A truth that must be told - why we should all support tax statements
Tomorrow, Ben Gummer MP will promote a bill to the House of Commons which, should it succeed, will require every tax-payer to be supplied with a statement breaking down how his or her personal tax contribution is spent
“Do we want low taxes and lousy public services - to become a mini-America a thousand miles to the east of the mothership? Or do we want higher taxes and improving schools and hospitals - to be a mainstream European country?”
That was how Johann Hari saw the voters’ choice before the 2005 General Election. And, like many other things Hari said in his glory years, to some it seemed true at the time. More taxes – especially after 2001 – meant more and better “schools n’ hospitals”. Such was the dogma of Labour’s political domination for more than a decade.
But like most dogma, it was unthinking and misleading.
Even today, the tax-payer spends more on cash transfers to other citizens (ie benefits and pensions) than he or she supplies for education and hospitals, combined. Indeed more than three times what is given to the state for schooling is spent on redistribution. Housing benefit alone costs the taxpayer more than both the police and civil defence.
These are uncomfortable truths for the left. But elements of the right will also dislike the truth about tax. Euro-rebels may not want you to know that, in fact, the average tax-payer’s net contribution to the EU is reportedly only £28, out of a total bill of £6,134. And as for that other bogeyman, the liberal lawyer, as it happens, a mere £60 is spent by the average tax-payer on legal aid – less than 1 percent.
That these figures have been hidden from the public is a scandal.
Of course, a conscientious voter could find them out, buried somewhere in government data. They are not “hidden” in that sense. But such a literal approach misses the point. In any sensibly ordered political system, basic information about an individual’s tax contribution ought to be drawn to his or her attention. Here the old cliché “the public have a right to know” should be recast: “the public have a right to be told”.
And now they will, if one valiant back-bencher gets his way.
Tomorrow, Ipswich MP, Ben Gummer, will promote a private member’s bill to the House of Commons which, should it succeed, will require every tax-payer to be supplied with a statement breaking down to the £1 how his or her personal tax contribution is spent.
Whatever the marginal costs of this enterprise, they are far outweighed by its obvious benefits. Politicians will be less able to dupe the public with the proposition that their hard-earned tax money goes to public services, when a large part of it does not. Voters will behave more like consumers in demanding greater efficiencies. In times of austerity, it could assist a much more mature and informed discourse about cuts. The recent debate about the benefits cap might well have had a different complexion had Ben Gummer’s admirable proposals already been implemented.
There is, moreover, support for these ideas in high places, apparently including the Treasury, with The Sun and The Telegraph today reporting favourably (indeed The Sun displays in a double page splash its own model tax statement, from which the figures above are drawn). It will be fascinating to see who (if anyone) opposes this bill. How will an argument that the public shouldn’t know this information be articulated?
After all as Sir Humphrey’s ally, Sir Arnold Robinson put it:
"If people don't know what you're doing, they don't know what you're doing wrong."
Dakis Hagen is a barrister who has blogged for the U.S. Huffington Post
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