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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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA