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 Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: a test of competence as well as compassion

George Osborne's chickens may be coming home to roost.

The debate will be political and polarized, as you’d expect, when the Chancellor sets out the results of the Spending Review tomorrow and how his £20bn of savings will be realised. However my suspicion is that while many followers of the Westminster's circus are debating what it all means for compassionate or compassionless conservatism, the public will be more interested in a more straightforward question: one of competence. 

Strip away the hyperbole and the election in May was won on an assessment of which party was the more competent to govern. A huge part of the public’s judgment in this regard was to trust the track record of the Conservatives in balancing the books and that the £20bn in departmental savings earmarked was a reasonable and responsible ambition. 

This is the question in point because what the public did not endorse explicitly was significant change in the size and role of the state. The argument was made and won for a budget surplus, not necessarily for its consequences. As Paul Johnson of the IFS has been at pains to say after every recent budget.

We should acknowledge that one of the reasons the Chancellor does have the public’s confidence is that the cuts to public services so far have not been as damaging as many opponents predicted. The NHS is under-strain, but has not broken. Hard pushed local government leaders have managed to shield social care from the worst of the changes, and the majority of police officers lost were in the back-office not on the beat. So when pollsters ask the public whether they have noticed the effects of austerity, most say they haven't. 

Understanding what the implications are of further large reductions in areas in the firing line such as police forces or local government is hard to do. So the government has told the public "trust us". Now we are going to find out how well that trust was placed. The point is this though - if the public haven't yet felt the full affects of a smaller state they may not be so tolerant it if they do. That brings us to the Chancellor’s real test. The easy cuts have surely been made, after the long years of spending increases prior to 2010 you would expect the system to be able to tighten its belt. But with five years of austerity under that belt there is a risk that the additional cuts could push services too far. 

The public were told that £20bn of saving could be achieved without the kind of pain that will be felt if social care for the elderly really starts to fall over, if police officers become significantly more scarce, or if the NHS does need much more than the promised £8bn (as many believe it will). On this point they have trusted the Chancellor to understand the implications of what he is promising. So if the policy choices in the Spending Review turn out to show that he did not, it will be the Government's competence as much as its compassion that will concern the public.


Steve O'Neill was deputy head of policy for the Liberal Democrats until the election.