Paul Anderson, Tribune column 15 May 2009
It’s that time of year again. I’ve got to sort out my accounts and file a tax return. I spent hours last weekend sifting through invoices, receipts, bank statements and wage slips, working out what to declare to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs about my freelance income and related expenditure for tax year 2008-09.
I used to hire an accountant to do it, but I realised that he was charging me £500 to fill in a form, so for years I’ve done it myself. It’s a lot easier now than it used to be, partly because I’m not doing as much freelance work as I used to and partly because HMRC has made it easier with self-assessment. Whereas ten years ago the process took three days, this week I did in one.
Believe it or not, I’m meticulously honest about what I declare to the Revenue. That’s not down to asceticism or stupidity: I had a nasty scare 20 years ago after I failed to file a tax return and was threatened with court action for not paying the £12,000 the Revenue told me I owed. It took a lot of grovelling to get out of that, but I learned my lesson. Ever since, I’ve sent the taxman a return soon after the end of the financial year that scrupulously details my economic activity.
Except … well, I do what everyone does. The income is always right, but the tax-deductible expenses are less precise.
I know I can’t claim travel to and from salaried work against tax but can claim travel for freelance jobs. Quite often, I have to go to London to do research as a freelance – but I also travel to London to get to my place of employment or just to go out. Of course, I keep all the ticket receipts, but by the time I do my accounts I can’t remember which was for what journey. Had I gone to the LSE library, or was I off to the Guardian for a shift? Or was that the day I spent canoodling in the park with the nubile Letitia? What the hell, the Revenue isn’t going to know, just put down 25 trips to London that are claimable against tax: it’s about right and I’ve got the paperwork to cover it. And so it goes with the share of the heating bill related to working at home and a whole lot more besides.
In other words, I do a certain amount of estimating, then put the ball into the Revenue’s court. And so far the Revenue has believed me. OK, we’re talking piffling sums – I earned £50,000-odd last year and only £5,000 was from freelancing. It might be that I’m such small fry I’m not worth bothering to catch. I like to think, however, that there is a bond of trust between me and the taxman. He hasn’t a clue what I earn or what I spend, but he accepts what I tell him because I’m not taking the piss.
You can see where this is going. If only our parliamentary representatives had taken a small fraction of the minimal care that most taxpayers take when filling in their tax returns, we wouldn’t now be facing a frighteningly complete collapse of public confidence in the entire political class.
They didn’t, however, and we are. The leaked expenses claims published by the Telegraph show that MPs of all parties have been taking the piss big-time for years.
True, the Telegraph paid for the info. True, the sums are not huge in terms of GDP or Sir Fred Goodwin’s pension – and, given the cost of accommodation in central London, £24,000 a year is not a ridiculously generous sum to allow non-London MPs for nights they have to stay in the capital. True, MPs are not particularly well-paid by comparison with bankers or lawyers. And of course the system for paying MPs’ expenses is absurd – although we only know how absurd thanks to the Freedom of Information Act.
But there really are no acceptable excuses for what so many MPs have done. Four nights a week in a modest hotel, rent on a two-bedroom flat in Pimlico, mortgage interest on a small town house in Kennington – any of that is fine. So too are a cleaner and a bit of gardening and home maintenance. Beyond these basics, however, it’s impossible to see any justification for claiming. Many if not most MPs have used expenses allowances to fund blatant speculation in the housing market, home improvements they could have afforded from their salaries and luxuries that are in no sense related to their work.
On the evidence so far, at least 50 MPs should resign in shame. But I’ll put a tenner on no one doing so (as long as I can claim it on exes).