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Wednesday, 8 January 2014

CD 275: Paying cash for work done

A handyman who does work for me prefers for me to pay him in cash. Am I committing a sin if I agree to do so?

It is fascinating to see how virtually the whole country has become engaged in the intricacies of moral debate on this issue, including the complex question of material or formal co-operation in evil. The broad consensus is correct according to Catholic moral teaching: there is absolutely nothing wrong in itself with paying somebody using cash, which is, after all, legal tender. However if we pay cash because of an explicit offer to reduce the cost of the work, and because this reduction is due to the evasion of income tax or VAT, then we are formally co-operating in evil, and committing a sin (probably a venial sin given the amount of tax normally involved.) If we simply have a suspicion that cash is requested in order to avoid tax, then we ought (within reason) to ask whether this is the case or not.

The costs that small businesses incur with bank charges, credit card merchant services, and dishonoured cheques mean that with tight margins, cash may be preferable for many reasons other than tax fraud. The fear of inspection and of bills for unpaid tax also means that small traders pay out disproportionately to accountants to ensure that their tax affairs are squeaky clean: and as many of us experience, local tradesmen and builders can be some of the most honest and hard-working people we have the privilege to meet. (And yes, I am sure we all agree that the Government should spend more time and money pursuing the billions lost to the exchequer by the tax avoidance of large businesses.)

Reflecting on the unfair spotlighting of small traders, we could do well to recall the encouragement of St Francis de Sales to his priests that they should always tip generously, and allow themselves to be overcharged by tradesmen and providers of services rather than bargaining aggressively. If we are fortunate enough to have people do work for us, we should treat them with Christian respect.

Catholic Dilemmas column published in the Catholic Herald
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