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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.