Taxpayers or citizens first?


Is it right to gauge corporate citizenship by our ability to pay taxes? Or could innovative ways of backing public funding allow us more ownership of collective problems?

Under the last government a Labour minister asked me how I felt about having to pay its recently announced 50 per cent tax rate, and I surprised him when I said that I was a beneficiary of the state education system and that therefore I felt an obligation to pay what society expected of me.

I wonder now whether we are right in assessing our good corporate citizenship culture by whether we pay our taxes. Most people who do this armchair judging, I would imagine, are PAYE employees who don’t have any choice and probably privately resent those who have the option to do otherwise. And what will the money I have just paid in taxes go towards – a dodgy war, an inappropriate EU demand, dubious expense claims from politicians?

Of course the welfare state needs us to pay for it, and I’m not making a loony libertarian claim that the free market can sort out all our problems. But is paying our tax the real tick-box of how good we are? Earlier in 2014 a survey of the wealthiest UK-based businesspeople who pay no, or negligible, tax published a parallel list of the biggest philanthropic givers in the country. And guess what? They were, by and large, the same people.

Such high-profile/high-net-worth individuals may well argue that if they have money and there are legal ways of not handing it over to people who more likely than not would misuse it, why shouldn’t they place it more socially or philanthropically themselves?

After all, if you were to buy shares or make investments you would take advice from people who had a proven track record in handling your cash or who had a prospect that caught your attention. If politicians really believe there is a moral case for paying more tax than some of the wealthy do, they should make it a legal case and be done with it. They tend not to because often the same people are their parties’ donors. Put another way, we don’t need moral guidance from them.

There have been cases in the past of people being put in court not because they simply don’t want to pay tax but that they’re reluctant to fund a war which they wholly oppose. Can we have conscientious tax objectors? If government were run like a business, it would have to enter a different kind of social contract with us – just as companies have shareholder agreements.

The chief executive or prime minister can be given a free hand to make purchases up to a given price point – anything bigger, say the acquisition of a new company or the building of a third runway, is subject to a vote.
In the public arena we delegate our vote to the person we elect.

The problem is that the elected representative really only represents a minority of us, whereas the majority of us pay the taxes which they then spend. And when you see close up and personal the uses made of the public purse, you can’t help but wonder how on earth such a system goes unchallenged.

I was recently called for jury service and because of my interest in the criminal justice system I looked forward to seeing this side of it, especially – if a defendant was found guilty – how the sentencing process worked.

Most people dread being asked to serve because it’s such a boring process – endless hanging around for what are, invariably, not-so-juicy cases. One guy in the waiting room with me and a couple of hundred other people said he had been waiting two weeks to be called.

It’s a hugely inefficient system and an incredibly costly one too, both on the judicial system and on British companies having people taken out of action – unnecessarily in the case of the guy who waited for so long. A digital jury service where selected jurors could log into their appointed courts remotely from work or home and enter a chat box to give a verdict could save us probably hundreds of millions each year.

Why, in this digital age of instant response times, can we not have a buy-in or buy-out option where the government has to seek taxpayer approval (rather than voter approval) on key decisions?

Perhaps we take out those people where national security is at risk – we have to trust our politicians to some extent to do the right thing without compromising ourselves. But should we pay the EU surcharge? Vote now. You never know – but with the advent of crowdfunding you might see more of us cough up more for specific plans, say, to build a new hospital. That way we might own our collective problems more.

Iqbal Wahhab OBE is the founder of Roast.

About author

Iqbal Wahhab

Iqbal Wahhab

Iqbal Wahhab is a restaurateur who drives social impacts to the core of his businesses. The founder of The Cinnamon Club and Roast is chair or patron of a variety of social projects and is planning more restaurants this year.

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