George Osborne holds freshly minted coins during a visit to the Royal Mint in Llantrisant, Wales on March 25, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The public want a more progressive tax system - and they're right

Ninety six per cent of people support a fairer system, with the richest paying more than double the poorest.

Tax is a regular area of public and political debate in the UK. Who pays what, who avoids tax, and whether tax is "fair" are questions that are regularly tackled in our press and in Parliament. But much of this debate is shrouded in misinformation, half-truths and downright lies. When people make bold commitments to lift the "low-paid out of tax" for example, or "ensure those on the national minimum wage pay no tax" they rarely mean it. What they actually mean, more often than not, is to lift people out of paying income tax. This may sound like semantics, but there is a rather important difference.

Alongside commitments to lift the poor out of paying tax, we also occasionally hear wild claims made about how "the richest 1 per cent pay 30 per cent of all taxes". A good headline no doubt, but unfortunately, complete nonsense. Again, the richest 1 per cent pays about 30 per cent of all income tax. That is, they pay 30 per cent of a tax that accounts for only 27 per cent of all taxes. The problem with such comments isn't just that they are plainly wrong, it is that they distort the debate and skew public perceptions of our tax system towards sympathy for a supposedly overburdened, hard-working "elite", punished for their success by high taxes. At the other end, we're led to believe that the poorest pay little enough tax so that it is a simple move to lift them out of tax altogether. 

New research from the Equality Trust shows just how misleading these sorts of statements are, and just how far they take us from the truth of what the richest and poorest are taxed. Analysis of ONS data shows that  when all taxes are taken into account, the poorest 10 per cent of households actually pay 23 per cent more of their income in taxes than the richest 10 per cent of households. In fact, they pay a huge 43 per cent, whereas the richest pay just 35 per cent:  the same as the average household. 

But public understanding of how much others in society are taxed is now wafer thin. Polling conducted by Ipsos MORI in partnership with the Equality Trust found that nearly seven in ten (68 per cent) people actually believe the richest 10 per cent of households pay more of their income in tax than the poorest 10 per cent. Particularly shocking is the fact that on average the public under-estimates what the poorest 10 per cent pay in tax by 19 percentage points, believing they pay just 24 per cent of their income in taxes.

This lack of understanding is more shocking when we see just how little support there is for our regressive tax system. Further polling found that 96 per cent of people believe that the tax system should be more progressive than is currently the case. On average, people believe the poorest 10 per cent of households should be taxed just 15 per cent of their income, 28 percentage points less than they currently are. They believe the richest 10 per cent should be taxed 39 per cent, or 4 percentage points more that they are. On average they believe the richest should be pay more more than double the total tax rate of the poorest.

Even more interesting is the fact that although there are some small fluctuations, there is majority support for a more progressive tax system across political party lines, gender, age and even income groups. 

It is true that the poorest 10 per cent of households contains those that are unemployed, as well as students and other people who receive various welfare payments. But while we often hear about how much the "lazy" and "indolent" undeserving poor receive in government payments, we rarely hear about how much of that money is then clawed back. 

Our report "Unfair and Unclear" shows just how far our current tax system is from the public's preferences on how much people should be taxed. Moreover, when looking at the richest and poorest 10 per cent of households, the system is in fact hopelessly regressive. So what can we do about it? There are number of sensible approaches that have so far been resisted by most policy makers and politicians. The first it to tackle our absurdly regressive council tax by transforming it into a progressive property tax, by re-evaluating properties and creating new bands with higher rates for higher value properties. The second is to raise the upper limit of National Insurance Contributions to ensure that the tax is progressive across all deciles. We would also expect to see Government aim to reduce VAT when it has a budget surplus, at the very least. More importantly, we are calling on all parties seeking to form the government from 2015 to commit to the principle that any changes in tax policy are progressive.

Tax plays a hugely important role in people’s lives. It can determine the affordability of basic necessities like food and household bills, but it can also determine the quality of local services, healthcare and education. It is important that people are aware of who pays tax and how much, but equally we must build a tax system that better acknowledges the values of the vast majority of the electorate.  The gap between public perceptions, preferences and reality when it comes to our tax system should be of deep concern to politicians of all hues. Building a system that is fit for a fair society must now be a priority.

Duncan Exley is the director of the Equality Trust

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.