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Income tax: can pay, won't pay
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in The Observer, 2005
Robin Brookes has owed about £500 to the Inland Revenue since 2003, and the fines and interest on the unpaid tax are piling up. He can afford to settle the bill, and says he positively wants to pay the correct amount of tax he owes. The only thing holding him back is his conscience.
Brookes, a designer of traditional toys who lives in Wiltshire, is one of a small but increasingly vocal group of taxpayers who are withholding a share of their tax until, they say, the government guarantees that their money will not be channelled into military expenditure. He wants rights analogous to those won by certain people at the time of conscription. 'In World War One and World War Two there was provision for conscientious objection. We're arguing that we should have that same right,' he says.
It is not an argument the government likes. The principle of the tax system is, after all, that each person pays into the Treasury pot, rather than being able to stipulate how every last pound is spent. But Brookes, an active Quaker, says that by obliging him to help fund war, the government is making him go against his beliefs. 'The huge amount spent on the military is ultimately only going to create misery, death and destruction,' he says.
Brookes, together with six other tax conscientious objectors, are now challenging the government under human rights law. Solicitors for the so-called Peace Tax Seven have recently filed papers in the high court applying for a judicial review. They assert that the government is in breach of article 9 of the European human rights convention, which guarantees freedom of religion and of beliefs.
Of the seven, four are Quakers, one is an Anglican, one a Buddhist and one claims simply an ethical and philosophical objection to war. What unites them is that they all have income which is not automatically taxed at source through Pay As You Earn, allowing them to take a stand by directly withholding tax. Most follow the rule of thumb that 10 per cent of tax receipts are used to fund military expenditure.
Brenda Boughton, a former English and adult literacy teacher who has just celebrated her 80th birthday, is the oldest of the seven. She has been engaged in a tussle with the government since the late 1980s, when she first began withholding a percentage of her tax. In recent years, she has donated the withheld money to Oxfam to demonstrate that she is not keeping it for her own use. This has not stopped the tax authorities from taking her to court on several occasions, or from removing money from her bank account via court garnishee orders.
'Weapons don't accomplish anything, apart from causing misery and stirring up resentment - and ensuring a cause for the next war,' she says. She maintains that an obligation to contribute towards weapons expenditure creates a complicity in the killing of others.
The campaign to give tax payers a form of conscientious objection has been led for 25 years by Conscience (formerly the Peace Tax Campaign), which claims 2,500 supporters. Jon Nott, development officer, says his organisation has long hoped for a legal challenge of the government under human rights legislation. 'We're very eagerly waiting to hear what the court will say,' he says.
The Peace Tax Seven face two initial obstacles, however. The high court has both to accept their request that a judicial review be undertaken, and to agree that, since the case has public interest, legal charges on the seven individuals should be capped. The court's decision on both counts is expected early this summer.
In the meantime, the tax bills of Brookes and his fellow campaigners are recorded simply as overdue for payment, and the interest carries on being charged.
[An earlier article about Robin Brookes and the Conscience campaign is also available]
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