Thursday, 26 March 2009

GST - let's not make it even worse.

I am one of the many who saw the introduction of a Goods and Services Tax, rolled up into retail prices like a Value added Tax, as an unsatisfactory answer to the consequences of the Zero-ten scheme for Jersey's corporate taxation.

On the other hand, I am not so convinced that, now we are stuck with it, that copying the mainland UK pattern of complex exemptions for all kinds of favoured items will not just make it even worse.

The level of the tax is driven by the need to raise a set amount of revenue from Jersey's ordinary households, spread evenly or fairly. Even and fair are seldom synonymous – the less resources one has, the less fair an even share of the burden feels, while conversely, those who can support more than others tend to see being obliged to do so as an injustice against them. But, one way or another, the taxmen will have calculated the average amount that they need to raise from each of us. As they need to take that tax, it makes little difference to the bottom line whether they take a little for all that we buy, or bigger chunks for just some of it. Possibly the latter opens a theoretical opportunity to avoid GST altogether, by a very austere lifestyle with not even the slightest luxury, but in practice the losses will have to be recouped by piling all the more tax on the items that remain within the net. And, not just to compensate for the loss of tax on the “basics”, but even more to cover for the depressed demand for more expensive luxuries. So, the standard of living for pensioners and others on very low incomes will not be appreciably better. It makes no odds whether one has no beer or ciggie money left after buying taxed food or just not enough to pay the new prices after buying untaxed food.

What the UK model does bring, though is unwelcome confusion and unfairness. A notorious bone of contention is trying to define the nebulous boundary between untaxed food and taxed confectionery, but in general arbitrary definitions and limits for anything are a raw deal for those whose products are stranded just on the wrong side. Do we really need to hire a couple of civil servants to pick through the UK precedents and choose which ones Jersey should follow, and which it should not, for the sake of keeping Jersey different? The latter is clearly a big issue with GST, or else they could have enabled everyone to get off-the-shelf VAT systems by adopting it lock, stock and barrel in the first place.

Keeping GST broad and light does make us all taxpayers, maybe no bad thing in this age of low levels of civic engagement, but it also means only those of the most extravagant habits need pay much. The fewer exemptions there are, the fewer injustices are generated by them. For instance, I do not see why fuel for luxury motor cruisers is less deserving of taxation than the fuel for the car I commute to work in. The more such exemptions GST becomes peppered with, the more it will become unfair.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Doubtful Thinking

In Jersey, as in many other places, a jury may only choose from two possible verdicts, or else invalidate the whole proceedings by refusing to agree any verdict at all.

It is very wise to keep the standard of proof for punishment at guilt beyond all reasonable doubt. The problem is that, at least as the trials are reported, sometimes what is actually established is that the accused is not innocent beyond all reasonable doubt. In Scotland, they have a third verdict for such cases – not proven. The flaw in the Scottish option is that it is a full and unconditional acquittal, not a starting point for a retrial. However, given the options of maybe punishing a victim of a false accusation, or maybe letting a heinous criminal get away with it, one gets the impression that in the privacy of the jury room they occasionally perceive a moral duty to make sure the case sticks to the accused to take precedence over their legal duty to eliminate doubt.

To my untrained layman's mind, it seems that it would be a boon to jurors, if they could bring a not proven verdict, where neither has the prosecution proved their case beyond doubt, nor has the defence convincingly asserted the accused's innocence, but for that not proven verdict to permit the possibility of a retrial, and maybe for the proceedings of the original trial to be admissible evidence at the retrial. This would enable the jury to take a constructive step towards a final resolution of the case, without feeling obliged to make a decision that the evidence that they have heard does not altogether support.

Do I have any lawyers or law graduates amongst my readers? If so, do you think that this is a good idea, something that could be developed into a good idea with expert assistance or just proof beyond all reasonable doubt that laymen should leave law to lawyers?