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Bruce Bucknell

Former British Deputy High Commissioner Kolkata

Part of UK in Minsk

23rd January 2015


Last week, we formally opened the new Visa Application Centre in Minsk.  This was a satisfying moment as we had been working on this for much of last year.

Opening of the new Visa Application Centre in Minsk
Opening of the new Visa Application Centre in Minsk

The new centre in Minsk is part of a global programme to close visa sections in embassies, and transfer the application process to privately run application centres.  They receive applications and forward them to a few visa processing centres operated by colleagues of UK Visas and Immigration, part of the Home Office, Britain’s interior ministry.  UKVI staff decide on the applications before sending them back to the visa centre.

It was also satisfying because we were putting into practice in Belarus the principle of outsourcing a state function to the private sector.  This is now common in Britain.  Outsourcing to Belarus is not new, as many private sector companies already use the services of Belarusian based IT companies.  But outsourcing a state function is a novelty for Belarus.

When I opened the centre, I mentioned the advantages that such an arrangement had for visa applicants.  By concentrating decision making in a few centres, we can open more privately run centres where people can apply for British visas.  I also noted that the programme would bring savings for British taxpayers (налогоплательщики).  I don’t think the audience were impressed with that idea, but they seemed to like the smart appearance of the new visa centre.

The focus on the “British taxpayer” has long been ingrained into our thinking.  The idea was that government should keep control of its spending so that it should not be a drain on the people of the country.  Even in the 19th century, the heyday of the British Empire, the hope was the territories of the empire should pay their way and not cost anything for Britain.  We wanted to trade with, and not pay for, the empire.

Margaret Thatcher once said that: “there is no such thing as public money; there is only taxpayers’ money”.  Although her government was not universally popular, this thinking is still very much in our mindset.  I have internalised the idea, and ask myself from time to time, do I give good service and value for money to the British taxpayer?

Behind the idea is the principle that the government should serve the people, and not the other way round.  It is another element of how we think about our government.  As I have set out previously, we believe that governments should only rule if we have given our consent.  We give our consent when we have the chance to choice and express our voice, in other words when we vote.

Other European countries have different traditions, where the idea of serving the taxpayer isn’t so explicitly set out.  But the mechanism remains much the same – whether the level of taxes needed to pay for the state and all its services is bearable and acceptable to the people who pay for it.

Governments can sometimes avoid raising taxes by borrowing money.  But borrowing money is simply a way of deferring taxes.  Debts can be written down, written off, reduced by inflation and so on.  But over the long term, if they aren’t paid, then no one will lend the debtor more money, or will insist on a higher price, through a higher interest rate.

In Britain, we have been following a programme of reductions of public spending to balance the budget.  The introduction of the new visa application centre in Minsk was but one of many examples of the things the government has done to cut spending.  There are differences between the political parties over the timing and extent of those cuts.

The differences over taxes and spending will be part of the election campaign ahead of general elections that are due to take place in Britain in May.  There will also be a presidential election in Belarus in November that I shall be following as closely.  The circumstances of both are very different, as will the choices on offer to the voters.

1 comment on “Taxpayers

  1. Mr Bucknell, it’s nice to see that even today important people such as yourself remember the great words of Mrs Thatcher (some of the many). Yes it is taxpayers’, not public, money. Refreshing to see a civil servant no matter how highly positioned and important embraces that. As with the other points.

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About Bruce Bucknell

Bruce was the British Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata from 2016 to 2019. Previously he was Ambassador in Minsk from July 2012 to January 2016. Bruce grew up on a…

Bruce was the British Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata from 2016 to 2019. Previously he was Ambassador in Minsk from July 2012 to January 2016.

Bruce grew up on a farm in southern England and enjoys walking in the countryside and visiting wild places.

He studied modern history at Durham University, and takes a keen interest in the history of the places he visits.

Bruce used to play cricket when he could see the ball. Now he enjoys watching cricket and many other sports in his spare time.

He has had a varied career in the Foreign Office. Between his postings to Amman (1988-91), Milan (1995-9) and Madrid (2003-7), he has spent much of his career in London mostly dealing with Europe and Africa.

He is married with two grown up sons.