Taxing our way to a fairer society?

Sunday 21 October, 3.15pm until 4.45pm, Conservatory

Not since the American Revolution has taxation been such a pressing political cause. Conservative chancellor George Osborne recently vowed to tackle the ‘shocking’ level of tax avoidance among the super rich. Lib Dem Danny Alexander called it ‘morally indefensible’. And Labour’s Ken Livingstone slammed the ‘rich bastards’ who ‘just don’t get it’, arguing that ‘no one should be allowed to vote in a British election, let alone sit in parliament, unless they pay their full share of tax’. It’s not just been a cause for the political mainstream. Youthful radicals UK Uncut have mounted a high-profile campaign against companies and individuals deemed to be cheating HMRC. Rarely it seems has the tax man, historically a figure of popular disdain, been so lauded - as comedian Jimmy Carr recently discovered to his cost. But what’s driving this obsession with how much tax people are paying?

For many, the issue is principally about fairness. ‘How would I explain to my secretary’, said ex-Marks and Spencer chairman Stuart Rose after a high-income tax cut last year, ‘that I am getting less tax on my income, which is palpably bigger than hers, when hers is not going down?’. Such concerns have come to the fore now, campaigners point out, because of the economic crisis. We are not all in this together, it seems. ‘The evidence of systematic tax avoidance by rich individuals and UK-based companies’, argued business secretary Vince Cable, ‘strikes a particularly ugly note in these straitened times’. Campaigners argue tax avoidance deprives the public purse of anything between £7 billion and £25 billion each year, and suggest recovering this money would reduce the need for cuts. But can a more rigorous taxation system really provide a solution to rising levels of public debt, let alone the economic crisis? If the recent calls for making people’s tax returns public are any indication, the tax crusaders are as keen on stigmatising wealth as redistributing it. As one columnist put it: ‘What is there to hide, except dishonesty or moral shame at earning multiples more than others who work as hard or harder?’ So is the campaign against tax avoidance driven by a desire to plant one on the nose of the rich for being, well, rich?

Is it a problem if the campaign against tax avoidance is more moralistic than practical? While exploiting loopholes to save money, or enjoying a lower level of top-rate income tax, may be legal, is it just? Should the rich be forced to give more to the tax man in the interests of fairness, or is this itself an unfair attack on people’s freedom to enjoy their own wealth?

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Rowenna Davis
Labour councillor, Southwark; prospective parliamentary candidate for Southampton Itchen; author, Tangled Up in Blue

Rob Killick
CEO, Clerkswell; author, The UK After The Recession

Dominic Morris
director of group public affairs, Lloyds Banking Group

Lydia Prieg
researcher in finance and business, New Economics Foundation

Dr Jamie Whyte
philosopher and writer; author, Crimes Against Logic and Quack Policy

Dr Tim Black
editor, Spiked Review

Produced by
Dr Tim Black editor, Spiked Review
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
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