Death and Taxes

It always used to be a favourite subject with which to tease friends from Europe and the United States: that I did my annual tax return myself "in around five minutes, or 10 if I go really slowly".

In Europe even straightforward returns by ordinary working people take much longer than that, and in the US many now feel the need to hire an accountant.

But Hong Kong’s boast of having a "low, simple and predictable" tax regime has become so much of a dry boring slogan that we tend to take it for granted.

It took a recent visit to Spain, and a modest amount of shopping, to remind me of how much we have to be grateful for.

No visit to Catalonia would be complete without a pilgrimage to Camp Nou, home of the famous FC Barcelona, especially for those with a (near) teenage son.

Inevitably after the tour we found ourselves in the souvenir shop and several items later I found myself handing over my credit card to pay.

Then the adventure began.

"Are you visiting from outside Europe?" the salesgirl asked. Indeed we are came the reply.

"That means you are exempt from the sales tax I have just charged you," she said. "I have to charge it, but you can apply for a refund right away in the basement."

And sure enough there in the basement was a special counter marked "tax refunds" staffed by a brilliant linguist in her 20s who could explain the procedures in six different languages including Russian as she was demonstrating to the couple in front of me in the queue.

When it was my turn she confirmed after viewing my passport that I was indeed entitled to a refund of the 38 Euros tax that I had just paid upstairs. Would I like it now or later?

Not a question you have to ask a Hong Kong consumer twice: I opted for right now.

She promptly handed over 36 Euros and 10 cents. "We charge a commission of five per cent for processing the refunds."

With a slight grimace I turned to leave but she called me back.

"When you leave Europe to fly back to Hong Kong you must take this form with you to the airport, and find the special customs counter, and get the police to chop this receipt and form I am about to give you, then post it in this envelope back to the tax authorities in Madrid".

And to emphasise the importance of doing this in the manner prescribed she warned "if the authorities don’t receive the envelope back in time, the receipt you have just signed for the refund gives them the power to charge 54 Euros to your credit card as penalty."

What a system (I use the term loosely). I must pay a tax I am exempt from, then pay a commission to get it back, then if something goes wrong with the paperwork at their end I must pay a penalty.

They say there is nothing certain except death and taxes. I somehow got the feeling that if the European Commission was in charge of death, everyone would have to live forever because it would be too complicated to die.