Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Tax Should Be Taxing

Tax is no longer the preserve of accountants and the HMRC.

Picked up by the media and starting to dominate political headlines on a weekly basis, it has become one of the hottest topics around.

Who is or isn't paying their fair share? Who's dodging the taxman, or exploiting legal loopholes in order to avoid paying as much?

This issue matters because it goes to the very heart of the society we live in, and more importantly, what kind we want to live in.

Amazing it's taken so long to become mainstream news. This is a society which prides itself on fairness, and yet has seen the gap between rich and poor widen to record levels. This issue could, and should, be here to stay.

It'd be nice to say that our political class have given this the prominence it deserves. That it's been on their radar for a while. But, it hasn't.

We can thank a number of dogged campaigners for bringing it to our attention. UK Uncut have done tremendous work in highlighting tax avoiding companies, run by people accused of sheltering their wealth offshore, away from prying eyes.

They have exploited social media brilliantly in getting their message across.

The tireless and irrepressible Richard Murphy, of Tax Research UK, has devoted years to tackling the 'Tax Gap,' and the chasm of money lost through avoidance and evasion schemes.

Whilst official figures point to a £35bn tax gap, according to Murphy, this hugely underestimates the loss, which he puts at closer to £120bn a year.

Tax avoidance has brought condemnation from both sides of the political divide. When you have The Guardian and Daily Mail singing from the same hymn sheet, you know we're on to something big.

A turning point may have been reached for our politicians when the Green Party's Jenny Jones astutely challenged her other London mayoral candidates to come clean over their tax arrangements.

Both Boris and Ken can thank their reluctance to openness from the start for keeping this running for so long.

When Ken Livingstone's team complain that this distracts from them campaigning on "real issues" that Londoners want to talk about, they ignorantly ignore the fact that the integrity and honesty of our politicians, currently held in such low regard, are crucial issues in their own right.

When George Osborne says he is "shocked" that the wealthy avoid paying so much tax, one cannot but doubt his sincerity. Either that or he is desperate not to alienate his friends in the City.

As Larry Elliott notes:

"If he is genuinely surprised by the tax arrangements of the well-heeled in the UK, he has either been living in a cave for the past 20 years or is unfit for his current post.

"One of Britain's (few) areas of comparative advantage in the global economy is the ingenuity of the big accountancy firms in finding ways round the tax system.

"Tax avoidance is big business in the UK. We do a lot of it. We market our expertise abroad."

Full tax disclosure should be obligatory for all those seeking and holding political office, whether at council level or in parliament.

How long must we wait until all three party leaders, their cabinet and shadow cabinet teams, in fact before every member of parliament, publicly declares their tax burden?

David Cameron announces that he is "relaxed" about the idea, which sounds a bit like saying: "well, if we really must, and there's no way round this."

Open democracy isn't our strongest point. MPs' expenses had to be practically forced out of them, with many kicking and screaming right until the very end.

Party candidates are still chosen behind closed doors with open primaries looking a long way off.

Some councillors resist elected mayors because they know they'd be a direct challenge to their quiet, unassuming, out of the public glare, way of doing things.

This is a chance for Labour to grab the initiative, upstage the government, and get all its MPs to publish their tax details without delay.

But, our MPs are only little fish compared to the bigger prize of multinational corporations and the country's private millionaires and billionaires.

As has been argued: "it is secrecy that enables inequality, while transparency underpins social justice."

Three cheers for social activism. One step ahead of politicians, yet again.

This article was first published by LabourList on Thursday 12 April 2012

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