Saturday, 30 July 2016

I have killed people

I have been instrumental in the deaths of two persons, directly in one case, indirectly in the other. But this isn't a confession, and the police have never had reason to pursue me. Both deaths were in the course of my duties in the old Inland Revenue, and many years ago. Both victims were men. Both found the strain of the investigations into their affairs too much, and they died - of heart attacks I think.

I may seem to be be mentioning this casually and without remorse. At the time I certainly took the news of both deaths in my stride. The Revenue's culture enabled me to do so. But now I'm unhappy about them, although completely resigned to living with the facts.

Back then I had developed something like a soldier's attitude. All soldiers know that their duties will involve killing not only the opposing armed soldiers. They will inevitably put pressure on the communities they must invade - on the old, the frail, and the vulnerable wherever they go. Such persons will go under when their lives are grossly disrupted by warfare, when they see strangers in their midst, when the familiar and safe anchors in their lives vanish. Then they may crumple and die.

I am bound for the rest of my life by the Official Secrets legislation, so cannot go into identifying details. But I can say something.

The first death happened nearly forty years ago, when I was in my late twenties. I had taken over a long-running investigation into a politically ambitious local government man who had grown unaccountably wealthy. Not much had yet been established. My major contribution was to draw together a big mass of gathered-in information, scattered through the big fat file - something I was always good at doing - and set it all out on the pre-computer equivalent of a spreadsheet, so that the growth of wealth, and the income available to fund it, could be analysed properly. This revealed, conclusively, that the man had returned way too little income and capital gains to account for his present capital. I had now demonstrated a serious income deficiency, with a pattern to it, and there were important questions to ask. It had become a strong case.

So strong that I soon had to send it up to the Revenue's Enquiry Branch, then the elite heavyweight section that dealt with cases that might involve the criminal prosecution and imprisonment of the offender. They were keenly interested. The man was a prominent local politician. I carried on for a short while under their wing, and then they came down to take it over. The handover was at a formal meeting with the man in question, plus his advisor, at my office. I was present as a witness on the Revenue side. He was going to to have the case against him outlined, and then 'Hansard' was going to be read to him. 'Hansard' meant posing a series of brief questions that had been agreed by Parliament many years ago, and ever since used in potential prosecution cases. The questions were put, and the man's answers carefully recorded. It was his very last chance to 'come clean'. If he still denied irregularities, then he would face imprisonment if the Revenue proved their case and 'won', and he would no longer have the option of paying up, through the nose probably, but keeping his liberty. It was a solemn moment. And I was very conscious that my work had brought us all to this point. This grey-faced man was now in the hands of the implacable Enquiry Branch men because of me.

I was not involved in the case after that. But some months later, Enquiry Branch got in touch and said that he had died. They would plunder his estate and leave it at that. It was all said in a detached, impersonal way. They were hard men. I was thanked for all I had done. I had in fact already benefited in another way. Basing the decision mainly on this case, I had been selected for a gruelling internal exam course that would - if I were successful - lead to promotion and a high-level career. My Dad was so proud. But I had brought about a man's death.

The Revenue in the late 1970s was popularly (as it been for decades) a bad music-hall joke. Pin-striped men in bowler hats, with brollies and briefcases, snooping around or being mindlessly officious. But in reality it did very serious work with no messing about, and although it was nothing like the big, increasingly-centralised juggernaut it later became, it could still impact heavily on the lives of its selected victims. But to kill them?

I thought about this man quite a lot, and I still do, just as I remember many of my stand-out cases. He had undoubtedly thought himself above the law, and able to get away with it. He was thoroughly dishonest. And he was a man in an important position in local government, able to influence council contracts, possibly to his own advantage. A bad example of how to misbehave if trusted with power. A financial bullet - with myself pulling the trigger - had been fired at him: that seemed perfectly proper. But it was not proper that he had died.

I could imagine the ordinary worry and strain of the enquiries made. And Revenue enquiries might go on for years, wearing people down. But after I came along it would have become more intense, more focussed. I could picture that moment when he realised he was caught beyond hope. The bitter knowledge that he had sold his soul, but would have to give a lot of it up. The private shame at being found out, of having to explain to his family and friends what he had done. The crushing despair, when thinking about the public humiliations to come.

Dwelling on such things would badly affect the health of anyone. People on trial - most clearly war criminals with many misdeeds to defend - often went into a decline, however well looked-after. This man had suffered just the same, I was sure of it. That didn't make me sorry for him. But neither did I feel pleased about his dying. Adequate punishment doesn't have to be so extreme.

The second death occurred ten years later, when I was in my late thirties. I was somewhere else, in a higher grade, but this time it wasn't anyone important or influential. It was the owner of a used car business. There was no special feature about the man nor his business. It was a case taken on simply to make up numbers in my portfolio of enquiries. Once again patience and method revealed a pattern - cars being bought, but no record of their being sold; bills for repair work being done on cars that did not appear in the books at all; and a very low declared income, yet a nice country property to live in. A clear case to answer. I pressed my questions. The man denied everything. He phoned me up, and said my enquiries were 'beastly' and a slur on his character. Then he died, very suddenly.

I had the news over the phone from his grown-up daughter. His executrix. She wasn't angry, nor full of recrimination. I think she knew that her father had been dishonest, and that she would have to settle up with us. We talked it over. The way forward was agreed. But I moved on to another office before the case was finally wrapped up.

It was an ordinary case in every way, but it cut deeper, because I'd spoken with the man (in his anger) and his daughter (in her sorrow), and I was directly responsible for the pressure that had killed him. Although I had done nothing 'wrong', it was very hard not to feel that I had induced the heart attack that had been his end. I couldn't help thinking about the effect this would have on his family, his wife, his children, and the grandchildren.

You can perhaps point out that only a very guilty person feels so deeply that they die when pressed to explain themselves. Maybe.

Actually, I don't think that's universally true. I think that people who are dishonest do what they do chiefly because their psychology is unusual. I think they can blind themselves to the wrongness of cheating, or theft, or fraud. They see it as something else - possibly as an exercise in cleverness or skill. Or as the rational exploitation of an opportunity presented to them, so that it would be stupid not to help themselves. Or as a reasonable poke at people who can afford to lose some money. Or even as their birthright, to take what they want, whenever they want. Only self-centred people will do such things, only people who lack empathy: people who can take, and keep on taking, and not feel bothered about the damage done.

It must come as a colossal shock to them, if an enforcement agency makes them face up to the real consequences of their actions, holds them to account, and threatens them with shame and punishment.

Occasionally the Revenue would choose the wrong victim. I remember - again it was almost forty years ago, in the late 1970s - being asked to look into a recently-deceased artist. A painter, a man who had died when hardly past middle-age, presumably still active; who had lived at a very nice address, and seemed to have a lot of money, and yet hadn't been making much from his creative work.

Well, there was something odd to be explained, and so I embarked on enquiries. But the case did not feel promising to me. Nor was it.

It turned out that the man was an obsessive. I was given his journal to study, really the only document that could be called his 'books'. This journal revealed his whole life, down to the minutest detail. It contained his receipts and outgoings, business and personal stuff all mixed together. That alone suggested that he had no accountancy skills he might knowledgeably misuse. It was the character of the entries that said the most. When someone records everything - sweets bought; toothpaste bought; packets of contraceptives bought; and every outing in his clearly-cherished car (in this case a Range Rover, known as 'Rangey') - you get a picture of a man who has lost himself in the little things of life. I discovered from this journal that he lived with two elderly aunts. They would all go out together in Rangey and spend very, very little, even though that small amount was still faithfully recorded. He must have also had some kind of love-life (why else regularly buy those condoms?), but there was no evidence that he bought caviar and champagne for his ladylove.

The man was absorbed in minutiae, recording tiny amounts of money spent, all the inconsequential purchases, receipts and refunds that a person without a lot of cash tends to write down, if they have a passion for keeping records and want to know where they stand. Or to simply record and remember everything, to make their life seem full and busy.

I got quite a good feel for his nature. He could be myself now, in 2016. I too have a cherished car, bought with an inheritance (as his may have been), and I too keep meticulous records so that I know exactly what I have.

I don't think I was making a mistake when I closed this investigation down soon afterwards, simply disallowing all the little personal purchases he had claimed as business costs - ice cream and Durex included. But some other Inspectors would have pursued it to the bitter end. They'd have delved until all unexplained points had been dealt with. They wouldn't have let common sense stop them. Nor would they have seen that they were dealing with an eccentric.

The old Inland Revenue - I can't speak for the modern HMRC - never gave its investigating Inspectors any training in psychology, and what went on in the heads of offenders. 'How the mind worked' was a feature only of management training - for example, how to motivate staff, or negotiate a local agreement with a tough union - but it wasn't discussed in relation to enquiry work. I now find this astonishing. But old-school approaches were slow to change. The training was always in-house, and concentrated on technical skills.

It would have been so easy to call in (say) credit agency people from outside, to give a useful talk on How People Think About Money, And About Not Paying What They Know They Owe. There was no coverage of slippery subjects like recognising dishonest or criminal behaviour, and understanding people's reactions when confronted, or put under pressure. Nor what might happen if they were pushed too far.    

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Lucy Melford