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Interview: Cat Jenkins programme manager, Church Action for Tax Justice

25 November 2022

‘I’m a recovered tax planner, helping rich people squirrel away their money’

Church Action for Tax Justice [CATJ] developed out of the Methodist Tax Justice Network, and launched in April 2018. Its aim is to inspire all churches about the urgent need for fairer and more effective tax systems in the UK and internationally. It’s part of the Just Money Movement, or Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility.

Funding for my work runs out at the end of this year; so I’ll be made redundant, but hopefully I can do some voluntary work for them. I’ll work two days a week for Faith for the Climate, supporting minority faiths by organising events and resources for them, and amplifying their voices to show we have common values.

My role involves providing churches with resources to help them to engage with tax justice. I write newsletters, and our current campaign — #GoodMeasure — is calling for a wealth tax for the super-rich in the UK. I deliver workshops to help people improve their tax literacy, and speak out for tax justice.

It’s really important that people do engage one of the most powerful ways to make the system fairer, and stop long-term poverty and inequality.

My faith’s made me more mindful of the need to challenge systemic injustices. As Christians, we run foodbanks and warm-banks, help at homeless shelters, and that’s really important. But it would be better to fix the system so people don’t fall into difficulties in the first place.

Those blessed with abundance should use it to ease the plight of the poor. It motivates me to do my very best in my role at CATJ, and gives me courage to speak out about it where I might otherwise be intimidated.

Yes, it’s possible to design a tax system that doesn’t disincentivise work and investment — and, yes, other countries do this better. Don’t frame tax as a burden, but as a privilege. If you’re paying tax, you’re clearly making some money, after all, which is a blessing; and paying our taxes is really a way for us to love our neighbour, mediated through the offices of the Government.

Asking the super-rich to contribute more might not be universally popular, but many recognise that we all do better when we all do better. When inequality is reduced, we have a healthier, happier, safer country for everyone, rich and poor alike.

It’s a myth that cutting taxes incentivises growth. We have really low company taxes here, but low rates of business investment hasn’t brought about growth. It just profits shareholders. A well-designed, progressive tax system would ask more from people blessed with abundance.

The working poor — and, increasingly, the squeezed middle — are contributing a higher proportion; so they’re trapped in a permanent struggle of relatively high levels of tax as well as high cost of living. Many are the same key workers who kept us safe during Covid, at risk to themselves. It feels very unjust that they are shouldering most of the tax burden.

It’s a wrong ideology, being disproved right now. If you want to get the economy going, give money to poor people, because they spend it — because they need to. If you give money to the rich, they tend to put it in the bank. If I was a cynic, I’d say this approach is pure selfishness, but I can’t believe there’s so much wickedness. I think it’s more misguidedness.

I’m a recovered tax planner! My early career was spent in offshore financial services, helping rich people squirrel away their money so as to avoid paying their taxes. I’m grateful for all I learned in those years — including the realisation that many people working in that industry don’t really recognise what a damaging role it plays in the world.

I joined DAF [Deep Adaptation Forum] after reading a paper by Professor Jem Bendell, written in 2018 [Features, 4 November]. I took a week-long course that he was teaching on sustainable leadership, and now I’m communications officer — one of five staffers and many volunteers serving 15,000 members.

It’s been a relief to be part of a community — growing all the time — where people are taking seriously the likelihood that the climate crisis will lead to societal collapse. Indeed, in some parts of the world, it’s already doing so. We help people to live out loving and compassionate responses to difficult times.

It’s not a Christian organisation, but there are some pretty Christlike aims. We see a familiar trajectory of emotions, and teach techniques to come to a place of peace, where we can start responding with love and compassion rather than defensiveness and fear.

If you’ve been aware of this for a while, it’s hard to realise just how removed from reality many folks are. They’re either blissfully oblivious, or too exhausted by daily life to reflect and realise just how messy things are likely to get, and how their children will have much more difficult lives. Green Christian runs an eight-week programme: Deep Waters. People sometimes abandon it because the emotions of anger, fear, shame, and despair are too difficult at that point in their lives. I understand that. Good people are choosing not to engage, but as things get more difficult, maybe they will.

I don’t believe we’ll have “near-term human extinction”, or that these are “end times”. God gave us free will, we reliably use it wrongly, and consequences come with that, and these are severe consequences for our idolatries. We came through Ice Ages; so maybe out of this pockets of survivors will emerge who’ve learned to care for one another in the way God always intended.

We managed to address the hole in the ozone layer by tiny efforts. There’s always hope. And sometimes you have to do the right thing because it’s the right thing, and hope better outcomes will emerge, even if we don’t see them in our own lifetime. I hope my daughters will be resourceful, curious, brave, kind, loving, and have a good network of support. They get taught almost nothing at school.

I’m also a director of Positive News, a glorious magazine countering the relentless cynicism of mainstream media. We inspire people and remind them that, despite the troubles of the world, there’s also much that’s good and beautiful. All sorts of people read it, a very wide age-range, and tell us how we’ve lifted their spirits.

DAF and Positive News are quite different, really — though it’s far from impossible to ascribe to both worldviews. For me, the collapse-awareness that DAF offers is definitely not “doomist”. As unhelpful systems crumble, we may re-learn how to care for one another and for the planet. Positive News shows exactly how people are already doing that, all over the world.

Unlike one or two colleagues in DAF, I don’t plan to move to a smallholding. I want to stay where I am, and help my community become more resilient and connected. I suspect that, as climate change progresses, all sorts of things will become strained — supply chains, public services, ecosystems — and we’ll discover slower, better ways of doing things and spending our time.

COP27? Some admission, some support, is a plus, but progress is too slow by decades. At least there’s a conversation prompted by the denials and disputes. Some countries like Belgium have agreed to make a start, and that’s powerful leadership.

My parents moved with me to the Island [the Isle of Man] when I was three, in 1968. I was incredibly lucky to grow up here. I’ve spent short periods living off-Island, but it’s always drawn me back. I live in a terraced townhouse in the Island’s capital, Douglas, and work from home. I have an incredibly productive garden, where people are welcome to help themselves to rhubarb, herbs, whatever’s growing. Perhaps one day the whole street will do likewise, and we’ll have an abundance of shareable food on our doorsteps.

Injustice, and the abuse of power and privilege makes me angry.

I’m happiest when I’m spending time with my daughters, Catherine and Lizzy, and my five — five! — gorgeous cats, which includes two beautiful savannahs. Mr Jinks, purring contentedly on my lap, is my favourite sound, and birdsong.

It’s the innate goodness of people, when they’re not corrupted by unholy economic systems, that gives me hope for the future.

I pray for God’s direction: that he’ll let me know what he wants me to do, and give me the courage and gumption to do it.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with C.S. Lewis. His writings are just so good, no other theologian can top them. I’d love to listen to him talking about faith.

Cat Jenkins was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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