OPINION: In search of the truth

Is the average taxpayer a drain on society, as suggested by Deputy Helyar? Or are rising health and care costs the problem, as claimed by Deputy Soulsby? Horace Camp considers the latest contributions to the great tax debate

The Aurigny white elephant gobbles up £13.5m. a year. (Picture by Sophie Rabey, 30667445)
The Aurigny white elephant gobbles up £13.5m. a year. (Picture by Sophie Rabey, 30667445)

WHAT a difference a day makes.

Last week I read Deputy Mark Helyar’s latest contribution to the tax debate and, quite frankly, I wondered why on earth we put an advocate in charge of our Treasury.

Advocates are trained in an adversarial system where two of them put forward their versions of the truth and try to convince an impartial judge that theirs is right.

They don’t have to believe the ‘truth’ they are peddling, but merely make it fit their client’s interest and present it so cleverly they convince the judge. I’m not knocking it and the adversarial system works well in our judicial system.

So, given Deputy Helyar’s background, I took his words with a pinch of salt, knowing that he is trained to support any brief he takes, whether he believes in it or not. My suspicions were first aroused when he kicked off with the old chestnut, much-loved by former Treasury minister Lyndon Trott, that the average taxpayer is a drain on society.

Basically, the majority of islanders are benefiting from the sweat of the brow of others.

Yes, we are an island of scroungers. Some of us have the audacity to not pay our way in life. We expect to receive £11,000-worth of services from the States but expect some to not only pay their own whack, but sub us by £4k a year each as well.

He sort of does have a point because we aren’t a Marxist society yet, although I’m pretty certain Deputy Roffey meditates by chanting the mantra: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’.

But is his version of the facts even factually correct? Even though I achieved a good O-level in maths in 1970 and have done a few sums every year since then, I can’t say that I’m an expert in number work.

But I can do simple stuff. I know for instance that if I divide the States earnings of about half a billion pounds by a population rounded up to 65,000 I get a rough earnings per man woman and child of about £7,500 each. And if I divide the States expenditure by 65k I get roughly £7,500 each. So last year as a society, a sort of #GuernseyTogether, we just about washed our face and would have done even better if it wasn’t for the £13.5m. the Aurigny white elephant gobbled up.

Now let’s focus on taxpayers. One way or another the majority of taxes in Guernsey are generated by islanders. Even corporate tax is only generated if there are workers to generate it. Workers pay income tax and social security. Even some non-workers like pensioners and the non-employed (not to be confused with unemployed) pay taxes and social security.

People pay significantly more in tax than just the income tax and social that Deputy H made reference to. They also pay the most regressive of our taxes, TRP. I know of a pensioner who pays close to £1,400 pounds a year in TRP. Yes, that pensioner is me.

I know of Sarnians who drink, smoke and drive cars who pay significant duties. I know of Sarnians who buy houses, not millennials obviously, and pay significant duties on the purchase, as well as paying high fees to advocates who pay taxes on those fees.

I don’t mind the truth, I can handle the truth. What I can’t handle is a deputy who ran on a ‘no tax increases’ ticket, and who I suspect still believes in that, peddling a certain view of reality to support a brief given him by a majority of his P&R colleagues.

And I certainly cannot appreciate the notion being generated that we have ‘worthy’ citizens, our high-earners, and ‘unworthy’ citizens, like the hard-working middle and below, who are nothing more than benefit scroungers.

That’s how the adversarial system works you see. Deputy Helyar has given us his ‘twisted’ version of the truth, and I have twisted his truth, and thrown it back at him.

Neither of us are correct, I say. The truth is out there somewhere, but both of us have ignored it to get our points of view across.

I said what a difference a day makes, and blow me down, the next day a different Deputy H, this time Deputy H Soulsby, gave us her submission to the great tax debate.

Much more reasoned, fiscally accurate, and less reliant on emotion and division. She is an accountant and a good one, so is well placed to do her bit to follow the P&R brief in what is obviously a concerted campaign to convince us we need to pay more taxes.

Heidi’s argument is a good one and certainly of the quality one would expect from someone likely to be our next chief minister. A breath of fresh air. Heidi does not hide her belief that the States will need to spend more on health and care going forward.

This is the biggest elephant in the room and is harder to argue against than Aurigny. Just how much has Aurigny cost us in total now? Does anyone know? Even by fudging the cost of Aurigny debt by writing it off, Aurigny lost £13.5m. last year. Even taking the number of £7k tax per average islander that means the tax from almost 2,000 of us was needed to keep Aurigny afloat. Is that not ridiculous?

Back to Heidi. I’m just going to borrow Deputy Helyar’s adversarial cap and suggest that she is missing something in her argument. Could it be a small island cannot afford the standard of healthcare that the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world, which she compares us to, can?

Are we a cottage hospital society? Should we aim to be St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital rather than Holby City? Is elective surgery something for the private sector while the States focuses on keeping people alive and free from pain?

Questions that must be asked. We could not support a health system like the UK’s even in the best days of tomatoes and tourism, and finance has given us aspirations of greatness, but all our industries have been fleeting.

In this great tax debate we must consider just how much cloth we have to cut before we decide on our coat.

There are very tough times ahead – let’s not make them any tougher.

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