It’s 5am and a bleary-eyed man has his arms in the air, a half-smoked cigarette clutched between his fingers and a look of surprise on his face. He has unwelcome visitors: Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Leading the raid is senior investigating officer Duncan McCallum from the Organised Crime Team, who reckons this man – Livio Mazzarello – owes millions of pounds to the taxman.
Channel 4’s new documentary Catching the Tax Dodgers took five years to make and will give viewers a rare look inside a highly secretive organisation. Dramatic footage shows McCallum’s team raiding Mazzarello’s wine warehouse, where the extent of the illegal operation becomes clear: this fraudster has evaded £46.5 million in customs duty. After a four-year investigation he is sentenced to 14 years in prison.
“You can see the scale of the tax evasion, the people that we’re dealing with, is huge,” McCallum tells RadioTimes.com. The hope is that, by letting the cameras in, HMRC can drive home the fact that tax evasion has serious consequences. “I think that comes across as a serious deterrent to individuals who might be thinking about evading tax.”
Mazzarello is one of three tax evaders starring in the documentary (if “starring” is the right word).
We also meet an anonymous wealthy businessman who has been keeping his money in an offshore bank account and now wants to come clean to HMRC before he is caught. He owes around £700,000, but he is trying to negotiate a lower figure on account of his (pragmatic) honesty. So far this approach has been unsuccessful, but Mr Wealthy Businessman thinks it’s totally unfair that he should have to pay the full amount into the public purse. The heart bleeds.
The third evader is PR man Richard Hillgrove who is in a lot of trouble over his tax returns, which weren’t exactly accurate: he owes £97,000, but he’s spent it all on fancy holidays and Louis Vuitton bags for his wife Lois. Hillgrove is still furious about his own early-morning visit from HMRC, when he and his wife were unceremoniously yanked from their home and taken to the police station for questioning.
“I suspect people don’t imagine that you’re going to get your door kicked down at 5 o’clock in the morning over tax fraud,” McCallum says. “But when you’re looking at the serious level of the tax fraud that we’re dealing with, yeah – these things do happen. The programme will get rid of any misconceptions about civil servants all sitting about drinking tea.”
As he waits to find out if he’s going to jail, Hillgrove complains that he’s been unfairly targeted. A simple slap on the wrist, a small fine, a quiet word – that’s what he thinks would have been more appropriate. Why such an extreme investigation, he wonders, when rich people seem to get away scot-free?
“As regards Richard and his wife, they come across I think as people who again think revenue and customs are only interested in attacking little people, they say as much,” McCallum says.
“We don’t go for the little people and ignore the big and do deals. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Catching the Tax Dodgers is repeated on Channel 4 on Wednesday 16th August at 11:35pm and is available on demand on All4