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