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.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

It's a snip at £110 billion

Dear Mr Bank Manager

You know that mortgage you lent me a few years ago? Well, I've spent so much money having fun and retiring early that I can't afford to repay it any more.

So I have decided that in future I will only pay off the capital and the interest on 30 per cent of the original sum.

What's more, my friends are lending me the money so I can afford to do even that.

This isn't an offer, it’s an ultimatum; take it or leave it.

You get to lose 70 per cent of your money but let's not say I'm defaulting on your loan, let's just say you are taking a bit of a haircut.

Think yourself lucky – at least you're not bald. Yet…

A little loss

If Lloyds bank makes a massive loss, partly because it mis-sold insurance policies, why does it only cut a small proportion of its top people’s bonuses? Why not axe them completely?

Let the train take the strain

Excellent news if you’re planning to enter Britain illegally – get yourself a Eurostar ticket and the immigration people will assume you’re “judged to be low-risk” and you can waltz into Britain unhindered. It’s much cheaper than paying your life-savings to a people-smuggling gang – and more comfortable too.

A shot in the dark

Will an elected police chief stop three shootings in Wolverhampton in just one day? No, I thought not.

Water, water everywhere

Don't be fooled by all this talk of drought. There's plenty of water, it's just that it's in the wrong place. Plus if the population rises 12.5 per cent in 30 years, which it has done, it’s no wonder we use more water.

Woof! Woof!

The appointment of poliversity guru Les Ebdon as head of fair access to higher education is not only a disaster but proof that the Lib Dem tale is wagging the Tory dog. And we haven’t even got to reform of the House of Lords yet.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Another triumph for Mr Blair

Let’s lay the blame where it’s due. The reason one of the world’s most wanted terrorists is being freed from jail and given permission to take his kids to school is because Tony Blair signed the European Convention on Human Rights.

If the millionaire charlatan who ran the country for a dismal decade hadn’t wanted to prove just how “European” he was, we’d never have been lumbered with all that human rights nonsense in the first place.

It’s bad enough when the legislation is used to give prisoners the vote or Romanian “Big Issue” sellers the right to taxpayer-subsidised housing.

It’s utterly scandalous when it’s used to keep Abu Qatada, one of the world’s most dangerous men, out of jail even though he’s wanted for terrorist offences in eight different countries.

Our courts have ruled that Mr Qatada’s human rights are more important than the human rights of the rest of us.

Keeping him in jail without trial while trying to deport him to his native Jordan is a breach of his human rights, it seems.

So out he comes from Long Lartin prison in Worcestershire, back to the bosom of his family – a wife and five children living in taxpayer-funded bliss in his £800,000 council house in Wembley.

Foolishly, we gave Mr Qatada asylum as long ago as 1993 when he arrived claiming to be a refugee from religious persecution – even though he got into Britain on a forged passport.

Since then, he has called on British Muslims to martyr themselves in a holy war against “oppression”. He issued a fatwa justifying the murder of converts from Islam, their wives and children in Algeria.

He has called for the killing of Jews and praised attacks on Americans.

Jordan sentenced him in absentia in 2000 to life imprisonment for his involvement in a plot to bomb tourists attending the country’s Millennium celebrations.

Videos of his hate-sermons were found in the Hamburg flat used by the 9/11 bombers.

When he was arrested in February 2001 he was found in possession of £170,000 in cash, including £805 in an envelope marked “For the mujahedin in Chechnya”.

He is wanted on terrorism charges in Algeria, the United States, Belgium, Spain, France, Germany and Italy, as well as Jordan.

Abu Qatada has been described as “Al Qaeda's spiritual leader in Europe”, “Osama bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe”, “the most significant extremist preacher in the UK” and “a truly dangerous individual”.

Even the dear old Home Office says: "This is a dangerous man who we believe poses a real threat to our security and who has not changed in his views or attitude to the UK."

In the light of this country’s long-standing traditions, there is something objectionable to holding people in jail for year after year when they have not been convicted of any crime.

And it seems Mr Qatada has not broken any laws in this country – though that’s hard to believe, given the long list of crimes he is alleged to have been involved with elsewhere.

This country has a long and proud record of protecting the rights of the individual from the over-mighty State. And you could argue that the release of Mr Qatada is just the latest example of that noble tradition.

Certainly there is something repulsive about the kind of Guantanamo Bay detention centre where alleged terrorists are held without trial for years and left to rot in perpetual limbo.

Yet even within the best traditions of this country’s laws and liberties, it has always been necessary to balance the rights of the individual against those of society as a whole.

Mr Qatada entered this country illegally. He is wanted for acts of terrorism in half a dozen countries, all friendly nations.

Yet we have tied ourselves up in ridiculous human rights legislation to the extent that it is almost impossible to rid ourselves of this man, no matter how dangerous or repulsive he may be.

By opposing deportation on the grounds that Mr Qatada may not get a fair trial, Europe’s human rights judges are assuming that Jordan’s legal system is inferior to theirs.

But standards of justice are not the same the world over and what right do the judges of Macedonia, Ukraine, Albania and Moldova (among others) have to pronounce on the subject?

These are among the 47 countries which provide judges for the European Court of Human Rights.

We are being dictated to by lawyers from countries which didn’t even exist a few years ago and certainly have only a passing acquaintance with democracy and the rule of law.

On his release from jail, Abu Qatada will be living at our expense while we pay for his continuing fight against extradition and we pay to police his activities and try to stop him encouraging terrorism.

Is this really the price of freedom, democracy and the rule of law – or just another example of how this country is no longer capable of defending its own interests?

I can’t help thinking of Enoch Powell’s warning: “Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.”

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Bring back the Drach

The BBC says: "The Greek PM has warned the nation of a collapse in living standards if MPs fail to pass an unpopular austerity bill demanded in return for a 130bn-euro ($170bn; £110bn) bailout."

What the BBC, the Greek PM, the EU, the IMF and everyone else with a vested interest in keeping the Euro alive fails to point out is that Greece will face all of the above if they do pass the austerity bill.

There will only ever be light at the end of the tunnel for Greece - and Portugal, Spain and Italy - is if they get out of the single currency and devalue against the Euro (ie against the Deutschmark).

Otherwise they face years of grinding poverty whereas escape from the Euro might cause short-term pain - in exchange for long-term gain.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

A champion of truth and honesty?

I see the slippery eel Alastair Campbell has won himself a wedge from the defunct News of the World because he was allegedly a victim of phone hacking back in the day.

“This has never been about the money,” he declares, promising to redistribute his new wealth to various lucky winners including the Labour Party.

Fair enough but then he goes on to claim he is using his public position to fight on behalf of the little people to change the media culture.

You know, the culture which he exploited as a reporter and then as a Government apologist. Indeed, the culture which permits charlatans and loathsome hypocrites to sex-up dodgy dossiers and lead his country into a war based on lies of the kind a tabloid hack never thinks twice about spinning up in the name of a decent headline.

Alastair “never let the facts get in the way of a good story” Campbell is the last person who should be given any credibility as a champion of liberty, truth and honesty.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Flu can be such a swine

Well, I don’t any longer think I’m going to die (at least in the immediate future). And believe me, this is real progress.

When they admitted me to hospital with severe pneumonia, I was alarmed.

I was even more concerned when a nurse let slip they suspected I was suffering from swine flu.

Swine flu? That’s the sort of disease they make horror movies about while Governments prepare for Armageddon.

It doesn’t happen to people like me. Surely it’s a Third World illness caused by grinding poverty, filthy living conditions and close association with muddy farm animals.

How did I get swine flu anyway? And is there a cure?

Suddenly I’m hidden away in an isolation unit with a notice about infectious diseases on the door, an antibiotic drip in one arm and an oxygen mask on my face.

No medical staff are allowed into the room without wearing a face mask. So, for several days, I don’t actually meet anyone, I just try and get some idea what they’re like from their eye.

Mostly, though, they won’t look at me. They just get on with taking blood samples, checking my blood pressure or offering me cups of tea.

The tea, inevitably, is vile but it doesn’t matter much to me. I haven’t eaten for a week and I’m generally so racked by coughing fits that breathing is more important than food or drink.

Occasionally a doctor comes to see me. I saw six in five days. Never the same one twice. I could tell, even though they were wearing masks, because they all asked the same questions.

What did I do for a living? It seems they were expecting me to say swineherd not journalist.

How much do I drink? Admittedly this is a tricky question. When you’re at death’s door, your alcoholic intake suddenly looms large in your life.

Do three glasses of wine a day make me an alcoholic? Do I actually drink that much anyway? If I promise to cut down, will you make me better?

Cigarettes? Oh dear. You begin to feel you have nobody to blame but yourself and your appallingly self-destructive lifestyle.

But flu isn’t self-inflicted. You catch it from other people. Granted, an unhealthy way of living might make you more vulnerable and the illness worse.

But it seems my real problems stem from the fact that I haven’t got a spleen.

That organ was removed in an emergency operation when I was ten years old. It was snowy. I came careering down a hill on a sledge, hit a tree and ruptured the thing.

At the time, and for years afterwards, I believed the spleen was an obsolete organ like the appendix. But it seems it wasn’t quite as unimportant as I thought.

Modern thinking, apparently, suggests anyone without a spleen should take antibiotics every day, as a matter of routine. Great – now they tell me.

It’s difficult to work out where and when I caught this dose of flu. I’ve been to London a few times recently and a packed underground may well be a breeding ground for all kinds of germs.

But it was in Wolverhampton that I realised something was seriously wrong.
I hadn’t slept the night before but I was due to speak at a business breakfast at the Wolves’ Molineux ground and I didn’t think I could just not turn up, no matter how ill I felt.

So I coughed and spluttered my way anti-socially through the event. I say anti-socially because anyone with a disease like flu should stay at home if they have the slightest suspicion they may be liable to infect other people.

My excuse is that I didn’t realise how bad I was. I only found that out when I tried to address the assembled business people.

My voice, which is generally quite a noisy instrument, would not play. It was a struggle to get the words out and by the end of my much-reduced speech I was almost inaudible.

That was the moment I stopped feeling like a normal human being and transformed into a pathetic invalid.

And as the days passed, I found myself getting worse not better. The GP said take penicillin and Paracetamol and it should pass.

When it didn’t, he gave me some kind of blockbuster antibiotic and said I’d start to feel better the next day.

When I didn’t, he sent me to hospital where I have been languishing ever since.
Yesterday doctor number six breezed into my room trailing trainees and nurses in his wake. He said he was too old to wear a mask.

He was brisk, friendly, informative, funny – a breath of fresh air.

He said the results of the swine flu tests were still not back five days after they were sent to the laboratory.

But declared it didn’t make any difference if I’d got swine flu or not; what mattered was dealing with the illness and making me better.

And he said I was making progress. Indeed, he’s sent me home.

It looks as if I can breathe again – literally as well as metaphorically.