Tax transparency treats the symptom not the cause

If we worry about politicians dodging taxes, attack the dodging, not the privacy, writes the TPA's M

Do we really want to live in a country where politicians have to hand out their tax returns, medical history and birth certificate to the press, like they do in the United States? I don’t think voters want to make disclosing all that a part of the price of running for office in Britain. But the legitimacy of the tax and benefit system has been undermined by its complexity and too many stories of people breaking the rules, or twisting them out of all recognition.

We could respond to that by demanding more and more intrusions on people’s privacy. Polly Toynbee is already talking about forcing everyone to make the same kind of disclosure that the mayoral candidates just have. That might mean some people who are in the public eye pay more.  Others will ignore it though, because they won’t be scrutinised or don’t care what we all think of them.  Do you really think Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary would care if anyone called him a tax dodger? (Just a hypothetical example, I don’t have any reason to think he doesn’t pay his taxes). We would have a tax system that discriminates against those who care if the Guardian calls them names.

It won’t just be an issue for the fortunate either.  If we all have to disclose the taxes we pay, then we’re one headline away from having to disclose any benefits we receive too. Benefit fraud upsets the median voter as much as tax dodging.

Instead of descending into an Athenian pit of mistrust, it would be much better to reform the tax and benefit system, so we can again trust that people will pay their fair share. That means simpler, lower taxes so that there are fewer loopholes and there is less of an incentive to spend time and money looking for them. It means treating income from capital and labour the same – taxing each stream of income once – so that we don’t have to care whether Ken Livingstone sets up a business or not. Hopefully, that’s the kind of tax system we will outline in the forthcoming report of the 2020 Tax Commission, which we have been working on at the TaxPayers’ Alliance with the Institute of Directors.

If Britain’s tax code remains as dysfunctional as it is now, then voters and the press will rightly demand that politicians prove they aren’t taking advantage of its idiosyncrasies. If they want their privacy, they need to stop putting sticking plasters on the gaping wound that is tax avoidance and evasion – inadvertently hitting charities in the process – and instead address the fundamental problems with a tax system that has lost its legitimacy.

A nightmarish future: Compelled to post your tax return on Instagram. (Getty)

Matthew is the director of the TaxPayers' Alliance

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.