Contact Andrew Bibby
The 'conscientious objectors' who withhold their income tax
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in The Observer, 2003
At first glance the leaflet, complete with the cartoon character Hector on the cover, looks like all the other Inland Revenue publications in its personal taxpayer series.
It is the second glance that gives it away. The leaflet, entitled 'How to avoid paying for war', is most definitely not the official voice of the Revenue but rather the latest initiative from Conscience, the campaigning organisation which calls for the right of 'conscientious objection' for taxpayers.
Conscience, originally started twenty-five years ago as the Peace Tax Campaign, argues that individual taxpayers should have the opportunity to have 10% of their taxes - roughly the percentage of government expenditure spent on defence - diverted to peaceful uses. "It's conscientious objection in a modern setting. We're asking for the right to perform what is effectively an 'alternative financial service'," says Jon Nott, Conscience's development officer. Conscience's leaflet, which includes a so-called peace tax return to be mailed back to the government to call for a change in the law, has been sent to the organisation's 2,500 members and to several thousand other activists in the wider peace movement.
According to Jon Nott, the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have led to a recent resurgence of interest in the campaign. Iraq in particular has led to a growth in the number of people who have gone a step further and who are refusing to part with the last 10% of the tax they are due to pay. Robin Brookes, a traditional toymaker from Devizes in Wiltshire, is one of them. He is angry at the government's action in Iraq (what he calls a "reckless and illegal war") and says that he is waiting for a reassurance from the Revenue that his money won't support further military action. "I am not against paying tax. I'm keeping the money in a separate account, and I'll voluntarily pay it when I see a convincing change in our government's approach to world problems," he says.
His stand has not impressed the Revenue, which is treating the amount as overdue tax and is adding interest to his bill in the usual way. It also led him to an appearance in the Magistrates' Court in Chippenham last Monday [Oct 13 2003], where he was given a final three months to pay up. Robin Brookes says he is considering his options but is becoming resigned to an eventual visit from bailiffs or an attachment order on his bank account. "In all conscience I just can't say 'All right then, I'll write a cheque'," he says. And next tax year, he anticipates making the same principled stand. "I want to live under a government which pro-actively seeks to resolve conflicts long before they escalate into war. We should have the right to have the part of our taxes spent on the military diverted to peace building activities," he argues.
According to Jon Nott, Conscience is aware of a number of other taxpayers who, like Robin Brookes, have withheld 10% of their taxes this year and of about 10-20 similar cases which have already come before the courts. This tactic is not one which all taxpayers can adopt, however strong their views, since employees have tax taken automatically from them through the Pay as You Earn system. Robin Brookes, who is a Quaker, has been a member of Conscience for many years but has only recently started to get self-employed income.
The Inland Revenue has a courteous but firm letter on file which can be mailed out to people like Robin Brookes, pointing out that there are no provisions for taxpayers to withhold tax on grounds of conscience. The government's general position is equally firm, not least because the idea of allowing taxpayers to opt out of defence expenditure would challenge the central principle that all tax receipts go into a central fund. The idea of hypothecation - the allocation of particular tax receipts against expenditure - is not one which any Chancellor of the Exchequer embraces enthusiastically.
Nevertheless, Conscience believes that, with the passing of the Human Rights Act, there is a new opportunity to press the case for an extension of conscientious objection beyond just military service. For Jon Nott the case is clear: if individuals have the right not to take up arms in war, they should have the right not to pay for others to do so, either. "We're looking to pursue a test case, if the right person turns up," he says.
[A later article on Robin Brookes and Conscience is also available]
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