“Last year’s British Social Attitudes survey asked Britons about their feelings on this issue. Our analysis of this data (with Ben Baumberg Geiger of the University of Kent) revealed that the British public believes tax avoidance to be commonplace (around one third of taxpayers are assumed to have exploited a tax loophole). In moral terms, people seem rather ambivalent; less than half (48%) thought that legal tax avoidance was “usually or always wrong”.
By contrast, more than 60% of Britons believe it is “usually or always wrong” for poorer people to use legal loopholes to claim more benefits. In other words, people are significantly more likely to condemn poor people for using legal means to obtain more benefits than they are to condemn rich people for avoiding tax. This is a consistent finding across many different studies. For example, detailed interviews conducted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis found that people “tended to be far more exercised by the prospect of low-income groups exploiting the system than they were about high-income groups doing the same”.
This discrepancy is reflected in government priorities. Deep public antipathy towards benefit “scroungers” has been the rock upon which successive Conservative-led parliaments have built the case for austerity. Throughout his premiership, David Cameron, along with his chancellor, George Osborne, kept the opposition between “hardworking people” and lazy benefit claimants right at the centre of their messaging on spending cuts. Though gestures have been made towards addressing widespread tax avoidance by the wealthy, very little has actually been achieved. This stands in stark contrast to the scale and speed with which changes have been made to welfare legislation.
Will the Paradise Papers shift the public’s focus? The leaks alone are seemingly not enough. The 2016 British Social Attitudes survey was conducted just four months after the release of the Panama Papers. Even then, the British public remained more concerned about benefit claimants than tax avoiders.