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The Long View of Tax Avoidance

August 4, 2013

I occasionally listen to the Radio 4 programme, the Long View. It is a series where discussions are held round a theme, drawing parallels between current issues and the past.

The one I listened to recently was on Tax Avoidance, with Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, griller of Google, Amazon and the Big 4, amongst the participants, with occasional commentary from Andrew Wareham of Roehampton University (I wish Andrew had been given longer slots: he was most interesting).

Anyway, plus ça change, plus ça c'est la même chose. In 734 AD, the Venerable Bede wrote to the king asking for something to be done against tax avoiders.

Monasteries were exempt from taxation, and so it became common for people to contend that their household was a place of worship, of monastic study, and therefore exempt. Bede said the practice was widespread and the breaches needed to be stopped: reforms were not made until 747.

In modern parlance, this would be tax evasion, not tax avoidance: saying your household is a monastery when it factually isn't, is vastly different from the actions of Amsterdam builders, when households were taxed on the width of their frontages- the narrow, thin, deep, Amsterdam houses can be seen today, or the bricking up of openings in British stately homes to minimise window tax.

In 790, the Vikings, after conquering Britain, had a clever way of ensuring their tax (the Danegeld) was paid: pay tax by the due time of the due date or, if someone else paid that tax because you were too late or avoided it, then whoever paid the tax became the lawful owner of the asset concerned, without redress.

Effectively, Danegeld said that all property was rented from the State: pay up or lose it. Confiscation of one's land might be thought of as being extreme in today's world, and yet there are still parallels, for instance the ability of Customs officers to seize goods.


From → Taxation

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