Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Sharon Owens: Time to stop glossing over these artful tax dodgers

Tory Party headquarters at Millbank comes under attack by students

I’ve never supported direct action because I’ve always felt that setting fire to cars and throwing gloss paint over office windows only adds to the general misery of any given situation.

But the way things are going, some might say that direct action is inevitable.

Now let me begin by admitting I’m not very good with money. After I graduated from art college, I spent eight years dithering over various ideas for a children’s book. Then I turned to writing popular fiction.

For the first two years that I worked as a writer, I earned precisely nothing, because I wrote a play that wasn’t commissioned and a book that was never finished.

After that, I spent a year writing a novel for which I received an advance of £345. Then I had six good years, but even so I lost more than 60% of my novelist’s income to tax, national insurance contributions, primary publisher’s commission and their sub-agent’s fee.

I don’t mind admitting I couldn’t have worked as a writer at all if my husband hadn’t had a steady job and if our mortgage hadn’t been quite reasonable.

Still, I was never really in it for the money. I’m not a worldly person. My only luxuries are tea, crisps, glossy magazines and the occasional tin of Farrow & Ball estate emulsion.

But the news that Barclays Bank paid only 1% in corporate tax last year has really depressed me. During my chequered career, I have never, ever slipped so much as a short story fee of £200 under the radar.

I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I knew I was wilfully concealing income from the Inland Revenue. I believe in paying my way in society.

But why is the Government announcing a sharp crackdown on benefits and a massive cut in public spending, while allowing major corporations and the super-rich to get away with tax avoidance on a grand scale? It may be legal, but it isn’t very nice at a time when ordinary people are literally dying on hospital waiting lists.

I happen to know that Barclays Bank currently charges individual customers £12 for a late payment on a credit card statement.

And I don’t think there’s a pre-fine investigation to ascertain whether a payment was late because the cheque was actually posted late, or because the cheque perhaps languished in the sorting office for a few days. They just fine you and that’s it.

So what can individuals do if they disagree with any interest charges levied as a result of a grey area late payment? Not a lot. What can individuals do about service charges and fees and fines and interest and VAT and all the rest of it? Not a lot. Well, I’ve been lax about money for far too long. From now on I’ll be on top of my finances.

I’ll pay bills with weeks to spare. I’ll look for special offers.

I’ll query anything I don’t like the look of. I’ll switch suppliers if they put me on hold for half the morning.

I don’t think I’m at the stage of flinging gloss paint, but I know some people who definitely are. I know some people who will certainly be homeless if they lose their tax credits allowance.

I know some people who are in despair because their rent is so high they can barely afford the bus fare to work any more.

I know some people who can only buy clothes from charity shops. Basically the majority of people I know are already living close to the poverty line and cannot afford any rise, however small, in the cost of housing, food, fuel, transport, or utilities.

And yet the super-rich can go on registering their business interests in foreign tax havens. They can practise tax-avoidance. They can put vast sums of money in trust funds.

They know all the tricks of the trade and they have all the connections necessary to make it happen. I just hope they know what they’re doing.

Ordinary people have had enough. People who work can’t afford a tax-hike. People who are sick can’t afford a cut in benefits. The small-scale self-employed are disgusted by Barclays Bank’s paltry 1% corporation tax.

I hope we won’t see civil unrest in the months and years to come. Perish the thought! But many ordinary people may feel they have nothing left to lose.

Can of Farrow & Ball, anyone?

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