Politicians, the newspapers and users of Twitter (Twits? Tweeters? The Twitterati?) have all been busy having their say on Jimmy Carr and the morality of his tax arrangements. So who has got close to the heart of the matter, and who is merely whistling in the wind?

Barking up the right tree

Jimmy Carr himself: “I’ve not broken the law. I’ve not done anything illegal. But morally, morally …..”

David Aaronovitch in the Times: Carr’s actions are a moral problem rather than a legal one.

Richard Gunning in a letter to the Times: “To describe this arranging as ‘morally repugnant’ is extreme, but there is a moral dimension to paying a just amount of tax. Rather like a lawyer ‘arranging’ the defence of his client, perhaps to avoid the truth, ‘arranging’ one’s tax affairs via artificial schemes smacks of cynicism. It also smacks of greed…..”

Tim Stanley in the Telegraph: Carr’s ostensible hypocrisy is his chief sin.

Andrea Mann in the Huffington Post: “If anything blunts satire’s weapon, it’s being accused of the exact same thing you’re lampooning.”

And

 Is Jimmy Carr behaving immorally by avoiding taxes, or simply being canny and frankly it’s none of our beeswax? These are legitimate questions that could be argued ‘til the cows come home.”

Fleet Street Fox, seeking to broaden the media’s fire:

“The true hypocrisy is not to be found in unimportant, unfunny Jimmy Carr and his couple of mill. It’s sitting behind a desk in the Treasury, pilfering the pockets of the lower orders and stroking the egos of big, fat men with big, fat bank accounts.”

Rufus Hound on Twitter: “A lot of people here seem to be making the case that tax avoidance’s morally wrong. In which case vote to change it. I do.

Barking in the wrong forest (or possibly just barking….)

 

Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury: Tax avoiders are the moral equivalent of benefit cheats.

Lily Allen on Twitter: “How are tax avoiders ‘the moral equivalent of benefit cheats’? …… Surely they’re a hundred times worse?

The Guardian: Whether the Prime Minister is not in any place to dish out such censure in the first place is debatable, as the PM’s family made their fortune in tax havens.

Ed Milliband: “I’m not in favour of tax avoidance obviously, but I don’t think it is for politicians to lecture people about morality.”

I do not consider it is helpful to further confuse public opinion by comparing legal but arguably morally reprehensible actions with criminal offences, to seek to visit the alleged moral sins of fathers on their children or to deny that politicians have any right to address moral issues in the country that they govern.

“Well, yes and no” – barking for further discussion and thought

 

David Cameron: “Some of these schemes we have seen are quite frankly morally wrong.”

Morality is a moving target, determined by each individual in the sense of their own conscience, and by society in general in terms of what is acceptable conduct and what is beyond the pale. Moving targets are of course notoriously difficult to hit, or perhaps in this case to avoid. The Prime Minister happens to reflect my view of the morality of abusive tax avoidance in this case, but that doesn’t mean he is right. However, I do think that public opinion, and certainly opinion in the tax profession, is moving in the direction that David Cameron indicates.

Thursday’s Times leader; Such tax schemes, even if within the law, are “a form

of cheating”.

This is the difference between the letter and the spirit of the law. The latter is notoriously difficult to capture in any meaningful sense, which is why the Government is proposing a General Anti-Abuse Rule, which will seek to achieve the difficult task of putting the spirit of the law into the letter of the law. And good luck in this praiseworthy endeavour, which I suspect might just work in this case. So is it cheating to abide by the letter of the law whilst abusing its spirit? And how is one supposed to know what the spirit of the law is, given that it is once again a moving target?

Stephen Pollard in the Daily Express: “It’s a mistake to attack the people who use (tax avoidance schemes) for committing crimes that don’t exist. We need the rich – whether they’re comedians, singers or entrepreneurs – if we are ever to climb out of recession. Let me be blunt, only a fool would pay more tax than he has to. But instead of condemning the people who take advantage of tax avoidance schemes, we should blame the system that drives them to do so – and the politicians who created it in the first place.”

It seems to me difficult to me to argue that we need the rich to climb out of recession if they are not paying their share of the cost of doing so. This is dangerously close to special pleading for the rich to pay a lower proportion of their income in taxes than the rest of us, which would not be a popular policy, I suggest. I for one would suggest to taxpayers, however rich, who do not feel it appropriate to make a reasonable contribution to the economy of this country that they might like to go and not pay their taxes elsewhere.

And I could take exception to being called a fool. As a tax adviser I (and the vast majority of my peers) have always taken the view that my own tax affairs must be as pure as the driven snow, so I have never engaged in any remotely dubious tax avoidance activity, and never would. I prefer to term that ‘professional’ rather than ‘foolish’ but I agree it is a matter of opinion.

Where Mr Pollard has more of a point, and what keeps him out of the ‘barking in the wrong forest’ category, is his final sentence. There is no doubt that this country labours under a tax system that has no guiding philosophy or overall theme, which has developed piecemeal over a period of some 200 years, which has repeatedly been the subject of politically motivated tinkering and which has, as a result of the above factors, become an amorphous mass of inconsistent and contradictory legislation, utterly incomprehensible to anyone who has not made it their life’s work to try to unravel its complexities. And as a result, sufficiently full of ‘loopholes’ to encourage and sustain the parasites and leeches who become fat by offering the rich an escape route from tax that meets the letter but offends the spirit of the law.

Having said that, people must still take moral responsibility for their own decisions. I would have had more sympathy for Mr Pollard’s “drives them to do so” when the top rate of tax was 98%, as opposed to the current 52% (shortly to be 47%).

Rod Liddle in the Times: “This week has proved thatBritainstill rules the world at its favourite sport – kicking a celebrity in the testicles, repeatedly.” And of Carr’s critics “So desperate are they to justify their attacks that they accuse the comic of ‘hypocrisy’ – because he ONCE told a joke about Barclays not paying the right amount of tax… I’ve always thought of him as a bit of a Tory on the quiet, although no less funny for that. But a hypocrite? What rot.”

 

‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’. I am sure we can all engage in our very own bits of hypocrisy over time, but if you are going to make a living satirising the moral choices of others, you had better be ready to accept criticism of your own such decisions.

Kate W on Twitter: “Jimmy Carr’s next tour should use ‘Morally wrong – David Cameron’ as a poster quote.”

 

Perhaps a good example of why politicians should not give lectures on morality, particularly in the light of relatively recent expenses revelations. Yet Jimmy Carr appears to implicitly accept the Prime Minister’s criticism of his actions in the very first quote, so perhaps he won’t be rushing to do this in practice.

All of this tells me that the sooner the Government gets an effective General Anti-Abuse Rule onto the statute book the better, as this does appear to be our best chance to marry the letter and the spirit of the law into something more coherent than the chaos we currently endure. And then we can all hopefully concentrate on getting out of our current economic mess whilst all paying our fair share of the cost? Well, a man can dream I suppose…….

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