This time the perpetrator is the comedian Jimmy Carr, and the media is having a field day. I wasn’t going to write anything on this particular witch hunt, because my position is pretty pragmatic – that taking advice to minimise your tax bill is sensible, and that taxing the bejesus out of high earners is a sure fire way to see them leave the UK for good, at which point the tax take on their earnings will be precisely zero. What’s more, how people manage their financial affairs is their business, and if you want to avoid paying tax, be as “aggressive” as the law and your conscience will allow.
But I have been goaded into writing, because I am disappointed in him. Not because he has avoided paying tax in the first place. Not because he is “a hypocrite” for once performing a skit on a topical news show lampooning corporate tax avoidance (if comedians actually behaved like their on-stage personas most of them would be locked up). Quite frankly, 99 per cent of people that expressed indignation at Jimmy Carr would avoid paying tax themselves if they had the means to do so. I suspect, for example, you won’t find too many IT contractors doling out opinions on tax avoidance. Nor, it seems, many Yorkshiremen.
Nope, I’m disappointed because Jimmy Carr has apologised for his “error of judgement”. What’s he got to be sorry for? How is prudent financial management “a terrible mistake”?
Let’s get this straight. The man has done nothing illegal and yet is on the receiving end of public vilification usually reserved for rapists and murderers. And as Rufus Hound, another comedian and one of the few people to defend Jimmy Carr points out, he is in fact a decent man who, to use a cliché, does a lot of work for charity. “I’ve worked for a few different charities who will testify that Jimmy’s done gigs for them for free and then he’s given them large sums of money at the end. So I just thought that the vilification of Jimmy Carr needed to be cast into some context - he’s not some horrific vampire who’s deliberately leaching millions from the NHS,” he said.
What disappoints me even more than Jimmy Carr’s apology, though, is that his transgression is seemingly so nationally important that the Prime Minister himself needs to publicly comment. According to David Cameron, his behaviour is “particularly egregious”. Doesn’t the man allegedly running the country have anything better to do than worry about the tax affairs of one individual? Populist points scoring apparently rates more highly than putting in place credible strategies for setting the UK back on the path to growth.
I will not be the first to say this, but Jimmy Carr’s perfectly legal tax avoidance is only the tip of a massive iceberg, worth an estimated £4.5bn to the Exchequer. These loopholes have been in place for years, yet no one in government has seen fit to close them, presumably because their rich friends and party donors would be very cross indeed if they, too, had to start paying an appropriate rate of tax on their riches. That’s why, if any of you have cash in tax avoidance schemes, I wouldn’t be too worried – Cameron and co will not be biting the hand that feeds them, and if one loophole closes another will surely remain open so that good Tories like Gary Barlow OBE can continue to shelter their earnings from the HMRC. Jimmy Carr's main mistake, it seems, has been to not donate enough money to the Conservatives.
In fact, successive governments have seemingly been so blasé about tax avoidance that they gave one of the biggest, Sir Philip Green, a knighthood and a job, ironically looking for ways in which the government could cut waste. And the Arcadia boss’s estimated £300m tax dodge pales into insignificance in relation to the sums large business should pay but don’t, seemingly with the blessing of the HMRC and the government. Intriguingly the Jimmy Carr tax story was broken by the Times, part of the Murdoch News Corp empire famous for its convoluted hierarchy of offshore holding companies that help it avoid paying the full rate of corporation tax.
And if anyone’s got any shares in Vodafone, the company that managed to wriggle out of a £6bn tax bill, dump them in outrage before you stop watching 8 Out of 10 Cats. Or wear with pride the badge of a “hypocrite” that we all seem so keen to pin on a comedian that did what any right thinking individual would have done.