Why election candidates shouldn’t have to publish their tax returns

Remember all the stuff Liberal Democrats such as Vince Cable have been saying for years about how our tax system catches too much income and not enough wealth? You know what – I believe that, and I haven’t suddenly forgotten it in the last few days.

So the idea that somehow getting people to publish their tax returns really gives you a sense of how well-off they are is as flawed as the idea that the tax system those returns illustrate manages to catch how well-off you are. For the same reason that the tax system is out of kilter, so too is the information you get from people’s tax returns. Huge wealth can barely figure in them.

But it’s not just Liberal Democrats I agree with. I even, ssssssh!, agree with Ken Livingstone. Well, a little bit. He may have had convenient political reasons for calling for the tax figures from the households of candidates to be published and not just those from the candidates themselves. But he did actually have a fair point that often you cannot really understand one person’s income and wealth, or indeed their attitude towards paying over tax, without also understanding that of the other people in their household.

Is someone aggressively trying to minimise the amount of tax they pay? If you want to know that, you can’t just look at their own tax return. That raises a rather thorny problem. Do you really count a spouse as financially part of the same unit as the candidate? Moving from household to individual taxation was a good move forward for equality, treating people in their own right rather than as someone elses’ appendage.

But can you really ignore the household arrangements if you are getting into publishing the tax affairs of candidate? Think of that aggressively tax minimising politician whose activities you perhaps want brought to light. You think they’re suddenly going to soft-pedal on how finances can be arranged within their household and you’ll get a full picture from just their own tax return?

Of course not, so better through in the tax return for their spouse too. To hell with the privacy of spouses it is then. Oh, and hang on… What about the children? Or parents? Remember all those questions about trusts for children and trusts from parents that have come up in the news in the last few years? Transparency needs to catch them too.

But wait: all this is ok in the name of avoiding politicians who are hypocrites? Bit of transparency keeps them nice and honest, hey? Just a shame if a few others have to sacrifice privacy along the way too, but remember the big picture of transparency and honesty?

Well, I’m partial to a bit of transparency and honesty. But a good test of any claimed principle – to see if it really is a decent principle or just shoddy anger dressed up in a fake shroud of respectability – is to try it out in a slightly different scenario.

So let’s take an area where politicians frequently make decisions and express views in public. And where there is something about their private affairs which will reveal if they are being hypocritical or secretly furthering their own interests.

In fact, let’s take “private affairs” literally and have the complete sexual history of each candidate published. How else can we know if they are being a hypocrite or not when talking of marriage? Best insist on details of any and all contraception involved when it’s mixed-sex arrangements too, as you never know when they’ll be voting on a health budget for contraceptive advice or pontificating on the size of other people’s families.

Or perhaps, just possibly, the forced revelation of a politician’s private life should be the rare exception and not the eagerly desired norm?

* Mark Pack is Party President and Co-leader of the party. He is editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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9 Comments

  • I agree with Mark. Judge politicians and their challengers by the policies on which they stand and their actions in office.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 11th Apr '12 - 12:03pm

    I agree with Stuart. Would someone like to disagree, in order to get the debate going?

  • Tom Papworth 11th Apr '12 - 12:47pm

    There’s a great debate among Liberal Reform people about tax in general, but it’s taking place on the Facebook Page and not on LDV.

  • Richard Dean 11th Apr '12 - 1:02pm

    Nick (Clegg and Not Clegg). I am happy to oblige.

    Mark’s primary objection is that the exercise will be INEFFECTIVE. “Huge wealth can barely figure” in tax returns. Well, that may be the present situation, but everything is a step at a time. Let’s take the first step – publish the returns – then later we can take the next steps so that, eventually, huge wealth will indeed show up.

    As part ofn this objection, he observes that there are plemty of ways around regulations, so we would also need to publish the spouse’s returns, and the children, etc. This introduces the vexed topic of HUMAN RIGHTS. But would we really? If those people contributed to a candidate’s expenses or income, then maybe, and indeed maybe it is then right. But if the candidate does not benefit from them, there would surely be no need.

    Then his active imagination carries him off into the realms of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. How typically British to want to know wvery detail. This is all about SIN and RELIGIOUS BLUSTER disguised as rational argument. But think … If people put themselves forward as examples to follow, then we are justifed in asking whether they practice what they preach! If people have interests in, say breast implant manufacturers, then certainly we want to know that when assessing a candidate who is to make judgments on the suitability or otherwise of breast implants on the NHS.

    All in all, the only logical, self-consistent conclusion is that politicians occupy the same TELEVISUAL FIRMAMENT as pop stars, footballers, dragons, the queen, and major criminals. But worse, their decisions actually matter – those decisions affect our lives, sometimes very adversely. WE HAVE RIGHTS TOO!!!!! Therefore, we are entitled to know everything that goes into the making of thoise decsions, and if that means we need to pry into every nook and cranny, then so be it.

    Finally, I would like to point out that all this invasion onto the privacy of a politican, plus family and acquaintances, is entirely consistent with LIBERALISAM and DEMOCRACY. Afterall, politicians are free to choose some other career. Anyway some may even like the exposure!

    I challenge anyone to come up with any rational counter-argument! 🙂

  • Yes and no. Again this issue seems to be about a simplistic answer to complex and difficult problems. Britain seems unable to THINK anything through. I’m not saying the problems are unsolvable but it seems more and more people want quick fixes to complex problems. A hangover from Labour?

    Again publishing tax returns may help the whole “politicians are not like us debate” but as I said, you may have very adequate reasons for wanting to be a Ltd company rather than a sole trader, but you’ll face criticsm because the rate of Corporation Tax is lower than that of Personal Tax. That’s the problem, rather than a privacy issue. Not saying CT should necessarily go higher, or PT go lower, but that is essentially the issue.

    Solving the “politicians are not like us debate” could be better done by having better representation in Parliament, which again comes down to money a lot more. There has to be a better way.

    Tax is stupidly complex in this country, with money being paid to the mother, when it may be the father doing the bulk of the childcare. It’s a long and complex argument, which I think is your point. I don’t think this means we shouldn’t be having it, but that we as a country need more talent and stomach for reasoned argument then we currently do have.

    Rather like your an

  • John Richardson 11th Apr '12 - 1:22pm

    Finally, I would like to point out that all this invasion onto the privacy of a politican, plus family and acquaintances, is entirely consistent with LIBERALISAM and DEMOCRACY. Afterall, politicians are free to choose some other career.

    I don’t see any exemption for politicians in Article 8 of the ECHR: ” Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.”. Candidates for office should not be forced to reveal anything about themselves, full stop. In fact, if certain candidates choose to reveal their tax affairs and this places duress on the other candidates then such revelations should be explicitly prohibited! Full participation in the democratic process should not require people to give up their basic human rights.

  • I don’t agree with Mark. I do judge people not on how wealthy they are but on how according to how aggressively they avoid tax if those same people seek a role setting the tax for the whole nation. Just the same as I care about a person’s criminal record if they want to be a judge, lawyer or a cop. It’s true that information will be partial, but part of something is better than nothing. I want to see who pays my politicians, a register of members interests is too late.

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