At the risk of opening a very vermian can, I have been thinking a lot this week about tax avoidance. Yes: avoidance rather than (or, more realistically, as well as) evasion. It all started last Monday when I was in the check-in queue at Stansted, on my way to Guernsey. A man came up to me and asked our destination. “We’re going to Guernsey,” I said. “And you?” “Sark, unfortunately,” he replied. Now, I’ve never been to Sark, and I’m also one of those annoying people who chat to strangers in queues, so I couldn’t resist. “Why are you going, then, if you don’t like it?” “Tax,” he said. “If I’m resident there, I don’t pay any tax – but it’s ninety boring days each year stuck on that island.” “Is it worth it? Living somewhere you don’t like, just to save some money?” I asked. To be fair, he did think about it for a moment, before saying, “Yup – only fools pay tax.” Ah – a graduate of the Leona Helmsley school of finance. By now a little crowd had gathered, pretending to check their passports but really having a good old earwig. And with my lifelong loyalty to the theory of taxation, my dander was up.
“Tell me,” I asked, “Who pays for the children of Sark to go to school?” “Mine go to boarding school in England, and anyway I’m not sure there are any children on Sark.” “What about healthcare – if you have an accident? Who pays for the ambulance?” “It’s all private, so we pay for our own.” “And what about roads and sewers and police and street lighting?” “I’m not sure – I think there are some wealthy individuals who make donations for that sort of thing.” At this point the check-in opened and I was saved from having to strangle him. But it’s not really him, is it? It’s the system that permits it. And without researching the tax situation in Sark myself, I am going purely on what he said (and he sounded a bit unsure) – and of course I know that it’s not only Sark where tax can be minimised in this way. And neither is it only individuals who can position themselves to save money – look at Starbucks, Ikea and Apple. But I do wonder what would happen if everyone did it. Rant over: next time I will return to the world of criminality rather than that of morality.