Here's a vignette from the frontline of tax avoidance. A Labour-supporting acquaintance of mine was raging about the iniquities of a system that allows rich people to get richer by flagrantly avoiding their full whack of taxes.
From the tax exile head of Boots to assorted store owners, comedians and media barons, no one was spared her vitriol. “They should be charged with treason,” she said, with characteristic understatement.
Some time later, she had to stop at a cashpoint, as she needed to pay a workman. Why not do a bank transfer, I asked? I knew this was a rhetorical question. It was so that he could avoid paying tax.
Of course, this was only a relatively small amount, but nevertheless she was complicit in cheating the tax authorities out of revenue. I challenged her on this, questioning whether she was, in fact, adopting a hypocritical position. “Nonsense,” she said. “It's a matter of scale. I am not defrauding the country out of billions, which is what these fat cats are.”
But isn't tax avoidance a matter of principle, rather than quantum? Aren't those middle-class people who pay their domestic staff or their builders in cash every bit as guilty as the business leaders who employ accountants to concoct fancy schemes to keep their money away from the government? It's all a conspiracy to get one over on the Inland Revenue, and very many of us are taking part in it.
According to the most recent official figures, tax avoidance and non-payment of taxes costs this country's exchequer £35bn a year - dwarfing, by the way, the £1.2bn lost as a result of benefit fraud - and there's no gain saying that a major chunk of this is down to the fattest of cats, rather than the self-employed worker.
It is right that tax avoidance should be given a face, whether it be that of a restaurateur or or retailer. Go ahead. Name and shame. As long as the accusations are true, those who don't fulfil their moral (and legal) obligations to their country should be put in the stocks.
But maybe we should approach this subject from a different angle. Instead of making tax avoidance a cause for ignominy and ill-repute, why don't we celebrate those who play by the rules? The Inland Revenue should every year publish a list of those Britons who pay the most tax. They don't have to announce the amounts they've paid, they just place in order the taxpayers who have done most to support our hospitals, schools and public services. And maybe give some sort of official recognition to those at the top of the charts.
This may, in a small way, make paying tax a matter of pride, rather than avoiding it being regarded as a victory over the system. In any case, the world is changing, and public mood is hardening against tax avoidance. In fact, it's a new form of insult. The Leicester City manager Nigel Pearson (responding to unrelated criticism about an on-pitch incident) said: “I don't care what [Match of the Day] think of me. I pay my tax bill.” If you're going to get caught offside these days, make sure your tax affairs are in order.Reuse content