms once medical inflation and the ageing population are taken into consideration. Job cuts, hospital department closures, reduced regularity in services… How immediate does a crisis need to be before people are justified in taking action?

The surge in public outrage was immense and saw the establishment of multiple and diverse anti-cuts campaigns. The student protests are an obvious example but there are many more, from the local campaign to prevent the closure of Chiswick Day Centre, a few streets away from my family home, to the rise of networks such as False Economy and the Coalition of Resistance through to the rapid take-off of direct action groups such as UK Uncut, an umbrella organisation that spread rapidly across UK cities. Only three days after the first UK Uncut action at a Vodafone store in Oxford Street, thirty protests happened at different Vodafone stores around the country. Every subsequent day of action saw more and more people take to the high streets, converting spaces of consumption into spaces of resistance.

It was following UK Uncut’s call-out for a national day of action against tax avoidance that a number of us went to Topshop in Brighton at the start of December 2010 and turned ourselves into tax dodger mannequins. Topshop – part of the Arcadia group, which also owns Miss Selfridge and BHS amongst others – is run by Sir Philip Green. Through a complex organisation of Arcadia’s accounts, and the fact that the company is actually in his Monaco-dwelling wife’s name, Sir Green avoids paying millions, annually, into the public purse. Let’s remember, tax avoidance is only possible if you’ve got the money to do it – it is expensive, requires costly legal advice and there are risks associated… but, if you can get away with it, it pays off.

We wanted to highlight this and help put an end to the practices which are costing the public budget billions every year. Knowing how quick the police are to put an end to any sort of public protest, however minimal – some of us had been part of the Brighton Vodafone protest a few weeks before, where, after standing on the pavement with some banners and leaflets, eight out of the twelve of us were arrested for so-called public disorder before having all charges dropped only weeks later – we decided to hold our space for longer by superglueing ourselves to the inside windows of Topshop, buying us hours of time rather than the minutes we would otherwise have had.

The protest was a massive success and, as well as the huge amount of public support we received locally on the day, contributed to the wider surge in anti-cuts protests that was written about and debated in depth nationally. Small groups of people across the country had put tax avoidance firmly on the public agenda and, if anyone needed proof of this, they only needed to read Michael Meacher MP’s blog three days after the Topshop protest [my own link]: 

[UK Uncut] have raised a flag of rebellion which could actually change the government’s policy over the cuts […]UK Uncut has now jolted the government into setting up a review into GAAR (a General Anti-Avoidance Rule) which has been left on a back burner for far too long. I promoted it in Parliament a year ago through questions, speeches and an EDM, but it got nowhere. Direct action, as we can see, is far more effective – another indication if we need any how limited Parliamentary accountability has now become.

Nine of us were arrested at Topshop for criminal damage and aggravated trespass. What followed were several months of continuous re-bailing – during which time the charges of aggravated trespass were dropped – until a two-week trial was eventually scheduled for September 2011. Yes, that’s right, two weeks – a ridiculous waste of time and public money spent trying to suppress public protest and protect private interests. The misuse of public funds is yet another example of the way in which big business is prioritised.

One of my co-defendants, Robyn Moneghan, put it like this:

"The protest was about highlighting the extent to which our whole society revolves around large corporations and their interests, to the exclusion of all other considerations. Corporate profits must be propped up with bailouts and tax loopholes, however badly they screw up and however many ordinary people must suffer. The huge waste of public money involved in this trial in order to deter ordinary people from protesting is shocking."

The leader of the Green Party, Caroline Lucas MP,was one of our three expert witnesses, making clear how fundamental it is that the government wakes up to the devastating reality of the current cuts agenda and how important it was that groups such as the Brighton 9 kept pushing the issue into the public eye. She said:

"I support the aims of UK Uncut in highlighting the shocking injustice of tax avoidance by the richest in our society, which the Government has so far completely failed to address […] At a time when ordinary people in this country are shouldering the burden of the economic downturn and devastating cuts to public services, the Government must show it is serious about holding tax dodgers to account."

On Friday, we reached the last day of the trial. All nine of us have been acquitted of causing criminal damage to the shop windows. Five of us have, however, been convicted of “recklessly causing criminal damage” – in the words of the District Judge – after mistakenly knocking into two mannequins on entering one of the windows. This has resulted in six months conditional discharge and a fine of £200 each.

Tax expert and anti-poverty campaigner Richard Murphy – who also appeared as one of our expert witnesses – responded to the split verdict in full support of our actions:

"This protest was about something pressing and urgent, likely to have massive impact on the lives of millions of ordinary people in the UK. That was the threat not just to their general well being from cuts, but to their particular right to access the NHS and healthcare facilities in the future. There's no doubt these are being cut and that services will deteriorate. It was right to draw attention to the fact that tackling tax avoidance and evasion could stop these cuts occurring. I made that point in court and am pleased to have done so. I find it amazing that protesting before services are cut and before people suffer is considered too remote from the risk to justify protest on an issue so fundamental to wellbeing."

And so it is. Unfortunately, we are all only at the start of what is set to be a difficult few years ahead. The brutal impact of the cuts is making itself felt and much of what was feared back in 2010 is becoming harsh reality. Indeed, the day after I got home from the trial, I discovered that the proposal to close Chiswick Day Centre – amongst others – had just been voted through.

In turn, those who try to suggest that the riots of summer 2011 that took place in numerous UK cities were not connected to growing inequality, deep social disenfranchisement, rising youth unemployment and widespread economic volatility are deluding themselves. The denouncement of the “sheer criminality” of the rioters is misplaced and fails to look beyond the media hysteria that surrounded events last month. For too many people, poverty and inequality is not part of a Newsnight bulletin; it’s a daily reality and one that the cuts is making worse from ever angle.

The harsh sentences that followed have left some suggesting that the riots will have an impact on those taking direct action. While I would entirely acknowledge that such events may well contribute to more stringent policing, I do not think this will discourage people from engaging in direct action. The cuts agenda is too fundamental to the entire fabric of society for people to be deterred by political policing. Having now experienced the legal process from arrest to verdict, I am no less determined than I was a year ago to fight for social justice and greater equality and I believe I can safely say that that also goes for the rest of the Brighton 9.

Acquitted or otherwise, we know that we are not the criminals in this situation. Acknowledging alternatives to devastating spending cuts is a basic human right. The failure to do so is the real crime taking place around here.

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