Boots, patriotism, and paying tax

By Bernadette Meaden
February 1, 2015

At the recent Churchill commemorations David Cameron said the quality he admired most about the war time leader was his patriotism. Mr Cameron frequently talks about patriotism, but it is sometimes difficult to understand what his idea of being patriotic is.

One very patriotic thing any Prime Minister could do would be to make sure that our vital public services are properly funded, not by hitting the average ‘hardworking taxpayer’ but by ensuring that super rich individuals and giant companies pay their fair share.

When Stefano Pessina, the Italian billionaire who co-owns Boots, entered into the political debate to say that a Labour victory would be "not helpful for business, not helpful for the country" his comments were welcomed by government ministers. But really, is Mr. Pessina somebody we, or the government, should be taking advice from about what is in our best interests? What is helpful for Mr. Pessina's business, registered in Switzerland, may not be helpful for the country.

A group of campaigning organisations including War on Want produced a report which looked at Boots’ tax affairs. It said that whilst allegedly avoiding over £1 billion in tax, "Alliance Boots draws an estimated 40 per cent of its UK revenue from health services largely paid for by the tax payer, and is seeking to expand the services that it supplies to the NHS." As Boots makes money from dispensing NHS prescriptions, it was alleged that the tax it did not pay would cover two years of prescription charges for the British public.

And while the government is encouraging us to consult a pharmacist as an alternative to getting a GP appointment, Boots is eroding the pay and conditions of the pharmacists it employs. The company has been involved in a legal battle to prevent the Pharmacists Defence Association Union (PDAU) from gaining the status of a recognised trade union, preferring its own ‘in-house’ Boots Pharmacists’ Association.

Jim Murphy of the PDAU says, "The recent Judicial Review decision allows Boots to deny pharmacists the democratic right to negotiate their terms and conditions through the PDAU. Due to the agreement the Boots Pharmacists' Association (BPA) has with the company, which specifically excludes the right to negotiate on pay, the fox is now well and truly loose in the hen house." Mr Murphy continues, ‘A proposal for Boots salary review for 2015 will have the effect of reducing pharmacists pay in real terms…There is a history over the last few years of Boots eroding the benefits of staff.’

So if Mr Cameron wants to demonstrate his patriotism, perhaps he could look more closely at exactly what such big companies actually contribute to Britain, and what they take from it? And perhaps he should consider that opinions expressed by the billionaire bosses of those companies may not be unalloyed wisdom, but self-interest.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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