11 February 2015

This morning I heard the Revd Giles Fraser on BBC Radio 4 talking about tax avoidance. He used the term 'manifesting the common good' for a way of thinking about the taxes we pay, as opposed to 'what the Government takes from us'. Giles Fraser came to my attention when he resigned as Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London over the Cathedral's response to the Occupy protesters, and while I don't always agree with him, I usually find him worth listening to.

I liked this particular turn of phrase very much, not least because 'For the Common Good' has been the Green Party's strapline for some time now. I liked it too because it relates the concept of taxation back to the idea of doing your bit towards the things that your community need to pay for: public resources like the NHS, the roads we travel on, the fire service and so on. There could and should be some pride in being able to contribute that way. And of course we do all pay tax - 'taxpayers' doesn't only mean 'those with a full-time job that pays them enough so that they earn more than their personal allowance and therefore pay income tax'.

Of course, for most of us there isn't much choice in 'paying tax'. Here are the rules, there goes the money. The tax we pay is the VAT added onto goods and services, and the PAYE taken out before we see our wages, and the council tax that we wrestle to understand (single-person occupancy? Empty property? A different band to the very similar house four doors away in the same street?). Not forgetting of course the way many of us interact with our national tax system: filling in our self-assessment form in the middle of January and wishing we'd done it in July.

And of course for those of us living on unemployment or disability benefits, or pensions, the choices over what tax we pay are even fewer. If we buy a cheaper thing there's less VAT paid, but otherwise, we pay what's due because we haven't a choice.

Here are the rules, and there goes the money.

So I think it puzzles a lot of us that while we pay the taxes due because we have no choice about it, apparently there is, at the same time, a taxation system so complex and unwieldy that it seems to allow large corporations and their clients to select the amount of tax they pay by choosing perfectly legal ways of minimising it. We're told repeatedly that this will be tackled, but still, little changes.

I don't mind paying what's fair, and contributing to the common pot - though I do have views on what that pot should be used to pay for. However, I feel increasingly that those in charge of setting the rules have had enough time to tighten them up. They haven't succeeded. I've come to believe that their priorities are nothing like mine, and that we're past the time of asking them nicely to please get the rich to pay their share.

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