A TAXING PRIVACY PROBLEM

“Those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear.” 

That’s the view of those who want more people in the UK, particularly those paid from the public purse, to publish their tax returns to show which side of the ‘we’re all in this together’ debate we’re really on.

Under duress, the Prime Minister is said to be coming around to the idea of publishing his tax return. If and when he does, his Cabinet colleagues will no doubt be challenged to do the same causing some to misplace their good natures.

The pressure intensified after Boris Johnston and Ken Livingstone published their tax details in the race to become the next Mayor of London. Despite neither appearing to have broken any laws, Ken in particular is now carrying a meaningful electoral injury.

The debate materialised after the Chancer of the Exchequer reduced what was a temporary top tax rate from 50% to 45%. Publishing the Cabinet Ministers’ tax returns, those lobbying for transparency argue, will also show whether any Ministers benefitted directly as a result of the tax rate change.

Personally, I have not an iota to hide but all of this gives me mild heartburn. I fear we’re losing perspective on an individual’s right to privacy.  What’s more, if such a change gains momentum, the toothpaste will be out of the tube and we’ll all have to live with the consequences.

It’s ironic that it’s against the law to ask a job applicant her age or date of birth but perfectly acceptable to ask people how much they earn.  Where will it end? Tax returns disclose more than salary: they include details on earnings from dividends and the sale of shares or property, details that we rightfully consider private matters.

How far a jump of the imagination would it take to envisage electoral candidates publishing their medical records/sexual history/levels of alcohol consumption when running for public office? We don’t always get the best and brightest coming into politics.  Further scrutiny is unlikely to help this.  Frankly, it’s a tabloid editor’s charter.

Corporate Officers in public companies have the detail of their salaries and benefits published each year, a requirement under stock market rules to help investors make decisions about where to place their bets. It is a well-known obligation before one becomes a director of a public company.  Tax affairs, however, are a matter between the individual and HR inspector of Taxes. Like our bank account, it’s a discussion the general public has no right to engage in.

As head of public relations in the dim and distant, it was my job to fax any press cuttings that merited attention to the CEO’s rural weekend retreat.  When nothing required an interruption, a simple ‘enjoy your weekend’ text message sufficed.  That was over a decade ago, before everything became available easily online.

We’d just published the company’s annual report and the details of his £multi-million salary, particularly given a number of corporate challenges we had at the time, made it big news. “Isn’t it embarrassing Dad,” asked his youngest daughter after she too had read the articles, “… when everyone knows how much you earn.”

“It’s not embarrassing when you earn as much as dad does,” was her older sister’s response.

How a recession changes our outlook.  Seeking the publication of tax returns is little more than an attempt to embarrass the higher paid and successful when we need their drive and determination more than ever.

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