Belfast Telegraph

Tax-evasion is intolerable, but so’s all this pulpit talk

By Fionola Meredith

Don't you just love it when you get lectured on morality by politicians? And here in Northern Ireland, the whiff of moral judgment is never far away.

Take Roads Minister Danny Kennedy, acting like over-running your time on the parking meter is some kind of mortal sin, requiring deep financial atonement.

And then there are the squeaky-clean temperance boys, Nelson McCausland and Alex Attwood, on a holy crusade to make sure that we're all tucked up in our beds by 2am.

God forbid we might still be out on the town, as people of all ages in every other European capital do, sipping a good whiskey, chatting to friends, or — oh, the sensual wickedness of it — maybe even dancing. That sounds far too much like fun for our joyless, prissy, rules-bound ministers.

Now Tory MP and Treasury minister David Gauke is getting in on the act. He says that paying your plumber cash-in-hand is “morally wrong” and contributes to “a large part of the hidden economy” of UK tax-avoidance.

Gauke piously claimed that he had never in his life said to a tradesman: “If I pay you cash, can I get a discount?”

It's not just the saintly, sanctimonious tones that stick in the craw here. It's the fact that a representative from the British political party of privilege and entitlement is, once again, pointing the finger at ordinary people.

There's also a rather nasty implied slur on self-employed tradespeople, as well as those that employ them, in Gauke's stance. Why should we automatically assume that every job done for cash-in-hand is a potential case of tax-evasion?

Reacting online, one tradesman said: “I always get paid in cash for jobs and I declare every penny. Mind you, I rarely earn more than my tax-free limit, so it doesn't matter.”

Meanwhile, in an alternative universe, the super-rich act with relative impunity, secretly squirrelling billions away in hiding places safe from HMRC.

A new report by the Tax Justice Network shows that a global elite has exploited gaps in cross-border tax rules to hide a mind-boggling £13trn of wealth offshore. That's as much as the American and Japanese GDPs put together.

So why doesn't David Gauke direct more of his moral opprobrium at the bloated mega-rich, ensuring that they pay their fair share of tax, rather than at those at the opposite end of the income scale?

It's a matter of proportionality: large-scale tax-avoidance shenanigans are far more damaging to the economy than the actions of a few rogue plumbers. But guess who's easier to target?

And yet it's important to not let our reasonable outrage at such holier-than-thou hypocrisy and arrogance carry us too far.

Essentially, it is necessary for everyone to pay tax, whether rich or poor. It's easy to whinge and whine and, of course, nobody likes it, but the benefits of living a comfortable life in a Western democracy do not come for free and we shouldn't expect them to.

We also have a responsibility to look after ourselves, to take decisive action when things go wrong. Here in Northern Ireland, there's a particularly unattractive tendency to flop helplessly on the state, expecting the Government to pick us up and put us back together, as though we're living in some fantasy socialist utopia.

Maybe it's something to do with having spent too many years as the spoilt problem child of the British Government, indulged yet dysfunctional and discontented, always looking to be helped over our latest crisis. Times are different now, but old attitudes linger.

Whatever the reason, we need to take a good hard look at ourselves. This is especially true when it comes to health.

Too many of us are eating, drinking or smoking our way into chronic illness, and then expecting the state to pick up the tab.

Dealing with obesity-related conditions alone accounts for around 20% of the entire healthcare budget here. Alcohol abuse costs up to £900m-a-year. These problems are deeply ingrained and will not be solved by petulant, punitive measures, like forcing bars to close early.

The simple, unpalatable truth is that, if we want the services to cope with this unfortunate situation, we're all going to have to pay more in taxes — not less.

Personal responsibility is what is needed here. But — please — leave the priggish moral judgments out of it.

Belfast Telegraph

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