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

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder