Sunday, 3 March 2013

Badly received

"It is hard to get a receipt in Spain."
I read this claim in a piece on the BBC a couple of weeks ago, written by one Pascale Harter. It was a surprising thing to read, because it is not hard to get a receipt in Spain. I get at least one every time I go shopping.

It is not even hard to get an invoice in Spain, the distinction being important to some people, notably those of us who incur a lot of work-related expenses, some of which can be claimed back, in part, in deductions from our tax bills. We spend much the year away from home, which involves staying in hostels, hotels and campsites, buying meals, using diesel, maintaining our an and so on. A proportion of the costs involved is deducted from tax, provided we have proper documentation to justify our claims.

This involves getting an invoice - una factura - for any given transaction, rather than a simple receipt. The factura, as well as being numbered and dated, must carry our address, the name of our company, its NIF (Número de Identificación Fiscal, a registration number, much like the code carried on identity cards) and the similar details of the issuing company, be that a restaurant, a hotel, a petrol company or what you will.

It's worth, as an aside, observing that this is a very large subsidy from the public purse to a private concern. It may well be necessary in order to allow business to take place, but it is a subsidy nonetheless, yet one rarely remarked upon. When I eat out, the taxpayer shells out a proportion of the bill. When I decide to have a coffee at the end, the taxpayer divvies up some of the extra.

Leaving that aside aside, the main point for today is that these facturas are not, in fact, hard to get hold of. Or only very rarely. I am in a position to know this, because in any given term, we will have to ask for dozens of them.

They are not always given with good grace, not least because people are often busy. They are not always given straightaway. We have been told Ms Harter's story about the malfunctioning printer a number of times. We have been told the boss is not in and only they know what to do. We have been told the accountant (gestor, or gestora) will do it. We have been told to come back later, we have been told it will be sent by email, we have been told it will be sent in the post.

Yet although I rarely believe it until it happens, I am rarely justified in my cynicism. It does happen. The factura is given us. Or it arrives in the post, or by email. We have worked, or stayed, in Aragón, Cantabria, Asturias, Extremadura, Madrid, Navarra, La Rioja, the Balearics, Valencia, Murcia, Catalunya, Castilla-La Mancha and Castilla y León, which provides us with a fairly wide experience from which to speak. Sufficient experience to say that the generalisation "it is hard to get a receipt in Spain" is manifestly not true.

There have been exceptions, albeit rare ones. There was a restaurant in Pamplona which while we were there, told us the printer story, and in subsequent phone calls told us a succession of different lies. (Eventually we gave up.) There was another restaurant in Pamplona which told us even before we ate that they didn't issue facturas, a version which, for its candour and its preference for not wasting our time, I much preferred to the other one.

But other than that, it is hard to think of a time when we have been refused, openly or otherwise, a factura. Even in the hostal outside Cuenca which didn't appear to operate a register, quite likely for tax purposes, gave us a factura. A factura for customers they didn't even officially admit existed.

This is not the entire story. There are many plumbers who insist on working cash-in-hand, as indeed there are in the UK. I'm sure there are taxi drivers who don't issue receipts, but then again untrustworthy taxi drivers are not a peculiarly Spanish phenomenon.

There are open fiddles in Spain that either do not exist in the UK, or if they do, are hidden, and presumably much more easily hidden precisely for their rarity. For instance, if one purchases a house or a flat in Spain, it is not unusual, at the moment of signing contracts, for the purchaser and vendor to be invited to step into the next room, where the purchaser pays over a large sum to the vendor in excess of the published sale price. This takes place so that tax may be evaded on part of that price. Clearly such a thing could not occur unless it was known to everybody and tolerated by everybody.

Yes, for sure, the level of tax evasion, at street level as well as in business and politics, is higher than it is in Northern Europe. But as I wrote before:
The black economy in Spain is about one-fifth the size of the official economy - about twice as high, if I follow the paper, as the figure in Germany. That's a difference, but it's not the difference between good and evil, between a healthy society and a sick one. There is more corruption, and more tax evasion, in Spain than in Germany or the UK, but Spain is not properly described as "corrupt". It is not an all-pervasive element in everyday life.
It is not. And it is not, in most circumstances, hard to get a receipt in Spain. There are occasions where it is hard to get one, but that is not the same thing at all.

I insist on this partly for the simple reason that I have seen somebody write something I know not to be true, but also because the narrative of "corruption" is often used to justify austerity, or to pretend its effects would be much less harmful were it not for a corruption in which the population are complicit. (I'm reminded of the effects of sanctions on Iraq, effects blamed, by the supporters of sanctions, on the corruption of the régime, as if the sanctions themselves played no role.) But when you are on the ground, you know that the people imposing austerity are generally those most complicit in corruption, and those who are protesting most about austerity are the loudest voices against corruption too.

This is not a fault of Ms Harter's piece, which is a perfectly good one other than the bizarre claim about receipts. And it's true to say both that there's always an element of popular complicity in corruption, and that more thoughtful Spaniards understand and accept this.

But "corruption" is a term that needs to be properly defined, its nature and extent explored, rather than applied, as it often is, tout court, as a mark of damnation against peoples, societies and countries. "The Greeks" are not corrupt, nor is Greece, and though there is much corruption in Greece, involving many Greeks, you cannot thus define a country. Not Greece, nor Italy, nor Cyprus, nor Ireland nor Portugal. Nor Spain.

Because it's not like that. And it is not hard to get a receipt in Spain. But many people will have read the contrary on the BBC and if, as a result, they believe it, they will believe something which is not the case.

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