Sunday, January 31, 2010

Is it ever morally acceptable to fiddle your tax form? (Radio4)

A friend suggested I listen to a Radio 4 Sunday morning religious programme broadcast this morning. The headline item was titled: Is it ever morally acceptable to fiddle your tax form?

I listened with interest and growing disappointment as I realised that this was a clear case of misrepresentation.

In the event the real focus was the age old argument about the moral rationale for telling white lies. As one speaker noted: When your wife asks: "Does this dress make me look fat?" No man should ever reply, "No dear, it's your fat that makes you look fat".

But en route to that discussion the presenter, Ed Stourton, introduced the programme by referencing "good citizens" who had either already filed their tax returns or were "scrambling to meet tonight's deadline". The BBC had apparently undertaken a straw poll on the streets of Manchester and the public had presumably been asked the question from the title of the programme.

Interestingly the majority of those asked seemed NOT to have fiddled their taxes. I got the impression that this wasn't what the producers had expected. There were a couple of more interesting replies such as:
"Some people tweak their receipts - fair play to them"
"I've embellished, but never fiddled (I've claimed I've done more miles in the car)"
But then it was clear that subsequent replies were to more generic questions about white lies and 'ethical creep'.

Back in the studio the distinction between embellishing your expense claims and fiddling your tax return was later described, without approval, as "cunning" - with no reference being made to the 'cunning' MPs' expenses scandal last year (which prompted me to list the 25 unanswered tax questions).

There was also a reference to the classical distinction between legal tax avoidance and illegal tax evasion.

But perhaps the most shocking (to me) point was when Ed Stourton asked his guests:
"Is anyone who uses an accountant guilty of an ethical crime?"
The implication seemed to be that all accountants help their clients pay less tax than is strictly due. His guests did not agree with this implicit slur on our profession and the discussion then moved entirely away from the subject of tax forms - despite the title of the programme. I wonder why?

At the time of writing you can listen to the programme online or as a Radio 4 podcast.

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