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Morality of tax avoidance by corporations

14 November 2014


From the Revd David Haslam

Sir, - Dr N. P. Hudd (Letters, 31 October) advances an arcane argument about the morality of tax, in suggesting that corporations have no actual physical existence. Does this, then, apply to all human groups or communities, where people work together on a common purpose or enterprise? If so, presumably churches have no existence either.

He suggests that he finds nothing in the teachings of Jesus which relates to any morality in the way in which our economic system is constructed. I would have thought that Jesus's announcement at the beginning of his ministry in Luke 4, where he quotes Isaiah as saying that he has come to announce good news to the poor, release for prisoners, sight for the blind, and the year of the Lord's favour - i.e. the Jubilee - suggests a very clear and specific moral teaching.

It is based on justice, and justice requires that those who have gained wealth from the labour of others or the produce of the earth (the only ultimate sources of wealth) provide a fair distribution of that wealth to the wider community. On top of that, as the US theologian Ched Myers says, "Jubilee consciousness defined Jesus' call to discipleship, lay at the heart of his teaching and stood at the centre of his conflict with the Judean public order."

There is moral and theological justification for the campaign for tax justice in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. If people wish to know more, the Methodist Tax Justice Network has published a small booklet, The Bible and Tax. But do also read Christian Aid's report Tax for the Common Good, as well as their FTSEecrecy: The culture of concealment throughout the FTSE, which recounts how these entities to whom Dr Judd thinks morality may not apply use tax "havens" to create a culture in which the rich get ever richer and the poor receive no good news whatever.

Churches as human communities do exist, we have moral and theological guidance in our scriptures, and it is way past time we vigorously addressed the transnational companies in which we invest on the subject of the morality of their ubiquitous tax-dodging.

Convener, Methodist Tax Justice Network
59 Burford Road
Evesham WR11 3AG


From Mr Donald Wetherick

Sir, - Dr Hudd's argument that there is no moral dimension to how corporate bodies spend post-tax profits or manage their affairs to minimise tax cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.

His reasoning is circular: to establish that corporations do not have the same moral obligations as individuals, he argues that a corporation "has no actual physical existence [but] exists only in the individuals who constitute it". Far from proving his point, this invites the question: do individuals bear moral responsibility for the corporate decisions and actions they make as representatives of a company? Many would say that they do.

To be sure, a person's responsibilities as a corporate representative are different from those that he or she has as an individual, but are no less subject to moral scrutiny. The vital discussion about what is right rather than merely legal, between the letter and the spirit, cannot be not so easily circumvented.

Dr Hudd is more cogent when he argues that corporate profits should not be taxed at all, though I disagree with his conclusion. Corporate profits are different from personal income, but the difference is not clearly related to taxation, and may even favour taxing profits. A company does not need profit in the same way as a worker needs an income, which is why we have personal tax allowances but not corporate ones. And, while modest profits are necessary for stability and growth, excessive corporate profits, like excessive personal incomes, are arguably an unreasonable drain on the economy. Taxation discourages excessive profits, and ensures that at least part of the profit is returned to the shared common good.

Finally, to "comply with the spirit of a law" can often involve going significantly beyond "doing just what it says". Much of Jesus's teaching can be applied to this issue.

20 Ellesmere Road London E3 5QX

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