My View, Peter Burrows: Tax avoidance hurts the vulnerable most

Bishop of Doncaster, Peter Burrows.
Bishop of Doncaster, Peter Burrows.

In the Bible we’re introduced to Matthew as a dishonest tax collector until Jesus Christ chose him as a disciple. Under the Roman system, Matthew would have paid all the taxes in advance, then collected from the citizens and travellers to reimburse himself. Tax collectors were notoriously corrupt because they extorted above what was owed, to ensure their personal profit and, because their decisions were enforced by Roman soldiers, no-one dared object.

To many it would have been scandalous for Jesus to pick a tax collector as one of his closest followers, as they were hated. But Matthew displayed one of the most radically changed lives in the Bible in response to an invitation from Jesus. He didn’t hesitate. He left behind a life of wealth and security for poverty and uncertainty. He abandoned the pleasures of this world for the promise of eternal life.

Recently much has been said about the payment or non-payment of taxes and how some people have tried to avoid paying them. If we’re honest, none of us like paying taxes, most of us love it when they go down; we hate it when they go up. Nothing much then has changed since Matthew’s day other than we now have a fair and just tax system. It’s simply that most of us don’t like paying.

At the time of a General Election this is always a hot potato and politicians can fall into the trap of making promises that can later be difficult to keep for any number of reasons. It’s also easy to target high wage earners tarring them all with the same brush, when many individuals and companies take the payment of tax as a serious responsibility.

Paying taxes is a serious issue for all of us because there are many consequences and implications if we don’t, not necessarily for ourselves but for others. Each year, tax dodging in the UK deprives the government of £35 billion – more than enough to cover the £30 billion being cut from the vital public services which people in poverty depend upon.

Christian Aid research says tax dodging by some unscrupulous multinational companies costs developing countries at least $160 billion a year, far more than the total global aid budget – money which could go on health and education.

What tax is used for is a very complicated issue; it’s not just about how much the government has to spend, that is an over simplification. But as Church action on Poverty says: “Every pound avoided in tax is a pound less to spend on childcare, social care, health or education.” Spending cuts are having a real and damaging impact on the lives of some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the country and so paying taxes is important because it hurts them most.