Reform our out-dated, over-complicated tax system

Why is there so little discussion about radically re-designing our taxation and benefits system for the 21st Century?  In the UK, Income tax was introduced in 1799 as a temporary measure to fight the Napoleonic war.  National Insurance arrived in 1911, specifically designed to fund benefits for those who became too ill to work or suffered temporary unemployment. Council tax, though more recently introduced in 1993, still suffers from inconsistencies and is badly in need of reform.  For example, the value of someone’s home does not reflect their current ability to pay an annually-increasing monthly bill, whilst no charges are levied against those who hold land, waiting for its value to increase and denying everyone else the chance to use a scarce, finite resource. Of course, there are also VAT, Stamp Duty, Business rates, Excise duties, Corporate tax, Capital gains tax and many more.

Our current systems are complex and confusing.  We must seek to merge all taxes and benefits in one system, so each individual can see clearly what they are putting into the system and getting out.  Child benefits, pensions, allowances, student loans/fees and such like should all be processed in one network, so tax is easier to work out and there is less chance of fraud.  There should be one portal where you can see all the information.

People would know exactly where they stand and the government would have a much better idea of where they could make efficiencies.  This would also enable better phasing out of benefits as someone’s wages increase, so as to incentivise work.

Yet why can we not use the taxation system to do much more.  For example, there are hardly any recognised incentives to boost physical activity i.e. a tax rebate for everyone who can prove they do NOT drive into work, verified through each company’s HR department.  There could also be a tapered rebate for those who at least car share.  Of course, the monitoring and incentivising might need to reflect realities – like heavy rain and ice – that occasionally curtail even the enthusiastic cyclists but these are minor details when compared to the advantages. Just imagine, for a moment, the impact on citizens if this was implemented.  We would jump at the chance, re-imagining our lives, motivated to become more active, and in the process reducing pollution, as well as achieving so many benefits for our society.  Over time, the tax system would encourage people to live closer to their workplaces, helpfully increasing population density and stopping the flight to suburbia, denuding our town centres.

The urgency of action to tackle such social ills is clear.  For example a fifth of Scottish people say they have not walked for more than 20 minutes even once over the past year.  Meanwhile, in England and Wale, about 85,000 people (estimated) die early each year due to illnesses caused by sedentary living, mainly heart disease, type 2 diabetes and various cancers.  Physical activity keeps people stronger and more supple as they age.  Our exertions also improve balance, gives better bone density and make us less likely to become depressed or develop Alzheimer’s.  These are all things associated with needing less social care.

One of the few exercise regimes proved to stick is active travel, more specifically making walking or cycling to work, school or the shops sufficiently safe and convenient that it becomes easier for people to do it than not.  With political will, great success has proven possible: Denmark and the Netherlands have spent decades very deliberately re-shaping their road environments away from the car culture of the 1960s and 70s towards mass cycling.

The issue is that people need an immediate daily reminder, encouragement and motivation to look after their health, which obviously only unravels in the long-term – “a moment on the lips; a lifetime on the hips”. Consider Vitality Optimiser which provides Life Insurance but actively promotes a healthy lifestyle.  In return for unobtrusive monitoring (i.e. recording the number of your steps in any week), the package gives you “rewards”, such as a free Starbucks or discount codes, giving subscribers a tangible, short-term benefit that equates to a highly desirable, yet difficult to quantify, long-term positive outcome.  Why is the Government not seeking to investigate and potentially roll out these kinds of schemes to everyone?

Another key area where the taxation system should recognise the differing circumstances and contributions of individuals is childcare.  The same pay packet must cover a much greater range of expenses for a parent with dependent children, as opposed to an individual who only has to look after themselves.  Raising the next generation is vitally important for our long-term well-being – witness the frequent warnings about our falling birth rate and increasingly elderly, retired population.  Thus, we could create a generous Child Tax Credit for every parent, so they can be taxed at a lower rate (i.e. 2% for each child 20% off the current basic rate Income tax).

Alternatively, Child Benefit could be re-examined and integrated much more closely into HMRC’s current arrangements to provide proper help to those footing the bills for nappies, food, clothing, clubs, excursions, even the odd family holiday. And that’s before things like driving lessons or University tuition fees.  In fact, one study estimated the average cost of raising one child to age 21 was, in 2015, £229,251.  Assuming you claim Child Benefit for the maximum time available, you will receive a mere £17,222 from the government (for a first child, £20.40 per week till age 16).  That’s less than a 10th of the projected cost!

We need change.  Our current system is iniquitous, failing to properly incentivise choices that benefit us all, whilst being so complex and murky no-one really knows how much tax they pay and for what purpose.  We really could do so much better.

Innocent till proven guilty

With the slew of allegations launched in the media over the past few months, we must always remember this key principle of a just society – every individual is innocent until proven guilty.

Whilst I have the utmost sympathy for genuine victims of horrific crimes, we cannot ignore the fact that there are proven examples of false accusations, which also destroy the lives and careers of those targeted.  For example, consider the “torturous” experience of Simon Warr, subjected to “672 days on bail, in the glare of maximum publicity, during which time I suffered disgusting insults in the street and from the internet mob… my name and photograph were repeatedly published in the press and on the internet. After a nigh on two year nightmare, my accuser’s allegations were dismissed by a jury within a half an hour.”  He mentions the case of a fellow-teacher in a similar situation who, under the extreme pressure, committed suicide, as did Welsh Labour MSP, Carl Sargeant.

In the UK, we have seen the reputations of Sir Cliff Richards, Sir Ted Heath and many others dragged through the mud.  Lurid stories of a Westminster paedophile ring, stemming from one individual that never received any corroboration, were circulated with full page spreads by news outlets that said very little when the testimonies were disproven.

Even the Church of England has been targeted with serious questions raised about the case of Bishop George Bell who was posthumously ‘blackened” by an alleged victim – pocketed £16,800 “without sufficient investigation”.

So, given all the evidence of how much damage false accusations can inflict and the ease with which these claims can be concocted, why is there not more caution and less of a rush to judgement?  One case in point is the backlash against Lena Dunham, after a co-worker that she knew very well was accused: “Our insider knowledge of Murray’s situation makes us confident that sadly this accusation is one of the 3% of assault cases that are misreported every year … We stand by Murray and this is all we’ll be saying about this issue.”

She was effectively bullied by internet vigilantes to retract this statement by those who highlighted Dunham’s previous tweet – “Things women do lie about: what they ate for lunch. Things women don’t lie about: rape.”  This is clearly ridiculous.  How on earth can you make such a sweeping statement for all women on such a sensitive subject?

There seems to be a confusion between “believing” someone, and respecting their right to complain but then investigating carefully an allegation to discover the truth.  Again, we must highlight as misguided the likes of Hillary Clinton when she demands that all women be “heard and believed”.

Please don’t rush to judgement.  Give the accused a fair chance to defend themselves, just as we must afford victims the opportunity to seek justice.  Remember the context – are the complainants motivated by money, politics or ideology?  Above all ask… where is the evidence?

PS – on the day this was published, yet another shocking case emerged of a woman’s lies resulting in an innocent man having his life “flipped upside down.”  Student Liam Allan, speaking after his rape trial collapsed following the detectives’ failure to disclose vital evidence to the defence, said he felt “betrayed” by police and the CPS whose presumption of guilt inflicted “mental torture”.  The evidence in question was a disk of 40,000 text messages, many of which revealed the alleged “victim” pestered Liam for “casual sex”.  The Jezebel in question told her friends that she enjoyed sex with him and even spoke about her fantasies of having violent sex and being raped by him.  If this was finally uncovered, after the accused spent two years on bail, he faced 12 years in prison and on the sex offenders’ register for life with little chance of appeal.  Note how we do not even know her name and there has been nothing said about prosecuting her for wasting police time and attempting to pervert the course of justice…

In Googling that story, I also came across this report on Jemma Beale who invented four separate incidents of sexual assault, one of which led to a man being wrongfully convicted.  Thankfully, she has now received a 10-year prison sentence but are these cases just the tip of a treacherous iceberg?  Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, has made a high profile push to bring more sex attack cases to court and asked her lawyers to trawl through a man’s relationship history to boost conviction.  Surely, the same rigour must be applied to scrutinising the complainant’s background?  We desperately need a fair, impartial, bias-free policing and criminal justice system.


Are you not moved?

Once again, the cynics sneer at the efforts of Comic Relief, the Disasters Emergencies Committee and a host of charities to raise awareness of, and funds for, the fight against poverty.  Their criticism is seriously misguided. Celebrities could just ignore the plight of other but are doing something to help.  Yes, of course, we need to address the structural issues but these are not going to be fixed overnight (if ever) and we have an immediate to give what we can to alleviate suffering.  Personal giving does not preclude activism and shows that we have skin in the game.  Individually, I cannot force Apple to pay their fair share of tax but I can remember how privileged I am and share what I have.

Look how insidious this argument can be: “By showing starving and sick children at their most vulnerable and exposed, it goes against the idea that their dignity is worth as much as his children’s, and creates an artificial distinction between “us” and “them”. Here we are, the resourceful and benevolent agents of change; and they are the passive others in need of our charity.”

Really?  These are people who are dying with the most appalling prospects.  Their plight cries out for mercy. Surely, the ire of this journalist should be focused on those who walk by on the other side of the road, not the Good Samaritans.  The priest and Levite no doubt pontificated later about how someone else should ensure that road was properly policed, but they are rightly condemned for doing nothing.

Sadly, the arguments advanced by the likes of Afua Hirsch (quoted above) only serve to provide fig leaves for those who can watch the evidence of immense human misery, close their eyes and whistle a tune.  In fact, they are – in some ways – modern-day versions of Scrooge, deaf to the pleas of their neighbours.

Then, there is this problematic phrase “poverty porn”.  Excuse me but there is a world of difference between watching titillating videos to be sexually aroused and making genuine efforts to raise awareness of the struggles faced by the world’s most destitute with the hope that concerned citizens will be moved to give.  Considering how comparatively luxurious our lives can be, we need these reminders of what is actually happening to our fellow human beings.  How is that even remotely comparable to pornographic smut?

Tragically, we have become desensitised and indifferent to the horrendous suffering of, for example, desperate kids living off the pickings they can glean from dangerous garbage sites.  We need to keep (or start?) giving generously AND campaign vociferously, so that these scandals poverty become history.