Tuesday, 17 November 2009

You, Me and Mr Taxman

by Rachel Surtees @RVSurtees

Who said tax doesn’t have to be taxing? Oh hang on, let me guess, Saatchi and Saatchi in a bid to make the HMRC sexy? FAIL. Maybe, and I do mean maybe, rather than thinking about how to dodge our taxual commitments, we should instead be allowed to decide how the money is spent. I very much doubt that any such declaration would see hoards taking to the streets, lining up to hurl their pound coins at number 11, but, perhaps it would make that tax deduction at the end of the month a little less painful.

Let’s be clear here, when I say give the public more control, I’m not advocating an X Factor style vote off with Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre, Dominic Mohan and Conrad Black serving on the judging panel. No? Isn’t that how our decisions are normally made? You’re right, we need a bit of window dressing in there, um, Caroline Flint?

I digress. I simply wonder what would happen if we were left in charge of our own taxes. Not how we pay, nor how much we pay, but more like who we pay. So, if I have a young family (I don’t), and no grandparents (I have one, singular), I might opt out of putting my tax money into state funded care homes for the elderly, and into improving primary education.

Incidentally, I’m fairly certain that I wouldn’t make that change so maybe this is a moot ponder. Maybe nothing would change. Maybe we would all just go on making the same contributions as we do now as decided by, by who? The Treasury? Gordy? Then again I am a pacifist, so much to many people’s dismay I would whip my money out of spending on defence quicker than you can say North Korea. I’m also a rampant socialist so would probably put the money I save from building tanks into building public services, likely with an emphasis on the NHS.

I guess essentially this ponder is less about tax and more about what kind of society we actually are:

1) Are we blindly reactionary? I looked at the figures for 2008 / 09… this is an exact transcript of what went through my head: Wow, £620.685 billion worth of taxes were collected last year. Hmm I wonder who got the most money; I bet it was the defence budget. Bloody hell, £137.7 billion went to The Department of Work and Pensions…. THE DEPARTMENT OF WORK AND PENSIONS GOT THE MOST MONEY???? Is that a joke? Hang on a minute, £62.677 billion of that went on pensions. That can’t be correct. I don’t know how many people there are who qualify for a pension but at a generous guess let’s say 20 million, well, 62 billion divided by 20 million is… actually far less than it sounds. Blimey, writing this article is like being on one big rollercoaster ride. Interesting, if I hadn’t been bothered to do “the sums” my dear old Nan would have ended up pensionless and homeless by the end of the day.

2) Are we inherently socialist or conservative? Would we continue to place our taxes in industries and sectors that are beneficial for others but are not directly so for ourselves? Or, if you have children in private school and your company pays for private health insurance for all of the family would you pull your money out of the NHS and state funded education?

3) Are we socially, economically, politically balanced enough to be able to neutralise each other’s silly choices? Or, same point spoken as a true pessimist, are we so divergent that we would cancel out any good that our clever choices could have made?

Is it worth the risk regardless of whether the consequences end up being damaging? After all it’s our money, our society, why shouldn’t we have control over where tax money goes? I’m quite comfortable with Gordon making my decisions for me now but what happens “if” the Tories get in?

My feeling is that on a national level the likelihood is that it would either have no impact, or a negative impact. But I can see that on a more local level, having a say in how my council tax is spent could potentially have a positive and welcome impact within the local community. Then again, if it’s council tax then the rich will be all powerful and the poor left voiceless again. The fact that the wealthy may act selflessly on behalf of their less affluent neighbours is quite frankly irrelevant - we should all have an equal stake in the society that we live in. Ugh, and so the dialogue goes round and round in my head. What do you think?

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  1. Can we have this conversation in a pub please.

  2. Hmmm... Very interesting post. I’m certainly of the opinion that since we leave in a democracy, we should, if not trust, at least expect our representatives in government to make the right decisions on our behalf, especially when it comes to the fiscal system. Having said that, I can see the appeal of a more direct input from all of us in the system but I don’t think I’d trust us right now as a society to make a system like that work. We shouldn’t underestimate that X Factor element in our collective mentality that you mention and I feel that a large proportion of us would get easily lost by chasing personal interests or popular choices and miss the big picture altogether. I mean, who’s making the call to put their money towards underground sanitation when you could make sure your kid’s school improves with your hard earned cash? I think a system like that would leave us up to our necks in the brown stuff, possibly quite literally! That’s not to say that I consider us stupid and I’d love to believe that a more proactive democratic system [including important decisions such as budgetary distribution] is certainly possible, perhaps even within my lifetime but before we can get there we need a massive shift in our consciousness. Education, education, education. Definitely making me ponder. How can we start pushing us as a society towards such a system? Hmm... As I said, interesting post.

  3. Nice comment Euclides. Yes, I do think you're right to be concerned about whether we as a collective would have enough foresight to maintain investment in the right places. But, let's say that we're looking at a Tory government next year. A Tory government who are already planning massive cuts in public spedning, who will almost certainly reduce money being spent on already underfunded resources for asylum seekers. I think and I do mean think, that in those circumstances I would probably want to be able to protect where my tax money is spent. I don't know.

    Dear Anonymous, I enjoy conversations and I enjoy pubs so I'm sure something could be arranged but it may be hard to sort out as you didn't leave a name...