LabourList readers: scrap personal privacy over your income

LabourList has been running a series of posts based on a good idea – asking people to propose policy ideas that don’t cost money, under the banner ‘What’s Labour about when there’s no money left?’.

I was, ahem, a bit underwhelmed then to read one of the ideas – to strip away personal privacy from everyone and publish all income tax returns in full. Somewhat surprised, too, to find that former Labour MP, and when I’ve come across him in the past good egg, Alf Dubs was proposing the idea - his argument being that publishing figures in full would cut tax evasion and avoidance.

But even more surprised to find that it won the poll amongst LabourList readers* as the best idea. Ahead even of encouraging more people to join trade unions.

So what is Labour when there’s no money left? Carrying on with disregard for people’s personal rights, much as it was under New Labour, it would seem. Privacy? No decent person deserves it in such Labour eyes. Some things haven’t changed.

* Mark Pack has written 101 Ways To Win An Election and produces a monthly newsletter about the Liberal Democrats.

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25 Comments

  • My salary and tax burden (outwith private investments) is deducible as I’m paid according to the HE Framework agreement pay spine.

    I’m not sure I would go as far to make all income tax returns public, but there is certainly something wrong in a society that demands that people who work in the public sector or HE* have to have their salaries made public but those in the private don’t. Especially given income disparities.

    * the argument that the public are entitled to know how their money is spent does not apply to many researchers, including myself, who are funded entirely from charities.

  • The article starts “One of the serious problems we face is that too many people, especially the rich, evade or avoid income tax.” but then goes on to say “The present levels of tax evasion and tax avoidance are large and they penalise ordinary people who pay their money usually through PAYE and don’t cheat the system.” Which to me appears to read that anyone earning over the higher rate threshold of £42,476 are considered rich and therefore probably nasty tax evaders, cheating the system – So is he suggesting that people above this threshold should all be mistrusted – Surgeons, GP’s, low ranking officers in the armed services, Nurse Consultants etc.

    I am in no doubt, that his ‘idea’ would also come with the caveat ‘Exemptions would of course cover MP’s, Minisiters, Lords, Trade Union Officials and large donors to the party’ – A typical suggestion of ‘Cast our net wide enough, and we are bound to catch something, to justify our need to remove privacy’!

  • This happens in Norway, where you can look up anyone’s tax return. I don’t support it, but Norway does not seem to have collapsed or ceased to be a civilised nation as a result. A lot of these things are simply what you are used to. (ID cards, anathema to us, don’t really make living in most Continental European countries intolerable either. Again, I don’t support them, but accept that their meaning to us is out of proportion to their impact in places that have them)

  • Paul Griffiths 14th Jan '12 - 12:15pm

    Tim beat me to the point I was going to make. Maybe these ideas don’t travel well across cultures, but they shouldn’t simply be dismissed out of hand.

  • Andrew Suffield 14th Jan '12 - 12:29pm

    ID cards, anathema to us, don’t really make living in most Continental European countries intolerable either

    ID cards were the buzzword, but the objection was never really about the piece of plastic. The objection was primarily to the giant ID card database of easily stealable personal information, where everything about you would be stored, and millions of people would be authorised to access it.

    I don’t think those other countries have one of them.

  • paul barker 14th Jan '12 - 1:41pm

    I am not at all soft on Labour but this idea struck me as having some merit. Im a very private person but for me Income doesnt seem very personal. How much money we get is partly the result of accident anyway, it just doesnt feel inherent in the way sexuality is, for example.

    We could back this idea in a Liberal way, promoting it on a volountary basis. There could be an online register where people put up their own information.

  • Tony Dawson 14th Jan '12 - 2:36pm

    If you go onto the internet and put in the details of a Norwegian friend’s name, you will be given not only their address and telephone number but every tax return they’ve ever completed. I am reliably informed that no one has died as a result.

  • Richard Swales 14th Jan '12 - 3:21pm

    @Tony, That won’t work in the UK until you can do something about banks and credit card companies being credulous enough to believe that anyone who knows some very basic information about you must really be you.

    @Paul Barker. You don’t need the state if it is voluntary, just register a domain or set up a web forum and let anyone who wants to post their salary. The only tool the state can bring to project is force.

  • I agree with Tim – it is the sort of idea that seems shocking to many people until you realise it has been operating fine in Norway for the last few years. I think there is something quite appealing and honest about it, and since the salaries of senior civil servants are now published I think it is only a matter of time before something similar spreads beyond the civil service and FTSE listed board members.

  • Tony Greaves 14th Jan '12 - 3:59pm

    I have for some time been very much in favour of everyone’s income tax returns being in the public domain.

    It may be that we should just start with everyone who pays the higher rate of tax but there is no reason at all that people’s incomes should be secret. There are a lot of people (eg most in the public sector) where you can work out what people are being paid fairly easily). Revealing your income should be a normal requirement of citizenship.

    Tony Greaves

  • Daniel Henry 14th Jan '12 - 4:29pm

    I agree with Paul Barker.
    Allowing people to see my tax details isn’t what I’d consider to be a violation of my privacy.
    I think it would also bring the usual benefits

    Wouldn’t take a hugely authoritarian measure.
    We’d just need HMRC to build a website.
    To be honest, such an open website would perhaps make it easier for me to see the details of my own tax…

    We could also allow companies to publish “payslips” on the site, saving the costs of printing them on paper?

  • Start with those who pay the higher rate of income tax? Sounds like a great incentive to earn more than £34k.

  • Richard Swales 14th Jan '12 - 8:11pm

    They’re not Liberals, they are socialists who think everything is public property. What is the actual policy aim this is trying to achieve?

    If they think that by naming and shaming people on high incomes they will encourage voluntary pay cuts and thereby leave more money to pay out dividends to the golden post war generation that now owns most of the shares, then they wrongly assume that everyone thinks the same as they do. The experience with top executives has not shown that publicity has any such effect.

    If the idea is to produce a list of high earners who others could go to to ask for advice on what skills they need to develop to be equally successful then people already know roughly enough what professions are highly paid so we don’t need the list for that.

    The difference with public sector workers is that they are working for all of us, we are their bosses and are therefore entitled to know.

    Good luck to the politician who proposes this and has to go on TV after the first kidnap planned with its help.

  • @g My salary and tax burden (outwith private investments) is deducible…

    I dont think the proposal is to collate how much every person earns and then publish the results with each name replaced with a single character of the alphabet ;)

  • John Richardson 15th Jan '12 - 9:26am

    And what demonstrable benefits have Norwegians received from this deeply unpopular policy? Short of bumper profits for publishers of voyeuristic tabloid newspapers. None?

    What other information should we be forced to make public about ourselves with similarly weak justification? Health records. Bank account records. Any criminal record. Our biometrics. Organisational affiliations. Internet browsing history. Nosey neighbours, friends and colleagues MUST know! It’s for our own good, you know. Who knows what awful subversive activities we’re getting up to behind closed doors.

    Beyond that necessary for it to function, the state should not be deciding what individuals may consider private information and to who that information must be revealed. I would have thought that that principle is a fairly important tenet of liberalism as reflected in the constitution of the party:

    “We will at all times defend the right to speak, write, worship, associate and vote freely, and we will protect the right of citizens to enjoy privacy in their own lives and homes.”

  • TBH I think the biggest issue in all this, is not so much the privacy issue. It is more could you really expect the HMRC to be able to undertake such a challenge? Given the problems they have had over running and maintaining Tax Credits, writing of 10′s/100′s of millions in tax owed by large corporations, but chasing and demanding tax from ‘normal’ people – And given the woeful failure in the past of Govt. Depts. in the past over-running on IT projects, losing personal data of 100′s of thousands of people etc, I just think it would be an open-ended cheque for the Treasury to ‘grab n spend’ tax payers money.

    Given that the population of Norway is approx. 4.98 million (source: http://www.ssb.no/folkber_en/main.html), you are looking at probably less than 2.4 million working population – Compared to a working population of 29.1 million (source: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/lms/labour-market-statistics/december-2011/index.html) – Can you REALLY believe that HMRC could collate and publish such information, on time, on budget and keep that information secure and safe?

  • I am greatly disturbed that some people who consider themselves liberal see no problem with this.

  • So will all those asserting such a measure would be an intolerable breach of privacy lobby for public sector workers and academics to be able to keep their salaries secret?

  • Richard Swales 15th Jan '12 - 8:58pm

    @Simon, g
    We might know where our neighbour works, but we don’t necessarily know what pay grade he is on.

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