Conflating all social security spending as "welfare" is not transparent. Photo: Getty
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Osborne's personal tax summaries are not transparent: they don't break down welfare spending

Why the Chancellor's personal tax summaries are the wrong type of transparency.

At CPAG, we slept on yesterday’s news of George Osborne’s personal tax summaries. This morning, we awoke to find we’re still pretty annoyed. This blog is an attempt to figure out why, exactly.

Now, we’re not against transparency in politics. Indeed, like most people, we’re also partial to motherhood and apple pie. Yet, scratch the surface, and it’s clear that the government have chosen very carefully what information they’re using, and how they’re presenting it. And selective transparency isn’t really transparency at all.

How that information is presented has been critiqued in a number of places. At the top of the government-produced mock-ups of the summaries sits a monolithic block, "welfare" – a term that, unlike social security or social protection, has no commonly-accepted meaning. Others have raised serious concerns about how spending is allocated to that block, and thus the total calculated. Putting that aside, however, it is hard to see this outside the prism of mooted further cuts to "welfare". Why else conflate spending as diverse as unemployment benefit, in-work tax credits, disability living allowance, and pension credit? With the public already confused as to what proportion of the "welfare" bill goes on these conceptually very different things, is transparency served best by dispelling those misconceptions, or by playing into them?

In reality, our social security system is doing a wide range of things at the same time. Support for pensioners is by far the biggest slice of the pie (state pensions, but also pensioner benefits like pension credit), with the continuing falls in pensioner poverty one of the great public policy success stories of our day; housing benefit comes in next – with the proportion of in-work claims increasing rapidly. Other major spends include disability benefits, child benefit and tax credits, in-work tax credits, and a small slither (around 3 per cent) on jobseeker’s allowance. As a society, we’re spending money to support people with extra costs (of disability, or of having children), those with reduced capacity to earn (disabled people, pensioners, parents), topping up low wages, and subsidising high housing costs. By all means, let’s have a debate about the relative priorities of these functions. But rather than shedding light, these summaries are casting shadows.

The personal summaries are selective, too, looking only at direct personal taxation. Direct tax accounts for less than half of all government revenue, with the long-term reduction in that proportion accelerated by increases in both the personal tax allowance and VAT in this Parliament. This matters because increasing numbers of people are earning too little to pay much if any direct tax. In reality, though, those on low incomes pay a higher proportion of their income in tax than those on high incomes, but do so mostly through indirect taxes. That, in turn, matters because statements focusing just on direct taxes promote a false picture of relative contributions to the Exchequer.

Increasing understanding of how public money is spent is a laudable aim, and we would welcome informed public debate on what our social security is for, and how it can be directed most effectively towards those ends. A well-functioning, well-resourced social security system is an essential pillar in achieving a poverty-free society. Part of transparency around the costs of social security has to include the £29bn annual cost of child poverty alone. Sadly, the selectiveness and partiality of the new personal tax summaries are such that they risk having, if anything, the opposite effect. Not so much transparent, then, as transparently political.

Moussa Haddad is senior policy and research officer at the Child Poverty Action Group

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The private renting sector enables racist landlords like Fergus Wilson

A Kent landlord tried to ban "coloured people" from his properties. 

Fergus Wilson, a landlord in Kent, has made headlines after The Sun published his email to a letting agent which included the line: "No coloured people because of the curry smell at the end of the tenancy."

When confronted, the 70-year-old property owner only responded with the claim "we're getting overloaded with coloured people". The letting agents said they would not carry out his orders, which were illegal. 

The combination of blatant racism, a tired stereotype and the outdated language may make Wilson seem suspiciously like a Time Landlord who has somehow slipped in from 1974. But unfortunately he is more modern than he seems.

Back in 2013, a BBC undercover investigation found 10 letting agent firms willing to discriminate against black tenants at the landlord's request. One manager was filmed saying: "99% of my landlords don't want Afro-Caribbeans."

Under the Equality Act 2010, this is illegal. But the conditions of the private renting sector allow discrimination to flourish like mould on a damp wall. 

First, discrimination is common in flat shares. While housemates or live-in landlords cannot turn away a prospective tenant because of their race, they can express preferences of gender and ethnicity. There can be logical reasons for this - but it also provides useful cover for bigots. When one flat hunter in London protested about being asked "where do your parents come from?", the landlord claimed he just wanted to know whether she was Christian.

Second, the private rental sector is about as transparent as a landlord's tax arrangements. A friend of mine, a young professional Indian immigrant, enthusiastically replied to house share ads in the hope of meeting people from other cultures. After a month of responding to three or four room ads a day, he'd had just six responses. He ended up sharing with other Indian immigrants.

My friend suspected he'd been discriminated against, but he had no way of proving it. There is no centrally held data on who flatshares with who (the closest proxy is SpareRoom, but its data is limited to room ads). 

Third, the current private renting trends suggest discrimination will increase, rather than decrease. Landlords hiked rents by 2.1 per cent in the 12 months to February 2017, according to the Office for National Statistics, an indication of high demand. SpareRoom has recorded as many as 22 flat hunters chasing a single room. In this frenzy, it only becomes harder for prospective tenants to question the assertion "it's already taken". 

Alongside this demand, the government has introduced legislation which requires landlords to check that tenants can legitimately stay in the UK. A report this year by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants found that half of landlords were less likely to rent to foreign nationals as a result of the scheme. This also provides handy cover for the BTL bigot - when a black British tenant without a passport asked about a room, 58 per cent of landlords ignored the request or turned it down

Of course, plenty of landlords are open-minded, unbiased and unlikely to make a tabloid headline anytime soon. They most likely outnumber the Fergus Wilsons of this world. But without any way of monitoring discrimination in the private rental sector, it's impossible to know for sure. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.