Tax revolts are not uncommon throughout British history. From thirteenth century opposition to the imposition of taxes by King John to fight a war against France, through to the riots in Trafalgar Square in 1990, taxes have had the power to move the normally gentile British.
Usually, opposition to a tax revolves around a sense of injustice at how much is being paid. Occasionally though, it is more to do with what the taxes are used for.
That is certainly what unites Brenda Broughton, Robin Brookes, Sian Cwper, Simon Heywood, Joe Jenkins, Roy Prockter and Dr Birgit Vollm.
The ‘Peace Tax Seven’ are probably the unlikeliest bunch of rebels in all that time. Broughton is a retired teacher aged 79; Brookes is a toymaker; Prockter, a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants and Dr Vollm is a lecturer.
In April last year, the seven anti-war protesters sought legal advice to see if the current laws, which see the money of conscientious objectors go towards the prosecution of war, could be changed. ‘I can no longer pay taxes for others to kill or prepare to kill in my name,’ says Prockter.
This month a judicial review of the current laws will be lodged with the High Court by solicitors, Public Interest Lawyers. Nusrat Chagtai of PIL says the group are lodging the review under article nine of the European Human Rights Act.
The lawyers will claim their beliefs are being impinged upon, because their money is going towards military spending. ‘They cannot contribute money that goes towards war,’ says Chagtai.
It is not the first time some of them have challenged the law.
Broughton, the stalwart of the group, started withholding income tax, which she calculated was spent on nuclear weapons back in 1988.
Prockter began a similar protest in 1991 and Vollm withheld tax payments in the run-up to the latest Iraq war in January 2003.
So far, their testing of the law has resulted in a series of visits from bailiffs to recover money or, ironically, a rebate from the Inland Revenue which took too much tax in the first place.
Whether you agree or disagree with their pacifism, it is clear that their protests raise questions about taxation.
Is it possible for taxpayers to effectively argue where their money can and cannot be spent?
Despite the increasing legal impact of the European Human Rights Act, Mark Lee, the managing director of tax advisers Shaw and Co, thinks not. ‘I find it almost impossible to believe that our tax system can be used by individuals to pay or withdraw tax on a hypothecated (a particular tax for a particular purpose) basis,’ he says.
‘It may play well to the public but I am not convinced it would be possible to account for. It would be an enormous challenge for the government’s internal accounts system to match income with expenditure precisely as hypothecation requires.’
Each individual being able to determine where portions of their income tax went would indeed prove a logistical nightmare.
But hypothecation is not such a blunt tool and can prove enticing for MPs. Politicians have consistently looked at the idea of hypothecation, and not just in a cursory fashion.
There is one good example of a ring-fenced tax in the UK: the television licence fee. TV viewers pay their money, mostly, and they know where it ends up – in the coffers of the BBC.
National insurance is supposed to be a hypothecated tax but is constantly topped-up via general taxation. Both road tax and landfill tax can be argued as being examples of potential hypothecated taxes.
The current government flirted with the idea of a specific tax for education but ultimately shied away.
However, it is the Liberal Democrats who have been the most open advocates of hypothecation when they developed their policy of putting an extra penny on income tax specifically for spending on education.
The then Treasury spokesman Matthew Taylor developed the policy in the 1990s and it became arguably the party’s best known policy. A ring-fenced tax specifically for the NHS was also mooted.
With such proposals it seemed as though hypothecation was set to become a permanent fixture in British politics. Not so – the policy was eventually scrapped in favour of a proposal for a local income tax.
But that does not mean hypothecation has disappeared forever.
The beauty of it is that for the taxpayer, and any government, you can see where your money is going.
It is a transparent, accountable tax, or as transparent as these things can be, and in an age where politicians are trusted by fewer and fewer people that must be attractive.
Hypothecation could certainly prove attractive for a perennial cause in search of funding such as the NHS.
Whether or not it could be used for military spending depends not on accounting practices but, instead, on judges. The result will be watched with some interest.
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