The moral debate over taxation came to the fore once again this week when Exchequer secretary to the Treasury David Gauke waded into the ongoing row – in a pair of steel-toecapped size nines. Only weeks after David Cameron’s ill-judged attack on “morally wrong” high-level tax avoidance schemes, Gauke took the battle into the grassroots, declaring that paying for jobs cash-in-hand was also “morally wrong”. Like Cameron before him, he has attracted a barrage of criticism for this stance, taken at a time when many large companies, and famous names with close links to the Conservatives, are avoiding huge amounts of tax without recriminations.
Indeed, with what can charitably be described as bad timing, he made his claim in the same week as it was revealed that the rich have siphoned off an astonishing $21 trillion – more than 50% more than the entire US economy – by running their finances out of tax havens. Of course, lowering prices for anyone who pay for jobs in cash as a reward for the worker’s ability to avoid VAT – a convenience of keeping the transaction “off-book” – is illegal. But the use of “morality” in judging the practice is a semantic minefield: some have correctly pointed out that the obligation for declaration does not lie with the customer but the provider. Meanwhile, it may often be the case that a day-to-day worker such as a builder does not have the time and resources to wait for cheques or other payment methods to clear. Plus, those operating below the VAT threshold don’t have tax to avoid. “Moral” is a dangerous word to use for any politician. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” said one J Christ, Esq. It would be a modern miracle to find a sin-free politician.
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