I was very naughty when young. I stole from my schoolmates’ pockets as they played games. I stole from Woolworth’s. And probably more places. As responsibility entered my maturing soul, I tried to make amends. I advertised for those at school whom I might have made poorer and paid back many times the amount to the only one who turned up. I sent a cheque for £500 to the chairman of Woolworth’s for about £1.50 of nicking. He asked if he could put this in his staff newspaper as he got many similar donations.
And in the 1960s when top tax was 98 pence in the pound, I stashed some money abroad. It all came back to the UK over 20 years ago, but I’d diddled the Revenue out of tax on the interest. I salved my conscience by leaving them millions in my will. Then I decided not to keep them waiting. So I told them about it! ‘What do I owe you?’ I asked with rare nobility. This produced a marvellous man, Peter Thackeray, an investigator from the Special Compliance office in Bristol, who carried out a thorough four-year examination into everything I and my companies had done for the previous 20 years. Of course he found nothing else wrong. Peter (‘call me Pete’) Thackeray had a terrific sense of humour. He fought like a tiger on behalf of the Revenue. But I greatly admired and liked him.
Some years ago a group gathered in my house to settle matters and I happily passed over a cheque for millions of pounds. Mr Thackeray said, ‘Now you’re respectable Mr Winner.’ I replied, ‘That’s the only thing that worries me, Peter. I’m not sure I want to be respectable.’ I thought, but didn’t really believe, that would be the end of my dealings with the Inland Revenue. They have a habit of reviewing things and changing previous decisions.
Over many decades I’ve much enjoyed ‘discussing’ my affairs with Revenue inspectors. I exchange Christmas cards with many of them, mostly retired. But the latest debate amazes even me. Colin Cain, a CPR Compliance Caseworker in the NorthEast Metropolitan Area Complex Personal Return Team, has looked at my expenses for eating meals in my job as restaurant critic for the Sunday Times. These have been approved by all previous inspectors. Mr Cain suggests these should not be deductible, because ‘the costs cannot be said to have been incurred wholly and exclusively in the performance of your duties when a secondary motive, or even an unconscious one, is to satisfy the need to eat to live.’ Read that bit again, please! The debate is ongoing. I put to Mr Cain that, unlike normal citizens, food critics have to go out to eat. They have no choice. On such outings I don’t eat to ‘satisfy the need to live’. I eat to satisfy the editor of the Sunday Times. A cuppa tea and a salad would satisfy my need to live. If I handed in a report on that as a restaurant meal the esteemed editor would say, ‘You’re taking the piss Mr Winner, please leave the building!’ Except he’d say it in a more gentlemanly manner.
Consider what would happen if Mr Cain’s position was pursued and later upheld by the Tax Commissioners, the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords. All food critics whose expenses are reimbursed by their newspapers would be liable for tax on every penny repaid to them. As none of them report their money for meals on the form P11D the Revenue could go back 20 years on the grounds of non-disclosure and charge not only tax on the money, but interest and penalties as well! A.A. Gill would have to mortgage his house. Fay Maschler would have to mortgage her husband. Jan Moir and others would have to sell their bodies. Not that anyone would be daft enough to pay for the body of a food critic. Alternatively, the newspapers and magazines employing these foodie-experts could be told by the Revenue, ‘You should have deducted tax as if their expenses were salary, so we’ll have the back tax, penalties and interest from you!’ Food critics would be too expensive to employ.
How, I wonder, did this little wheeze come up? Did Gordon Brown telephone Sir David Varney, then head of the Revenue, and say, ‘I’m a bit short of cash for the Health Service, let’s grab Winner’s dinner money!’ Or did Sir David think of it himself and delegate Colin Cain in far-flung Tyne and Wear to mastermind the attack? Or did our Col dream it up all on his own?
Although I am poacher turned gamekeeper, I greatly respect the Revenue. I think we should all pay our taxes. When the Revenue mount a daft attack, such as their claim that Richard and Judy of TV fame should not be allowed to deduct, as a business expense, the cost of their professional adviser, an agent, and lose before the commissioners, they simply make themselves look silly. My accountant said, ‘I’ve never seen evidence before the commissioners reported by the press.’ ‘Wait for my appearance!’ I replied, ‘I can see the headlines: Will Winner get his dinner? There’ll be cartoons, columnists having a laugh. It’ll be everywhere.’ Oh well, as the saying goes: you shouldn’t join if you can’t take a joke.
© Michael Winner Ltd, 2006
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 16, 2006