If the likes of Philip Green's family desire the rights that come with UK citizenship, they should be required to make fair tax contributions. Photo: Getty
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Leader: Labour should make itself the party of tax cuts and bold tax reform

If the party was radical rather than obsessed with process and presentation, it would be setting out proposals to overhaul our tax system.

Our tax system is just about the most unfair and inefficient imaginable. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that the UK has “an opaque jumble of different effective rates [of tax] as a result of tapered allowances and a separate National Insurance system”. The system urgently needs reform but which politician has the stamina and originality of thought to achieve it?

However, some change might be coming. It has been reported that George Osborne is considering merging National Insurance (NI) and income tax into a single tax. Such a move would, it has been suggested, have advantages for a Conservative chancellor. It would further weaken the contributory principle that was the foundation of the welfare state but that has long since been eroded; it would also raise the headline rate of taxation, and thus increase a desire for tax cuts because people would have a clearer sense of how much of their income they were paying to the state.

Yet, in spite of these objections, we would support the merging of NI and income tax in the interests of greater transparency but also because we believe low- and middle-income earners in Britain already pay too much tax, especially when fuel duty, VAT, council tax and stagnant real wages are taken into account. Ed Miliband complains about a “cost-of-living crisis”. Perhaps, in response, he should consider cutting the average earner’s tax burden.

Our income-tax system is opaque. Governments delight in obfuscation and complication. At present, the marginal income-tax rate on a single earner on the median salary of £26,500 is officially 20 per cent; in fact, when you take NI into account, it is 32 per cent. The coalition government likes to boast that, by raising the personal tax allowance to £10,000, it has taken low earners out of income tax altogether. It has done nothing of the kind.

If the Labour Party was radical rather than obsessed with process and presentation, and if it wanted to win a popular mandate rather than merely limp over the line in coalition with whatever might be left of the Liberal Democrats at Westminster after the general election in 2015, it would be setting out proposals to overhaul our tax system.

Indeed, it would aspire to become a party of tax cuts for low- and middle-income earners and seek to switch some of the burden of taxation from income and consumption to static assets such as property and land, as well as environmental bads. It would reform inheritance tax so that the rich become less able to avoid it. It would introduce land value taxes, at least for business and agricultural land but also potentially for property. The rebanding of council tax, which is based on valuations more than 20 years old, would also be an essential part of any wide-ranging programme of reform.

Such policies would ensure that those who have benefited most from the house-price inflation of the past decade or so were making a fair contribution to the national burden: property, unlike capital, cannot be hidden in offshore accounts.

Creating the political space for such a course of action, however, would require the Labour Party to make a more persuasive case for progressive taxation. For too long, paying your fair share in taxes has been framed as an unfortunate burden, rather than part of what it means to live as a responsible citizen in a free and open society.

A first, bold step towards achieving a more equitable and transparent tax system would be to change the rules concerning those ultra-rich British citizens who reside abroad for tax reasons. If those such as the family of Philip Green – the billionaire chief executive of the Arcadia retail group (and adviser on public spending to the Conservative Party) whose wife is resident in Monaco – desire the rights and security that come with British citizenship, they should be required to make a fair contribution in taxation to the British state.

If an American wishes to retain US citizenship, he is liable for federal taxes no matter where he lives in the world. It is a convention that dates back to 1861 and the American civil war. Surely it is time for all those Britons who hide their money tax-free in overseas accounts or in tax havens to pay up, as Americans are obliged to do – or renounce the right to be British. Here is one policy that, if it were adopted by the Labour Party, would have genuine popular appeal. What’s there not to like about it? 

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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