Sunday, 1 September 2013

Taxes not to Pay

Hearing of the so-called ‘bedroom’ tax, I was reminded of other levies applied by governments over the centuries which were never paid because they never existed – at least not officially. It seems over the years we in the United Kingdom have developed terms for taxes which, whilst they may be more accurate, are not correct.

For example the most recent is the Bedroom Tax. Correctly this is not a tax at all but a penalty imposed on those claiming benefits for houses deemed under-occupied. I’m reminded of Cyril Northcote Parkinson, who gave his name to Parkinson’s Law – “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Perhaps we will have Cameron’s Law – “Families expand so as to fill the space available in the home.”

Road Tax should be referred to as Vehicle Excise Duty, although it is also known as vehicle tax and car tax. First introduced in 1888, the modern idea was not introduced until 1920 when the monies raised were earmarked specifically for the building and maintenance of roads, hence the former term of Road Fund, although this was changed in 1936 and has since been a general form of taxation.

Poll Tax was, as with bedroom tax, a misnomer coined by the media and opponents of an idea introduced in 1990 to replace the old rates system. Correctly called Community Charge, the popular name came from the new levy which charged each adult in the property for the services provided by the local authority, when the old rates system charged each property, irrespective of the number of occupants. It’s unpopularity saw this replaced inside three years by council tax, which is effectively the same as the old rates system, itself seen as grossly unfair (hence the change to community charge). This was by no means the first Poll Tax in England and Wales, such were imposed by Charles II in the seventeenth century and John of Gaunt in the fourteenth. That the term ‘poll’ is now used in elections is due to it being an early English word for ‘head’ and, after all, an election is simply a head count.

Window Tax may have levied a charge on houses with windows, but the name of ‘Window Tax’ was never officially used. However it is easy to see why “An Act for granting to His Majesty several Rates or Duties upon Houses good for the Deficiency of the clipped Money” would have required a snappier title. All houses were charged two shillings from 1696, those with ten to twenty windows saw this increased to four shillings, while those with over twenty paid eight shillings annually. In order to avoid paying money to the government many houses from this period which are still standing can be seen to have bricked up windows. These were never returned to their original condition when the act was repealed in July 1851.

Income Tax in the United Kingdom was never called such when first seen in 1188 and introduced by Henry II when he was raising money for yet another Crusade to the Holy Land. When everyone was expected to pay a tenth or ‘tithe’ of their income to the nation to help pay for wars and battles which the layman had no interest in. While an effective income tax was introduced around the same time as the window tax, the idea of declaring one’s earnings was not popular as this was seen as personal information. It was not until 1799 that the modern idea of income tax was first seen in Britain in 1799 to help finance the Napoleonic Wars. Repealed in 1816, opponents demanded all references to this loathed taxation were burned – and got their wish when no less a figure than the Chancellor of the Exchequer publicly set light to the documents. He omitted to inform the assembly a copy was retained and hence we are still paying it today – although I’m sure we might not object to a return to the original rates of a minimum of 0.83% and a maximum of 10%.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

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