Review of ‘Regina v Vagina’ by Angela Nangle
Just occasionally Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs do something thoroughly unreasonable and counter-productive; and when they do there is usually a politician or a lawyer somewhere behind it.
The villains of this piece are Gordon Brown and Lord Grabiner QC. You’ve probably never heard of Lord Grabiner. He’s a commercial lawyer, Labour member of the House of Lords, Master-elect of Clare College Cambridge, and reputedly earns £3,000 per hour (yes, per hour!) from News International for chairing their internal committee investigating phone hacking. He’s also the man indirectly responsible for HMRC’s disastrously foolish decision to prosecute Angela Nangle for tax evasion.
In 1999 Gordon Brown asked Lord Grabiner to investigate the shadow economy and come up with ideas to deal with trading activities that operate under the tax man’s radar. The Grabiner Report was produced hurriedly – in just 3 months – and included a number of proposals designed to encourage tax evaders into the legitimate economy, and make it easier for the authorities to catch people who failed to respond. Crucially for Angela Nangle he recommended:
establishing a new statutory offence of fraudulently evading income tax, which would be tried in a magistrates’ court. Currently, only very large-scale tax offences are prosecuted;
HMRC have always been very selective about who they prosecute. Partly that is because criminal cases are expensive and time consuming. But also because they have a large array of civil powers which enable them to assess and collect tax (along with interest and heavy financial penalties) much more cost-effectively. Committing someone to prison may send out a message, but it doesn’t always help to extract tax from them. Prosecution has historically been reserved for large scale frauds, repeat offenders and high profile individuals; cases where they believe there is valuable publicity to be obtained. That changed after Grabiner.
On a hot sticky afternoon during the summer of 1976 in a corridor of the Cambridge tax office one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Taxes spotted a well-endowed filing clerk in her tiny “Nigel is a Wanker” t-shirt. One thing led to another: he bought her dinner, stayed the night, and in the morning left £50 on the bed-side table; she subsequently quit her job at the Inland Revenue, and after a period in Australia set herself up in business under the name Letitcia. Some 30 years later Angela caught the eye of a fresh tax officer and found herself in Hove County Court facing four charges of being ‘knowingly concerned in the fraudulent evasion of income tax.’
In 2004 she published her memoirs Body Worship – true stories of a sex goddess. The book was favourably reviewed in the Brighton Argus “Sex worker strips bare her hotbed of secrets”, and the following August they followed this up with a 5 page picture article for which they wheeled out the headline “Putting the Sex into Sussex.”
Then during the week before Easter 2006 Angela received a ‘we have reason to believe’ letter from the HMRC Criminal Investigations unit in Cardiff, offering her the opportunity of being interviewed under caution as an alternative to being arrested.
In Regina v Vagina Angela tells her story from the moment she received that letter until the court case ended just over two years later. She weaves into the main thread some wonderfully funny stories – some are flashbacks and others describe events going on during those two years when her life was on hold – so you get a real sense of her feelings of powerlessness and frustration in the face of the relentlessly slow moving tax and legal machinery.
Angela’s writing style is unusual. She herself describes it as ‘stream of unconsciousness’, and she also seems to have her own rules about how to use capital letters. But I suspect the style reflects how she speaks, and although it jarred for the first couple of chapters, and there were a few occasions when I couldn’t immediately work out what was going on, I quickly got used to it. Certainly her writing makes the story rattle along and she’s capable of some great turns of phrase. I particularly like this comment on picking up the fateful envelope marked ‘Inland Revenue’
If those words were a Penis, nobody would relish touching it … let alone sucking or f*cking it.
Less successful is this curious pair of sentences describing her first meeting with her accountant:
We did the deep breath, silence thing a few times. It became pellucid as to the QUAGMIRE of my taxable life.
As well as Angela, who comes across as hugely likeable, there is a great cast of supporting characters. This includes some well known names – Julie Birchill appears as an heroic character witness, while Sebastian Horsley gets a couple of chapters – and then there’s Angela’s legal team as well as Harry an Essex thespian with a dark sense of humour, a young vagrant with superb oral skills, and an HMRC employee who takes a wild guess at the VAT registration limit and gets it hopelessly wrong.
In summary, Regina v Vagina is an entertaining (if idiosyncratically written) book, which will probably leave you with a sense of exasperation at the idiocy of public servants who, in pursuit of an ill thought out political policy, think it’s a good idea to waste £250,000 pounds on dragging anyone through the criminal courts for the sake of just £7,000 of income tax. Somebody really should sit down with Angela and turn her book into a film script.
I won’t spoil the ending. Next week I’ll do another piece dealing with the lessons of the court case and why the jury reached the decision they did. But for now here’s a tiny postscript.
There are a number of ironies in Angela’s tale – including her previous employment with the Inland Revenue, and the reaction she gets from the police when she spots a man masturbating outside her flat – but there’s one I think she’s missed. In a recent email to me she complained about being singled out by the Revenue:
Wish I was Vodafone, Google, Starbucks, Philip Green and … all the millions of others who are not prostitutes!!!
Philip Green’s company Arcadia, which owns Top Shop, BHS and Dorothy Perkins has been frequently criticised for not paying its fair share of tax, largely because it is controlled (via a Channel Islands company) by his wife, a resident of Monaco. Since 2002 the non-executive chairman of Arcadia has been … Lord Grabiner.