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Press: The tax you save is the funding they lose

21 August 2020


LAST week’s column opened with a brisk spat about the expansion of diocesan bureaucracy in Southwark, but I don’t think that either Canon Giles Fraser or Canon Simon Butler did justice to the scope of the operation. It appears that the diocese already employs a more distinguished figure than either man, if such can be imagined.

It is currently advertising for a “Head of Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation”. The job is described, with notable understatement, as “a key leadership role”. It’s not too presumptuous, though: the successful applicant’s responsibilities will be clearly distinguished from God’s, in that they extend only across south London and east Surrey.


THE Financial Times is still the most interesting and best informed left-wing paper in Britain. This is presumably because it cannot simply gratify its readers’ prejudices when writing about the various ways in which the strong are trampling on the weak.

This week’s contribution was a story about a senior tax lobbyist, one of the men responsible for the lack of trammels on multinational corporations, Will Morris. “In 2009, Mr Morris was director of global tax policy at GE [General Electric]. The US industrial giant had become renowned for its fierce lobbying and skilful accounting that had gained it tax breaks around the world.

“He had risen quickly through the ranks of GE’s tax department under the direction of John Samuels, the doyen of corporate tax, to become its top policy adviser in 2007 after just seven years at the company.

“He had been among the rising stars at the US Treasury and had been poached by Mr Samuels to help build GE’s tax department into a global profit engine. Its success spawned a transformation in corporate culture that meant tax planning became a crucial way for businesses to boost the bottom line.”

You may wonder what was special about the year 2009: that was the year that Mr Morris was ordained in the Church of England, where he works, the piece says, as a “part-time priest” to this day.

What is odd about the piece is that it contains no direct quotes from the man himself. There are passages from some of his sermons; there is a rather anodyne quote from his Vicar, Canon Sam Wells, of St Martin-in-the-Fields: “He made a decision to integrate a priestly life with a pretty high-end business life. It is not for the faint-hearted to do either, never mind both.”

The core of the piece is the discovery that, in 2005, Mr Morris “was one of five former General Electric executives who negotiated a $1-billion tax break in the UK in 2005 that HM Revenue & Customs now claims was fraudulently obtained. HMRC is pursuing a landmark case against GE that is set to go to trial in October 2021.

“GE has vigorously denied the allegations. Neither Mr Morris nor PwC [the accountants for whom he now works] is a defendant, but his influential role in the world of corporate tax lobbying may mean some scrutiny of his reputation.”

This is one of those respectable City jobs, I think, in which no amount of private virtue could compensate for the harm done to public finances. Even if Mr Morris devoted his entire salary to charity (and why should he?), and even if his salary is as large as one imagines, the figure would be dwarfed by the amount of tax the companies he advises don’t contribute to the public purse.

And yet he works at a church most famous for its work among London’s homeless. Should we compare him to all the clergy who are not paid to frustrate the financing of the welfare state, or to all the tax lawyers who would never dream of working as parish clergy?

Bear in mind, when attempting these judgements, that every time you buy something from Amazon you are yourself taking advantage of the company’s sweetheart tax deals, some small portion of which is passed on to the customers.


KOREAN Christianity is something else. Reuters reported that 320 people out of the 4000-strong congregation of Sarang Jeil church, in Seoul, have tested positive for Covid-19 — among them the pastor, who claims that his church is a victim of “virus terror”. The authorities want to test and isolate another 600, but the church won’t hand over their details.

Yet the strangest story of religion and the virus came from a Guardian long-read about intensive-care units. The patients in there are so heavily sedated that they have a very hard time making sense of what has happened, even after they recover. One doctor remembered a patient who was convinced that they had been kidnapped by Colombian pirates: they had been moved around the ward on a water bed by Spanish-speaking nurses.

Another “told me about an intensive-care patient who converted to Catholicism after believing that they had been in a church where a nun had guided them through their treatment. The ‘nun’, the hospital team realised, was an oxygen tank whose white neck and black base must have looked like a habit.” The patient is still a practising Catholic.

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