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Steve Pottinger

May
2014
Thursday 8th
posted by Jody Porter in Features

STEVE POTTINGER was surprised at the impact of his protest letter to Caffe Nero about their tax affairs


When the BBC called to talk about my letter to Caffé Nero, the one protesting over their tax-dodging activities, I realised I must have hit a nerve.

Tax, tax evasion and tax avoidance aren’t the most exciting of subjects, but they really get my goat. Why? Because I believe that if we want a fully functioning, civilised society with all the benefits of modern life such as education and emergency services, streetlights and sewers, then we need to pay tax.

Alternatively, if anyone has a better idea, or has worked out how to grow ambulances on trees, I’m all ears. In the meantime, I pay tax, you pay tax, businesses pay tax. Or they should. The truth is that, for large and multinational companies, UK tax legislation conveniently comes with more loopholes than you can shake a stick at.

Tax Research UK estimated that in 2012, big business avoided paying £120 billion in tax. That’s a lot of hospitals. Or schools. Or sewers.

So, what do we do about that? How do we begin to challenge a system so spectacularly skewed? I’ll be honest, up to now I’ve not done that much.

A few years ago I stopped buying coffee from Starbucks when I learned they weren’t paying corporation tax, after which one of my favourite places to sit, sip coffee and people watch — essential activities for a poet — became my local Caffè Nero.

Now I’ve found out that, just like Starbucks, Caffè Nero is choosing not to pay corporation tax on their profits, and I’ve decided to stop giving them my custom.

The company made a pre-tax profit of £21.1m last year but has paid no corporation tax since 2007.

Rather than quietly slipping away, I thought I’d let it know about my decision, so I wrote them a letter and enclosed my “loyalty” card.

Finally, since nothing we do is validated these days without registering it on social media, I posted a photo of the letter to my 500 friends on Facebook and 100 followers on Twitter.

That, I thought, would be that. It wasn’t.

Over the past week, the letter has gone viral. It’s been shared over 20,000 times on Facebook, and I’ve lost count of what’s happened on Twitter.

This Tuesday afternoon, the BBC phoned to talk to me before they posted an article on its website.

It’s thrilling and exciting and slightly terrifying, all at the same time, because I honestly never expected my letter to trigger this kind of response.

It would seem a lot of people share the sense that it’s not right for big business to get away with paying no tax on huge profits at a time when services are getting cut. We are, after all, supposed to be all in this together.

Will it change anything? I’ve no idea. I’m just a bloke who sat down and wrote Caffè Nero a letter. That’s easy to ignore.

As the knockers and trolls and keyboard warriors have been inordinately keen to point out, the letter possibly went in the bin half-read, and if I think for a minute Caffè Nero care about my opinion, I’m deluded, a narcissist, or worse.

They are, of course, completely missing the point.

Because what happens if 100 people write a letter? Or 1,000? What if everyone who shared that letter on Facebook decides to buy their latte from a local independent coffee shop? What then? That might — just might — change things, because together we are vastly more powerful than we imagine. At least, that’s what I believe. I’m a poet, it comes with the territory.

Typing that letter out on a laptop one week ago — and the positive response to it — reminded me that social activism can be fun, too. It’s linked me up with people I’d never have got to know if I hadn’t sat down and thought Stuff it, I’ll tell ’em what I think.

Eight days later, Caffè Nero is — according to the BBC — drafting a response.

It claims my letter says lots of things that are factually incorrect, but when pressed on the matter, suddenly the company decides it doesn’t want to get into it.

If that wasn’t enough to bring a smile to my face, I don’t have far to look for things that will.

I may very well be chuckling for months over the comment of one of the naysayers who boldly announced on Facebook that “If this letter’s real I’ll eat my hat, and a million others.”

That’s a lot of hats, our kid. I hope you’re feeling hungry.

Well Versed is edited by Jody Porter.
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