Equality before the law

A recent Taxwatch report revealed the startling difference in how aggressively we pursue benefit fraud in contrast to tax fraud. While tax fraud costs us 9 times as much you are 23 times more likely to be prosecuted for benefit fraud. In this blog, Justin Thacker, the Director of Church Action for Tax Justice, explores the biblical case for equality before the law.

A fundamental principle of biblical justice is that we are all equal before the law. The book of Leviticus reminds us: ‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly.’ (Lev 19:15) Yet a new report this month from Tax Watch reveals that such equality does not seem to apply to the way we pursue benefit fraud and tax fraud. While tax cheats costs the exchequer nine times as much as benefit cheats, you are 23 times more likely to be prosecuted for benefit fraud than tax fraud. This is surely unjust.

As Scripture makes clear, the temptation to show such partiality in judgements is perennial which is precisely why both the Old and New testaments rail against it.

  • Deuteronomy 16:19 ‘Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the innocent.’
  • 2 Chronicles 19: 7 ‘Now let the fear of the Lord be on you. Judge carefully, for with the Lord our God there is no injustice or partiality or bribery.’
  • Proverbs 17: 15 ‘Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent – the Lord detests them both.’
  • Proverbs 17:23 ‘The wicked accept bribes in secret to pervert the course of justice.’
  • Proverbs 31:9 ‘Speak up and judge fairly’
  • Isaiah 5: 22-23 ‘Woe to those…who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent.’
  • Micah 3:9-11 ‘Hear this, you leaders of Jacob, you rulers of Israel, who despise justiceand distort all that is right;…Her leaders judge for a bribe’
  • Zechariah 7:9-10 ‘Administer true justice.’
  • James 2:1 ‘My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favouritism’
  • James 2:8-9 ‘If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favouritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as law-breakers.’

The scriptures then are clear: Biblical justice must involve the absence of favouritism or partiality. Moreover, there seems to be two reasons given for this. One of these centres around the distorting impact of bribes and the idolatry of greed that accompanies that. However, the other relates to the inherent dignity, equality and worth of all people. Proverbs 14:31 reminds us that oppression of the poor is to show ‘contempt for their maker’.

There are in fact two counter-cultural realties expressed in the fact that we are all created in God’s image. On the one hand, the fact that everyone is created in God’s image (however marred that image subsequently is) means that we are all of equal worth and dignity in God’s sight. The second is that because everyone is created we are all under God’s authority and judgement. When we show partiality in law, we deny both of these realities. On the one hand we are treating people as if they are not equal – as if there is some significant, judgement-bearing difference between them. On the other hand, we are also setting ourselves up as some kind of authority in the place of God. We are claiming that we are able to determine someone’s value as opposed to the equal judgement that God has made. As such, partiality in law is simply an example of that age old sin – idolatry – in this case, a form of self-idolatry where we assume the place of God in judgement.

Yet that is what seems to be happening in the way we treat benefit and tax fraud respectively. As the Tax Watch report shows there is not a level playing field in the way these two crimes are treated. They point out how:

  • There were 23x more prosecutions for benefit related offences than tax related offences
  • The government employs 3.5x more staff to tackle benefit fraud than tax fraud
  • You are 8.5x more likely to receive a custodial sentence for benefit crime than for tax crime
  • Yet, tax fraud costs us 9x as much as benefit fraud each year (£20bn per year v £2.2bn per year)

They conclude ‘Someone committing benefits fraud is more likely to face criminal prosecution and go to jail than someone engaged in tax fraud, this raises serious questions about whether the rule of law is being applied fairly across society.’ 

In highlighting this, I need to make it clear that I am in no way criticising the hard work of HMRC staff who diligently chase up as many tax fraudsters as they can. My criticism here is levelled at a succession of governments from both parties for their chronic failure to adequately resource HMRC, especially in respect of its compliance work which has seen a reduction of 800 staff over the last 4 years. While it is true that in the most recent budget the Chancellor announced an extra £100 million to chase down fraudsters, even here the emphasis was not specifically on tax fraud but on furlough fraud.

The question remains of course why is this the case? Why is it that we treat tax crime so differently to benefit crime? In answer to that, I am unavoidably drawn to the question of who benefits from the relatively light touch given to tax fraud, and to the issue of party funding. As such, I wonder if Micah’s advice remains as pertinent as ever.

Hear this, you leaders of Jacob, you rulers of Israel, who despise justice and distort all that is right;…Her leaders judge for a bribe. (Micah 3:11)

Dr Justin Thacker

Director, Church Action for Tax Justice

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. MICHAEL DOE

    There is an intriguing reference near the end to “the issue of party funding”. Can you expand on that?

  2. Justin Thacker

    I am simply making the point that it is likely that some of the folk who fund our political parties benefit from the current arrangements, and that would be true of all parties, not just the one currently in power.

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