Jimmy Carr, I feel your pain

We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.

Leona Helmsley

So Jimmy Carr used a financial advisor in order to pay less tax. Big sodding deal. We’ve all done that, haven’t we? I know I have.

My tax avoidance antics started in May last year, on the day we all got handed our monthly pay slips. As we all know, a pay slip is just a piece of paper which displays the same numbers every single month. Nevertheless, it remains obligatory, every single month, to rip it open the moment it’s in your hands, and to pretend it’s some kind of National Lottery scratch card which might reveal that, this time, you’ve actually been given a million squillion pounds. Thus I tore open my pay slip and discovered that this month, the numbers had in fact changed. But not for the better. On the contrary, all of a sudden my take-home pay had become really rather rubbish.

I wondered, briefly, whether there might be a problem. Could I be paying too much tax? Don’t be silly, I told myself. You’re one of the little people, the people who never pay too much tax because their earnings are so insignificant to the world at large. Perhaps it was just something I didn’t understand. Probably something to do with the company car I’d been using since last year, although I hadn’t thought it’d be costing me quite so much. Still, mustn’t grumble. I crossed my fingers that the next month it’d be back to normal.

Alas the next month my pay was still surprisingly low. And the next month, and the month after that. Finally I plucked up the courage to see our payroll administrator. Of course, I was horrendously ashamed and apologetic about it. I am so sorry to trouble you, I’m a bit worried about the tax, it’s not that I don’t want to pay it, I’m just a bit, you know, obviously if you’re busy, blah blah blah. She took one look at my pay slip and told me it was wrong. I’d been given a K tax code when I should have got an L. I would explain this but it’s boring and I’ve forgotten the details and being one of the little people, I’m not sure I ever understood them to begin with. She scribbled some things down on a piece of paper, working out the exact code I should have got. We guessed the error had arisen from the fact that at one point I’d swapped cars. The company had notified, um, whoever it is you notify, but it seems “they” had assumed that I’d kept the old one and been swanning about in two cars (I’m bad enough at driving as it is).

The next step was to contact the Inland Revenue. I asked the administrator if she would do it, seeing as she knew what she was talking about. She said she couldn’t; they’d need to speak to me in person. Would I like to do it now, while I was in her office? I said no; I needed to psych myself up for this, and at least try to get my head around how it all worked. Plus I thought I’d maybe leave it another month. Just to see if it’d all work out by itself.

At this point it did of course cross my mind that I could just keep on over-paying tax. After all, I believe in paying tax. I believe in contributing to the greater good. Hadn’t it just so happened that I’d been given the chance to contribute even more? I considered this, but not for long. After all, I’m not a fucking saint. Moreover, if I wanted to use any additional money for the greater good, I’d rather use it in a more targeted fashion (ideally to make the kind of political contributions that might eventually ensure that the original “greater good” money didn’t get wasted on pointless wars and shit). And the truth is, over-paying tax would, in the long term, have seriously pissed me off. I know that, in the grand scheme of things, I am privileged. But, in the small scheme of things, over-paying tax while living on a shit estate and knowing, deep down, that rich people do stuff meaning that they under-pay tax – well, I’m a grumpy enough sod as it is. That, I’m afraid, would have got to me.

One month on I made the phone call:

ME: Um, hello. I’m ringing because, um, you know, I think I might be paying too much tax. I’m sorry.

TAX PERSON: Can I have your details please?

ME: [gives details] I’m sorry. I’m sorry for making such a fuss about this.

TAX PERSON: [goes away for a bit then comes back] It’s because of the cars. That’s why you have that code.

ME: Oh, the cars! I only have one car, though. I didn’t have them at the same time. That’ll be it.

TAX PERSON: It says here you have two cars.

ME: Oh, the thing is, I swapped cars in July. I’m sorry.

TAX PERSON: Our records say you have two.

ME: Um, but I don’t. Sorry. [starting to wonder whether in fact I do have two cars but just haven’t noticed]

This all sounds like it was going badly, doesn’t it? Well, in fact, I managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Or rather, I got a marginally better tax code in the end. Still a K code, but hey, I felt really grateful by then! Until I mentioned it to the payroll administrator. She was seriously unimpressed, and said I’d need to go back again. And then she went through the numbers one more time. I still didn’t really get it.

By this point I was despairing. But then I had a thought: what would JC do? Presented with a situation such as this, what would sex god and all-round genius Jarvis Cocker advise? He’d take one look at me – someone who struggles with money while remaining more middle-class than Waitrose and Outnumbered put together – and utter those immortal lines from Common People: “if you called your dad he could stop it all”. So I called my dad. He stopped it all. Him, and his personal accountant, a family friend who agreed to look at all my paperwork and contact Inland Revenue for free.

Two things amaze me in all this: 1) how hard it was to even attempt to sort things out on my own, and 2) what a total piece of piss paying less tax becomes when you have an accountant on your side. Within two days – two days! – I ended up with the tax code the payroll administrator said I should have had all along (that’s in case you were wondering whether I ended up with something even better. I had wondered myself whether a little fiddle would get thrown in as an added bonus). But the annoying thing is, if I hadn’t got the work done for free (in itself exploitative, I suppose), I wouldn’t have got it done at all. The money I was missing out on made a huge difference to me, but I’d have been scared that an accountant’s fees would have swallowed up all the money I got back, and more. If it’s not big money you’re dealing with, is it worth it? And more than that, what if I had got it wrong? What if I had somehow acquired a second car without noticing and therefore owed money in taxes and, due to making a fuss, to an accountant? I mean, it’s unlikely, but I once stole a bike by accident and who knows, perhaps I’ve moved on to bigger things.

This inclines me to think that it’s perfectly possible that lots of “little people”, far from being benefit scroungers, may be over-paying taxes and not doing anything about it. First, because they don’t have the sense of entitlement that comes with being rich and famous, so they wait before asking questions, and second, because once they know something’s wrong, they can’t pay anyone to help them. I mean, I couldn’t. I just went back to being 18 and asking Daddy for help. If only I’d been better at rape jokes, it would never have come to this.

I don’t know what people like Jimmy Carr or Gary Barlow think when they’re busy playing the system. Perhaps it’s something along the lines to a view expressed by national treasure Adele in a Q magazine interview last year:

I’m mortified to have to pay 50%! [While] I use the NHS, I can’t use public transport any more. Trains are always late, most state schools are shit, and I’ve gotta give you, like, four million quid – are you having a laugh? When I got my tax bill in from [the album] 19, I was ready to go and buy a gun and randomly open fire.

Well, today I took my son to the hospital for a check-up before dropping him off at his perfectly non-shit school. Thanks, Adele. As one of the millions of little people whose taxes are, individually, a mere drop in the ocean, I am eternally grateful for your gracious benevolence. Without Chasing Pavements, perhaps my son would have had to make do with one grommet rather than two. But as for you, Carr and Barlow, you can fuck right off. You owe me. After all, with us little people, it’s just take, take, take.

PS Due to austerity and whatnot, I no longer have a company car. I do however fully expect to be paying tax on a car I don’t have for the rest of my working life. It’s okay, fellow little people; no need to thank me. It’s not morality; I just can’t be arsed.