Were the Sunaks’ tax arrangements that big a deal?

The UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, has been under pressure because it recently emerged that his wife holds “non-dom” status and so has not been paying tax here on her income in India and elsewhere. The normal expectation is that you do have to pay tax here in the UK even from overseas.  Non-domicile status enables you for a period of time to avoid that tax by stating that your permanent residence is not here but in another country.  Note that it is tax avoidance rather than tax evasion so not illegal. However, politicians serving in parliament are not meant to benefit from it.

Now, some people have argued that this is no big a deal.  This isn’t the Middle Ages and Sunak’s wife is not his chattel. So, what do her tax arrangements have to do with him? She is her own person. If she wants to avail herself of rights under the law to protect her income then that is a matter for her and her alone. As someone asked me on twitter “what was Rishi Sunak meant to do? Should he have forced her to give up her non-dom status or failing that, divorce her?”

Here’s why I believe it matters.  First of all, it is worth remembering that The Law rarely treats your income as completely separate and unrelated to your partner’s.  If you lose your job and start to claim benefits, then a question you will be quickly asked will be about other income and savings within the household.  It is recognised that you are likely to benefit from that.  Now, one suggestion at this point was that this is fair enough as you are seeking support from the state, so you should show that support isn’t available from elsewhere. However, the Sunaks weren’t looking to do that. I’d argue that as Chancellor of the Exchequer drawing an MP and cabinet minister’s salary and moving his family into 11 Downing Street, he was asking the state to support and house him to quite a tune.

There is a recognition throughout marriage and if sadly divorce becomes necessary that the couple’s income is interdependent. They cannot simply compartmentalise it.  This reflects the legal definition of marriage.  A marriage is a union between two people and so we talk in terms of a marriage covenant or contract. This is a coming together of two equal people into a partnership.  Biblically, we would describe this as “one flesh.”  So, in such matters this isn’t about a feminist protest. WE are nt talking about a situation where the wife as a woman is being seen to hold or be responsible for her husband’s political views or minor misdemeanours.   This is about recognising that the couple cannot claim to be living completely separate lives under one roof. Rather, it is recognised culturally and in law that when you get married then as well as making commitments which cost you, you also draw benefits from the relationship.

You will notice that so far I’ve focused primarily on the law on societal conventions. This is because some may argue that we cannot judge people through a Christian worldview. It is clear that the world with its secular philosophy does recognise things about marriage even if it is inconsistent and confused in its view. However, I would also argue that we can and must make judgements on matters in public life from our Christian-Biblical worldview perspective.  This is what public theology is all about. It means recognising that it is only the Bible, only God’s Word that can properly make sense of things.

And so, it is the Bible that would have helped answer the question “what should Rishi Sunak have done?”  Ephesians 5:20 talks about submitting to one another, this means that a wife submits to her husband but also that he is to sacrificially love her, following Christ’s example of loving the church and dying for her.  In this context it would mean a willingness on her part to give up her non-dom status for him. However, it would also have meant that if this status was genuinely essential to her flourishing (I don’t for one minute think it was), then he would have been willing to pass up the opportunity to serve in Government.

Finally, why does all of this matter? So what if the chancellor’s wife saved some money by not having to pay tax here, noting she may well have already paid some tax in another country?  Well, it matters because here, the Chancellor has a concern to raise taxes. It cannot be good that he is doing so from us whilst his family finds way to avoid tax.  Not only does this provide another example f a government that seems to want to avoid the burdens it places on the public but it also means that he had a conflict of interest in terms of closing loopholes. So, this is no trivial matter.

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