A Late Note on Chris Atkins and Tax Fraud

An HM Revenue and Customs press release from early last month:

An accountant, two film producers and an independent financial advisor, who were jailed with three others for more than 36 years for committing a £2.2 million tax fraud, have been ordered to pay back more than £2 million of their criminal profits.

…Film producers Christopher Walsh Atkins, 41, from London, and Christina Slater, 38, from Leamington Spa, have been ordered to pay back more than £201,000 or face another two years in prison…

[Terence Sefton] Potter set up two partnerships that were sold to the wealthy investors. One produced a film called ‘Starsuckers’, the other was a project to develop a package to be made into a film by others called ‘Mercedes the Movie’. The partnership declared the losses in its tax return and so did the investors, which would have allowed them to recoup up to £40,000 in tax relief from HMRC, for every £20,000 they had invested. However, as the scheme was illegal their claim for tax relief was false. The claims were supported by false documents produced by Potter.

There was glee among tabloid journalists when the convictions were announced in July 2016 – the 2009 documentary Starsuckers had shown how easy it is to hoax the media with fake stories (a subject this blog has looked at a number of times), and revealed how the Press Complaints Commission was held in private contempt by journalists whose editors affected respect for the body in public. Atkins had subsequently given evidence about press ethics at the Leveson Inquiry. (1)

Atkins was sentenced to five years, while Slater received four. The judge found that Slater had been “drawn in” by Atkins, and he took account of the fact that she was a new mother. The child will leave her prison’s mother-and-baby unit in September, and a further court decision from just a few weeks ago has confirmed that there will be a period of separation from then until February 2018 at the earliest – an outcome that ought to weigh particularly heavily on Atkins’s conscience.

I have seen one defence of Atkins on social media, along the lines that he simply followed what he believed to have been legitimate financial advice by his accountants. Certainly, in recent years many wealthy individuals have followed bad financial advice about investing in film-financing schemes for tax purposes, which HMRC has successfully argued in civil court amount to tax avoidance rather than legitimate tax planning. (2)

However, Atkins’s case is not comparable. It is one thing to attempt to arrange one’s financial affairs to minimise tax liability, whether or not the attempt ultimately withstands legal scrutiny, and it is quite another to fabricate evidence. A business that produces “false documents” is engaging in dishonesty, and it is difficult to see how a sensible adult could be persuaded by an accountant that creating inflated and fake invoices does not cross the line. It should be as obvious a no-no as using false addresses or non-existent names on official documentation.

Despite the above, though, Atkins and Slater did some good work – and I hope to see more of it when they have paid their debts to society (quite literally, in this case).

Footnotes

(1) Atkins apparently referred to his appearing at Leveson as mitigating evidence of good character. The judge gave that short shift, noting that “I rather doubt had it been known what you had been up to in the previous 4 years you would have been asked to do so.” The judge also added “and I know that what you did say was at the time not accepted by some parties as accurate”, although he did not explain what he meant by this or who these “parties” were.

(2) It should be noted that civil cases around tax avoidance concern conflicting interpretations of evidence that both sides accept as truthful – unlike tax evasion, a crime in which someone lies to HMRC. The term “tax dodging” is sometimes preferred by tabloid newspapers, in order to elide this distinction. Some tabloids have in particular focused on Gary Lineker’s tax liability following an avoidance case; this appears to be revenge for Lineker expressing politically progressive views and criticising the press on social media.

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