Tuesday, February 28, 2012

That's rich

If rich civil servants can get away without paying their taxes why shouldn’t the rest of us?

What’s the point in slaving away to stump up the full rate of income tax and National Insurance when you can enjoy a scam which cuts your bill by thousands?

The answer is that, in the words of American businesswoman Leona Helmsley, “only the little people pay taxes”.

Nobody likes paying them. For most of us, tough, taxes are an unavoidable fact of life.

But not, it seems, for some of Britain’s top civil servants.

First it was a couple of people in the department of health; then it was 25 of them. After that, it turned out various Ministry of Defence pen-pushers were in on the scam.

Then we discovered that HMRC – the Government department responsible for collecting taxes – was also in on the deal.

It turns out even BBC newsreader Moira Stuart, who appears on the HMRC’s TV and radio ads, is one of the lucky winners.

The woman who tells us – at our own expense, don’t forget, because ultimately we taxpayers pay for these ads – that “tax doesn’t have to be taxing”, is paid through a company that allows her to avoid the full impact of the 50p top tax rate.

Now the Government is trying to find out exactly how many people – employed by the taxpayer, to work in the interests of the taxpayer – are allowed to do what most of us can only dream of and avoid paying tax.

It’s all quite legal, of course. Instead of being a boring, salaried, pay-as-you-earn employee of the Government, liable to pay whatever the appropriate rate of income tax may be plus your full whack of National Insurance, these top people are allowed to work as separate, one-man-band companies.

Of course, this valuable perk isn’t available to just anyone, you know. If you’re an office cleaner or a Jobcentre employee or a teacher you can forget it.

You have to be earning something over £100,000 a year before you’re important enough to be allowed into the latest ruse to rip-off the taxpayer.

These freelance deals allow the lucky non-taxpayers to avoid National Insurance payments completely. They get to pay corporation tax at a rate of 21 per cent instead of income tax at a rate of 50 per cent.

And, if they’re lucky, they can put some of the income into the name of a fellow director – a wife or husband – and reduce their tax liability that way too.

There is nothing wrong with trying to minimise the amount of tax you have to pay. Nobody in their right mind would ever pay more money to HMRC than is absolutely necessary. It is not a moral duty to pay tax, just a legal one.

And, while tax evasion involves breaking the law, tax avoidance is a perfectly reasonable course of action. Good planning and carefully sticking to the rules can allow people to avoid paying more than necessary.

But – and this is a big but – most of us are not being paid by the taxpayer in the first place.

If you are a civil servant – that is, someone whose income comes from the public purse – you should not be allowed to minimise your tax bill by dodging the ordinary taxes everyone else has to pay as a matter of inescapable routine.

You can’t blame the quasi-employees. Why wouldn’t you try to keep your tax bill down?

But what are their bosses and our political masters thinking of when they rubber-stamp these dodgy deals?

Do they not realise none of these jobs would exist if it were not for the money they have already squeezed from hard-pressed taxpayers?

Do they not realise the money – in many cases hundreds of millions if not billions of pounds –these quasi-civil servants are employed to spend has all come from the same hard-pressed taxpayers?

Do they not realise, in short, that they wouldn’t be sitting pretty if it were not for the little people, the unimportant, almost-irrelevant, ordinary Joe Publics they are supposed to serve?

David Cameron and Ed Milliband both like to talk in patronising terms about the people “who do the right thing”. These are the people our political parties all pretend they want to encourage and reward – because they need our votes.

Ordinary taxpayers are being taken for fools.

We hear all the time how countries like Greece are in deep financial trouble partly because the wealthy don’t pay their taxes. We’re in the same boat.

We have people like Top Shop owner Sir Philip Green avoiding an estimated £285 million in tax because the company is in the name of his wife, Tina, who lives in Monaco. Yet he was asked by Mr Cameron to review Government spending and purchasing.

And we have Barclays Bank paying themselves massive bonuses at the taxpayers' expense thanks to various clever little ruses.

Of course, we really need lower tax rates then people wouldn’t go to such lengths to avoid paying their dues.

But in the meantime, the least we can expect is that people who are employed by the taxpayer pay their fair share of taxes. Or, better still, we stop paying them altogether.

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