Last month, at a ceremony in Runnymede, David Cameron nearly fell over himself in praise of Magna Carta.
He said it had changed forever “the balance of power between the governed and the government.”
This great charter, he said, had “shaped the world, for the best part of a millennium, helping to promote arguments for justice and freedom… It is our duty to safeguard the legacy, the idea, the momentous achievement of those barons.”
Just as one hears that freedom is only ever one generation from extinction and it falls on each generation to protect it, one should also remember that the achievements of those barons must also be defended.
We cannot pretend that the barons 800 years ago deliberately set out to create a charter that would deliver human rights and democracy across the world. Their motives were self-interested; but they were clear: protection from the tyranny of government, the right to a hearing, the inviolability of property rights.
It is therefore particularly galling that it is the government led by Mr Cameron pushing through legislation that would allow Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to seize money directly from the bank accounts of individuals and businesses.
Legislation so badly drafted that there is a very real possibility that individuals could see their lives seriously disrupted and put businesses at risk without recourse to the right to justice won by those barons.
ConservativeHome’s very own Mark Wallace has written about the dangers of the legislation. HMRC would receive the ability to withdraw money from an individual’s bank account if they are convinced said individual has been evading tax.
They argue that the powers are necessary to recover debts, and that it would affect some 17,000 people a year.
Let’s be clear: tax evasion is illegal. Where it is found to be happening, the authorities should do all they can to punish offenders and recover the money. But, as Mark points out, HMRC managed to get wrong 5.5 million bills – more than the population of Denmark.
Even if the dangerous precedent the legislation sets is put aside, giving an organisation of such rank incompetence of such power is like putting an alcoholic in charge of the rehab centre.
But that principle cannot be set aside and today we at the TaxPayers’ Alliance are releasing a legal briefing demonstrating that huge flaws in the draft legislation leave that principle in serious danger.
Written by Francis Hoar, the barrister who most recently brought to an end the illegitimate regime of Lutfur Rahman in Tower Hamlets, the document shows that some of the government’s claims in safeguards are playing fast and loose with the truth.
The government has promised a “face to face” meeting with an agent of HMRC before any money is withdrawn. Hoar shows this is only included in explanatory notes to the legislation, and therefore carries no weight whatsoever.
Further, there is a lack of minimum response time on behalf of HMRC to a complaint lodged by any accused taxpayer.
If a taxpayer is issued with a “hold” notice on their assets, which they believe to be unfair, they may appeal to HMRC in the first instance. However, that hold notice can still be active and an individuals’ assets frozen, potentially for months, before they get access to a court hearing on the matter – which, crucially, can only happen after HMRC have made a judgement on the appeal.
The possibility therefore is that a complaint could be left creeping through HMRC’s internal complaints system – not exactly the fastest moving system in the world, as anybody who has attempted to make one before will know – whilst the individual’s assets could be held in limbo. That is deeply unsatisfactory.
The government has pledged to publish secondary legislation this week to address ‘issues’ with the original drafting. If serious changes are not made, the very concept of the inviolability of an individuals’ property is under threat.
We have already seen unwelcome noises this year with regards to property rights this year, not least in Scotland, where the SNP are making deeply concerning noises about breaking up the estates of Scotland’s landowners.
The description by one landowner that this represented a “Mugabe-style land grab” may be a tad hyperbolic, but he is right that it is fundamentally – well, un-British to give a government the power to seize property from private hands.
Magna Carta has been twisted and torn, for all sorts of causes, for centuries. But the original premise, the primacy of the individual over the ruler and the right to challenge the relevant authorities in court, must never be forgotten.
The Government must seriously reconsider the proposals to push ahead with Direct Recovery of Debts; is not just flawed, but a dangerous precedent indeed.