Sunday, 15 June 2008

Randomly Muttering Again

Tanker sadnessThe Shell tanker drivers strike continues, and confirms the pernicious attitude of both the drivers themselves and their myopic Unite representatives. Secondary strikes are adding to the disruption, with BP drivers reportedly joining in and secondary picketing sparking up at fuel depots.

Thanks to labour laws that protect these guys from intervention from their employers it isn't possible to do the sensible thing and sack or suspend them, to allow replacements to be brought in. So Joe Average, already pushed around with scandalous petrol prices and looking forward to a seaside summer break to beat the air fuel surcharges, now faces the prospect of getting no fuel at all. Going to be some unhappy kids this vacation.

These drivers already earn way over the national average for doing a job which they contend is dangerous and skilled, but which we all know involves sitting on your rear and operating the power steering most of the day. When Shell subcontracted their work 9 years ago, these guys were released to the vagaries of the real, commercial world and they can't face up to the fact that they are not worth as much as they thought they were. Thankfully for them they have control over a valuable resource and therefore have the means to publicise their grievances freely. But that doesn't make them right. We can only hope that sense will prevail soon and lack of wages will force the tanker drivers back to work.


Dob you in The Government 'Tax Abuse' hotline was reviewed this week. This scheme was set up in 2006 for anonymous citizens to report to HMRC their suspicions of tax evasion by neighbours, traders, temporary businesses and anyone else not meeting their tax obligations.

120,000 calls were received though apparently, and disappointingly, many were malicious attempts to make life difficult for petty enemies, annoying neighbours and people of whom the callers were plainly just jealous. It's curious but true that 'keeping up with the Jones' now extends to prying into Mr Jones' tax affairs and, if possible, dobbing him in to the Revenue to make you feel better when he gets a better car than you. A uniquely British trait I wonder?

That's not to say that the confidential phone line is not worthwhile. When most of us are taxed to the hilt it is galling to see people apparently getting away with paying little or no tax on their undeclared earnings. Every wondered why big expensive houses often seem to have builders' vans parked outside, or why hairdressers seem to have the nicest sports cars? Ever met an electrician, plumber or window cleaner that didn't have a healthy tan at least twice a year?

Now I'm not going to say that people should be locked in irons whenever they do a 'cash in hand foreigner'. I've filled in a few tax returns in exchange for a drink over the years. The odd few quid here and there is fair and, let's face it, un-policeable and unpreventable. What most people object to is systematic tax evasion, and those that practice it are difficult to pin down because they are below the radar of the tax inspectors. The authorities rely on insider information to detect the cheaters and on the the fear of random selection for scrutiny of their income and expenditure. That's why a hotline is still a good idea, along with heavy fining for blatant abuse of the rules. The hotline should stay, even if it does encourage a minority of us to use it as an anti-social weapon against friends and neighbours.

A footnote - why not require self-employed home workers to display a notice on their premises, or register on a public record that they conduct a business from their home? That would take away the suspicion, born from secrecy, that their neighbours harbour over their tax status. Or is that naive?


Company car racerIt's getting easier to spot the company car drivers on British roads. Travel the high streets and suburbs and you won't be able to tell that there is a fuel crisis, but get onto the dual carriageways and motorways and it's apparent who is and who isn't paying for their own petrol.

According to a YouGov poll in today's Sunday Times, 41% of us are making fewer car journeys and 26% are driving more slowly. So although many people are trying to be more thrifty, three quarters of us are not making much effort. I bet I can guess who are the ones who have not modified the use of their right foot.

Company cars are still a stock part of the standard white collar, middle to upper management / sales representative's remuneration package. Often the company will also pick up the tab for private fuel use as well as for the cost of petrol or diesel used in the pursuance of the company's business. There are an awful lot of company cars on British roads (estimate at between 5% and 10% of all passenger vehicles) and they consume a very large proportion of the petrol and diesel used every day. If the government wishes to successfully reduce fuel wastage, this is a good place to look. Notice I said wastage, not usage. Driving a company car - as I have done - is essential to many jobs; it simply isn't a choice if your work requires you to move around the country. What is discretionary though is the manner in which those cars are driven. Through the tax system there should be a carrot for those companies and drivers who consume the least fuel, and a stick for those who do not try to economise. Frankly, bombing down the motorway at 90mph in your company Beemer should not only lose you friends in Greenpeace but should hit your pocket as well as your company's P&L. And when there are technology-based alternatives like email, telephone, teleconferencing and even humble webcams there is now less need than ever to get into the car at all.

If you have all your fuel - business and private - paid for by your company then you will have very little incentive to drive more frugally. These days I try to conserve the contents of my tank and drive at the speed limit, or less. Yet I am routinely tailgated and flashed by besuited young drivers in a hurry to overtake. They have no personal interest in economy, whether micro or macro, because they personally have nothing to gain from being better, slower, greener drivers.

The government should recognise this and tax private fuel benefit accordingly, and companies would do well to reconsider the value of the benefit in kind that giving private fuel away bestows. Maybe companies could consider sending their drivers on courses for economical driving, or structure bonuses around fuel economy.

With the right incentives perhaps we can make the oil last a little longer, and have a few less Lewis Hamilton-wannabe Mondeo drivers on our roads.

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