Cameron repeats Boris's muddled defence of the super-rich

The top 1% of earners now pay 30% of all income tax because they're earning more. And the poorest still pay the largest overall share.

Boris Johnson has exerted much energy recently defending "the 1%" and their contribution to society in the form of tax. He said in his Margaret Thatcher lecture on Wednesday night: 

Last week I tried to calm people down, by pointing out that the rich paid a much greater share of income tax than they used to.

When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 they faced a top marginal tax rate of 98 per cent, and the top one per cent of earners contributed 11 per cent of the government’s total revenues from income tax. Today, when taxes have been cut substantially, the top one per cent contributes almost 30 per cent of income tax; and indeed the top 0.1 per cent – just 29,000 people – contribute fully 14 per cent of all taxation.

That is an awful lot of schools and roads and hospitals that are being paid for by the super-rich. So why, I asked innocently, are they so despicable in the eyes of all decent British people? Surely they should be hailed like the Stakhanovites of Stalin’s Russia, who half-killed themselves, in the name of the people, by mining record tonnages of coal?

Boris's ideological stridency is often contrasted favourably by conservatives with David Cameron's timidity, so it's striking to see the PM make the same argument in a Q&A with i readers today. In response to a question on why the government cut the top rate of tax while simultaneously reducing benefits for the poorest through measures such as the bedroom tax, he said: 

You mention the cut in the top rate of tax. The fact is that if you carry on with a relatively high top-rate, that makes this country a less attractive place for wealth creators and entrepreneurs to be. If they decide to go elsewhere, that means fewer jobs created, less money for the Treasury, and less money to spend on schools, hospitals and growing our economy. These are all the things we took into account when cutting the top rate. Beyond that particular case, the fact is this: the top 1 per cent of income-taxpayers contribute nearly 30 per cent of all income tax – and those with the highest incomes will contribute more to income tax this year than under any year of the previous government.

Cameron isn't wrong; the top 1% do pay 30% of all income tax and currently pay a higher marginal rate than in any year of New Labour (the 50p rate wasn't introduced until April 2010). But what he doesn't mention is that the 30% stat tells us less about what has happened to the tax system than it does about what has happened to the income system. Over the period in question, the earnings of the rich have risen to previously unimaginable levels. As a recent OECD study showed, the share of income taken by the top 1% of UK earners increased from 7.1% in 1970 to 14.3% in 2005, while the top 0.1% took 5%. Quite simply, the rich are paying more because they're earning more. Is this really cause for us to thank them? If 11 million low and middle earners receive the pay rise they have been denied since 2003, they'll pay more tax too. 

Like Boris, Cameron also doesn't mention the inconvenient truth that the poorest continue to pay more tax than the richest. As the ONS recently found, owing to VAT and other regressive levies, the least well-off households pay 36.6% of their income in tax, while the wealthiest pay 35.5%. 

But even were this not the case, Cameron's argument is still an odd one for him to make. Had it not been for the Lib Dems, the top rate of income tax would almost certainly have been cut to 40% (Boris, meanwhile, has suggested that George Osborne should "brood" on cutting it to 30%), so it's more than a little opportunistic for Cameron to boast that the rich are paying more tax than under Labour. Rhetoric aside, his commitment to a progressive system is wafer thin.

David Cameron chats with Boris Johnson at Battersea Power Station in London on July 4, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.