Guest post: Lone Protests Against Tax Avoiders

This is a guest post by Bryony Evens, who on December 4th staged an intrepid one woman protest in Topshop

Thanks to Abigail Daker for the illustration, published originally at Amelia’s Magazine.

Inspired by the UK Uncut Tax Avoidance campaign and the anti-Top Shop protests on Saturday 4th December, I decided to stage my own small protest in the afternoon. Essentially, it was a one-woman protest in Top Shop – I simply requested either that the shop let me pay for my item exclusive of VAT so that I could pay it directly to the revenue myself, or that they signed a form which guaranteed that the company would pay the VAT to the revenue and confirm to me in writing that this had been done. I wanted to express my disgust at tax avoiders like Philip Green in the only way I was able to at the time, by expressing my distrust in his handling of the company’s tax affairs. I did not wish to inconvenience the staff of the store so I was very polite and gave them chocolate to thank them for letting me make my protest. You can read my blog about it here.

On Sunday 12th December I carried out another protest along the same lines, this time in Evans in Kingston. The manager took my request to withhold the VAT seriously, and after about a 10-minute wait while she went to phone head office – during which time I handed out leaflets about my protest to other shoppers by way of apology for inconveniencing them – she returned and agreed to let me pay for the items, less the VAT of 74p. She signed my form and I gave her a duplicated copy, and promised to confirm to her in writing when I’ve sent the 74p and letter of explanation off to the Inland Revenue. She said that her main concern was not being accused of having a short till, so the form was important to her. However, I did note that the receipt she gave me listed the 74p as ‘promotional’, not as VAT. However, I will include a copy of the receipt in my letter to the revenue by way of explanation. I finished off my protest by passing a Santa hat filled with chocolates & sweeties around the staff, who were very good-natured and interested throughout my protest.

After my blog about the original protest went live on Monday night, the idea ran swiftly round Twitter and the internet, and seemed to capture people’s imagination. Others pledged to join me by making similar protests, and I began to see the potential for a nationwide campaign of very polite, individual, chocolate-giving protests, which could run alongside all the other non-violent and creative protests currently targeted against the Arcadia Group. If there are no sit-ins or other actions planned for your area, why not carry out your own lone protest whenever it suits you – and you don’t have to be a woman to take part! It would be lovely to have hundreds of people across the country making their own solo protests from now until Christmas – and beyond if necessary!

I have written a 10-step guide to carrying out your own protest, which is posted below.

UK Uncut’s Pay Day is planned for Saturday 18th December, and it would be fantastic to coordinate a day of individual protests against the Arcadia group stores. If a group of you go along, spread yourselves out through the queues at various tills in the shop and don’t all go in at once. And perhaps not while there’s another demo going on nearby – the aim is not to attract the police or security. I propose that interested people use Twitter and Facebook to find others in their area to coordinate timings. Don’t add a time to your initial message – organise the times privately amongst yourselves for maximum impact.

To organise via Twitter: To join up with others carrying out One Woman Protests on PayDay, tweet the name of the shop you plan to protest in, the town and the hashtag #onewomanprotest. Sample tweet: ‘Topshop Oxford Circus #onewomanprotest’. Then click on the hashtag and use the advanced search at the top of the page to find others planning a protest in the same town and/or store. Search for your town name in the ‘All of these words’ box, with the hashtag ‘onewomanprotest’ in the ‘This hashtag’ box (you don’t need to add the # symbol.) When you find someone planning a similar action nearby, feel free to tweet them to coordinate your protests throughout the day for maximum impact, rather than everyone descending at one time en masse. You could also arrange to meet up with them before and after for moral and mutual support!

To organise via Facebook, click here.

I’ve set up a public Facebook event to coordinate meeting up with others. Please post your town and the name of the shop you plan to protest in in the comments section here. Then search the page for your town name. When you find someone planning a similar action nearby, message them to coordinate your protests throughout the day for maximum impact, rather than everyone descending at one time en masse. You could also arrange to meet up with them before and after for moral and mutual support.

If you aren’t a member of either site and would like another way to contact others, I suggest you use the comments section on my blog. You will need to enter an email address with your name so that you are contactable.

How to carry out your lone protest:

• Extreme politeness is the key

• Individual protesters make more impact than a crowd because companies can see their customers walking out of the door, one by one, all day, or managers have to take personal responsibility for the company’s VAT affairs

• Chocolates or similar for the staff as a thank you are essential

1. Be prepared:

Before you start, download, adapt and print out the forms to use in your protest and flyers to hand to other shoppers.

2. Please take responsibility for your protest and put your own name to it:

I’m aware that if this protest idea takes off, my name will be associated with it. I am happy with that – I put my own name and address on the flyers I first used in Top Shop because I would actually like to receive reassurance from the company about their business practices. Therefore, I urge you not to make this an anonymous protest but to put your correct name and address on the flyers please.

3. Be realistic in choosing your target:

For this to work, you need to be prepared to buy the product you take to the till. If you’re picking a store to make your protest in, make sure it’s one you would normally shop in. Remember, you’re making this protest as an actual consumer of the shop involved, and expressing your disappointment and loss of trust in their brand. You need to be able to make it clear truthfully to the staff that you would have shopped there had they only been able to provide the requested guarantees that they can be trusted. And should your protest be accepted, you need to pay for the purchase, so if it’s clothes, do try them on just in case!

Here’s a list of Arcadia stores, the chain run by Sir Philip Green: Wallis, Top Shop, Top Man, Burton, Dorothy Perkins, Miss Selfridge, Evans & Outfit. BHS is also owned by the same company. If you want to apply these tactics elsewhere, you could try withholding the VAT on your Vodafone bill – obviously you will need to be an existing customer of theirs for this to work!

4. Don’t draw attention to yourself before you start your protest:

The idea is to start your protest at the till, so browse beforehand, decide what you want to buy, try it on if appropriate and generally act like an ordinary customer. You need to be prepared with your sums and flyers before going to the till, so if necessary, note the price of the item and leave the shop for a while in order to do this – or fill them in in the changing rooms. Too many people standing in corners using their phone calculators and scribbling will draw attention to the protest before it starts and – if it takes off across the UK – security might ask you to leave before you get to the till. Once you’re ready, take your item to the till and queue as you normally would. See below for detailed instructions on preparing the forms*.

5. Be polite and respectful while making your protest:

The staff are not to blame for the corporate culture of the store, so be polite at all times, but do take your request as high as you are able while at the counter. This could include asking staff to ring head office. This is good as you then have time to talk to the queue you are delaying about what you are doing and why. Hand out flyers for them to find out more and inform themselves about the issues so they can make a choice for themselves about where to shop. Don’t force anyone to take a flyer – this is your protest, not theirs. See below for suggestions about what to say at the till**.

6. End your protest by thanking the staff for allowing you to make it:

I tried to make sure all the staff I’d spoken to could hear that they were included in my thank you, and I gave them chocolate as a gift for letting me make my protest. Company policy is not their fault, after all!

7. Start and finish your protest in a timely fashion:

Don’t start your protest until you reach the till, to avoid alerting security or annoying other shoppers – or messing up the pitch for other lone protesters who may be in the store unknown to you! Talk to other shoppers and staff politely whilst in the midst of your protest. Once you have thanked staff and given them a token of your appreciation, leave the store quickly and quietly, saying no more about it. The aim is not to cause any fuss or chaos – just for the company to see its potential customers walking out of the store without making a purchase, or for them to have the hassle of taking personal responsibility for their company’s tax affairs.

8. Have your support in place for afterwards:

While it didn’t take too long to psych myself up to carry out the protest, I found myself quite wobbly when I came out due to the unusual bravery involved, so perhaps arrange to phone or meet friends for a postmortem session somewhere out of earshot afterwards to let off steam from the adrenaline rush!

9. Report your protest to inspire others:

If you’re on Twitter, please use the hashtag #onewomanprotest on any reports. I thought it might be good to have something shorter but that one seems to be quite popular already and some very unscientific straw polls agreed with me. Men, go ahead and protest too but please use the same hashtag to link the reports together.

Feel free to blog your experiences and spread the links widely on Twitter and Facebook – the more people who know about this, the better.

10. Follow up any successes:

If you’ve managed to withhold your tax, send your cheque off to the address on the form immediately, and keep a record of the date, cheque number etc to show if asked. It could also be a good idea to send the shop full details of this payment for their accounting records – ask at the time of the protest if they need this confirmation and comply with any requests they make.

If you manage to get the guarantee form signed, follow it up after 30 days, which is a reasonable amount of time for them to have paid the tax onwards. Remember, follow up the person whose name is on the flyer as you’ve asked them to sign on behalf of the company.

*Prepare your forms:

Divide the cost of the item by 1.175 to find out how much the item costs less tax, then subtract this from the total to find out how much the tax is. Eg £20 /1.175 = £17.02. £20-£17.02 = £2.98. (This sum will change on 1st January when the new VAT rate comes in.)

Form 1: Withheld tax

Fill in the date, your name and address, the branch name and store name, the amount you intend to pay and the amount of tax you intend to withhold.

Form 2: Guarantee for shop to pay tax

Fill in the date, your name and address, the branch name and store name and the total value of the items, including the VAT element as well.

If your protest is successful, fill in an identical copy of whichever form the shop agrees to, and get them to sign this too, so that both parties have a record of the transaction and pledge.

**What to say – here are my suggested wordings:

Allow the staff to ring up your items and ask you for the total amount. At that point, say ‘I will only be able to pay xx [the total excluding VAT] today, as based on the business ethics of Sir Philip Green, I’m not sure I can trust your company to pay this tax on to the government. I intend to pay the VAT of xx [state amount of VAT due] to the government directly by sending a cheque to HM Revenue & Customs myself. I need you to sign this form to confirm that I have done this please.’ You may need to repeat this several times to various members of staff as the query is escalated.

If they refuse this approach, take out the second form and say, ‘OK, I understand. In that case, I will need you to sign this form to confirm on behalf of [xx store] that the VAT will be paid correctly to the government and that you will write to me to confirm once this has been done.’

If they refuse this approach too, say politely ‘Would be able to go and ring head office to check please, as I’d really like to buy this item but I am still worried about the tax question and need reassurances from you.’

If all these approaches are rebuffed, then say politely ‘I’m afraid I won’t be able to buy this item then, but thank you for allowing me to make my protest against your company’s business practices. Here’s a little something for the staff to apologise for any disruption I’ve caused. Thank you very much for your help.’

GOOD LUCK everyone and let me know how it goes!