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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Taxman Cometh

Now here's a fun topic we haven't covered much before, partly because it's not fun at all: Tax.

Specifically, what measures some governments are going to in order to scoop more revenue in these austere times.

You probably read about this man.


What a handsome chappy! I hear you say. What is this troubled, "je ne sais pas" expression doing on such a silver fox of a man? Well this is not just a man, this is an M&S man. Actually, it's Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary, who has just earned the ire of 40 per cent of his electorate. I suspect a few more wrinkles will grace his brow now, than the few that were photographed by Reuters in 2010.

This week, Mr Orban had to backtrack furiously because he had proposed to introduce a tax on using the internet.

Yes, that's right, people would have had to pay tax on how many times they looked at pictures of cats! OUTRAGEOUS. Everyone knows, the internet is made of tubes, and the tubes are filled with cats.

Protestors took to the streets against the threat that they would have to pay the equivalent of 40p per gigabyte. Questions about freedom of information, freedom of expression, the right to browse, etc were lobbied inside and outside of the Hungarian parliament.

But as one of my favourite tax analysts, Andrew Hubbard of Baker Tilly, has said, although this internet tax may be "consigned to the dustbin of history", there is another tax row brewing, this time on the other side of the pond.

There is a tax vote going through San Francisco and Berkley, California, to impose a tax on sugary drinks. It has been mooted in other US cities and it has also been debated in the UK. Can we stop people from being fat by taxing the fun out of sugary drinks and fatty food?

Mr Hubbard said: "There have been other attempts to introduce such as tax but none have been successful because of public opposition to additional taxes and the clout of the powerful soft drinks lobby."

(Side-note: a Soft Drinks Lobby sounds really nice. It sounds like a seated area in a hotel or an office, where gorgeous waiting staff serve you ice-cold cola on a silver platter on a warm day, and hot squash and a blanket on a cool day. I'd like to spend time in that sort of a Soft Drinks Lobby.)

Mr Hubbard adds: "But the tide may be turning".

Yes, the healthcare lobby is desperate to get people to cut their sugar intake. If you've ever seen those Secret Eaters or Super Skinny vs Super Size shows on your tellybox, you will know how bad sugary drinks can be. I like watching those programmes, it really opens your eyes to what we are putting into our bodies. I make a point of watching a few episodes in a row on iPlayer, so that I can get through a whole tub of Ben 'n' Jerries while judging fatter people, silently.

So it may not be too long before this bizarre tax is levvied not just across the US but also in the UK. Teachers will rejoice.

It's not the most bizzare tax, however, in the UK. And certainly it is not the weirdest one in the world.

Here's my list of top five weird and wonderful taxes

1) The window tax. It sounds like a Tory Party policy to hit out at council house people who have not just a spare bedroom (The SIN!) but also have more than one window (coming over here, stealing our natural light). However, this was a real tax just over 350 years ago in the UK - which is why you will see many old buildings with some window cavities that have been bricked up.

2) Soap. Yes, that expensive commodity endured a tax for centuries across Europe, from the late middle ages onwards. It wasn't repealed until 1835, when, coincidentally, people started to realise that hygiene helped them not to get diseases. Some parts of the UK, teenage boys' bedrooms included, may think a tax on soap still exists. It is time to put them straight!

3) Urine the money. Yes, those lovely Romans didn't like people wasting their precious pee, especially as tanners (people who treated the skins of animals) and launderers (not money launderers) used the chemicals in urine to keep themselves in business. So by taxing other people's "business" back in the 1st Century, Vespasian managed to raise a lot of money from people buying urine. But then he had also managed to pee away the majority of his predecessor's large fortune...

4) Bearded Russians? You've heard of bearded Russians? Well, you wouldn't have if you visted in the early 1700s. That doyen of Czars, the Emperor Peter the Great - a man often pictured with a beard - placed a tax on beards so that men would look like the French, who were clean-shaven. For about 100 years, the Russian elite attempted to look, feel and sound French. Until that bald-faced Napoleon tried to invade Russia.

5) Hat Tax. For some weird reason unknown to anyone but the political establishment in 1784, England tried to impose a tax on hats. No man could wear one unless he paid a tax; in desperation at loss of customers, milliners invented new names for things you wear on your heads. The English government decided that wasn't cricket, and they were not about to start playing a Regency game of Taboo with hatmakers, so put a blanket ban on all headgear. This was repealed just before the Battle of Waterloo - so maybe Napoleon did English gentlemen and Russian noblemen a big favour. Hats and beards ahoy!

In fact, I am so happy that people have the right to be hatted and fuzzy-faced that I've decided to come out in favour of them. I don't have a hat in the office, so I hope my tache and beard will suffice.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Non Mea Culpa - it's all at your own risk

If you are sent cheques you bear all responsibility 

While scrying the internet on press day for stories that might whet the advisers' appetite, I came across consumer champion Tony Hetherington's latest investigation into Missing Cheques. More accurately, how one man cashed in his savings with Standard Life, and was sent a cheque from Capita to the tune of £928.

The cheque was paid into an account at Lloyds - but not by the intended recipient. He has never received his money after cashing in his savings. The upshot? According to Capita, it's all at the investor's own risk. They claimed to have sent the cheque to the correct address, so even if his mail was intercepted and the cheque was stolen, he will never see his money unless he tries to take the person who cashed his cheque to court.

It is all "at your own risk" if a cheque is sent to you.

Now I've heard the 'caveat emptor' phrase a million times and I have some sympathy for it. You must be able to bear some responsibility for what you buy. If you don't check the terms and conditions, if you don't get someone else to do this for you, if you don't understand what you are buying - then don't buy it! It is basic common sense.

You don't go into a clothes shop and tell the assistant that you like the bag in the window, then get given a mystery box all wrapped up and told to "sign here". You check the box to see what is in it before you pay for it. Or any sensible person would.

This reminds me of a story back from when my late Great Aunt Ivy was a young lady travelling to work in London back in the early 1920s. She bought herself a nightgown - a silk one - from a posh shop in the West End. The lady at the counter took the slip, turned around, wrapped it into a box and delivered it to Ivy without saying a word. When Ivy got home to try on her purchase, it was an old vest. No returns.

Always check in the box is a good simile for 'caveat emptor'.

But when it comes to other parties entrusted with the delivery of your money, what has happened to this man in the Mail's column is pretty shoddy behaviour. Did Lloyds not double-check the names and initials on the cheque? Why has Capita absolved all responsibility? Why has nobody examined the information to see whether Capita did, indeed, put the right address on the envelope?

To say that once you have sent a cheque to someone, it is their responsibility is ludicrous. There should be some duty of care involved - such as requring a signature on delivery of the cheque. This may not be a lot of money in the world of investment managers and consultants, whose salaries are enviable, but to a man whose entire savings with that provider didn't even amount to £1000, this makes a lot of difference.

Why couldn't the money be delivered by BACS?
Why couldn't it be paid directly into his account?
Why wasn't the cheque, if it had to be posted, tracked, marked for signature on receipt?

This smacks of being careless with other people's money and for the victim, this isn't a laughing matter. Although of course, someone was laughing - the person who took this fellow's cheque all the way to the bank.