Would you make your tax return public?

12 April 2016

When their tax return information was published, Prime Minister David Cameron and leader of the SNP Nicola Sturgeon indicated that they were doing this for reasons of tax transparency. Chancellor George Osborne, before he published his tax return information, also made clear his support for tax transparency.

The funny thing about transparency is that you either have it or you don’t. There is really no such thing as 'a little bit of transparency' or 'partial transparency'.

So, in deciding who should be required to publish their tax information and who should not, where should the line be drawn? Here are some possibilities:

  • the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition (who has also now published his tax return information)? This is the position favoured by the Prime Minister.
  • all members of the Cabinet?
  • all Members of Parliament?
  • all company directors?
  • all senior civil servants, local authority officials and others who have a significant impact on the lives of citizens?

Suddenly, the idea of all or nothing begins to look relatively attractive. So what might be the advantages or disadvantages of requiring HMRC to give everybody access to everybody else’s tax returns? Here are a few thoughts. I should stress that the lists are not complete but they might act as interesting starters for further thought.

Reasons for maintaining tax return secrecy:

  • Personal privacy – this is a huge consideration, especially in the UK;
  • Protection against identity theft and other forms of financial fraud;
  • Suppression of snooping and those intent on creating sensationalist stories using hitherto private data in which there is no legitimate public interest.
And what about factors favouring disclosure?
  • In a crowded society, openness and transparency remove barriers between different parts of society.
  • Reduction in gender pay discrimination.
  • Potential to reduce inequality as measured by the ratio between the highest- and lowest-earning person in any particular company.

There is a mass of issues here, personal and society-wide, subjective and objective.

But what do you think? We’d love it if you could spare a few seconds to complete our Twitter poll. All that is required is a simple yes/no answer. In a very non-transparent way we definitely won’t reveal the identities of those who do respond, but if enough people respond we will let you know how many are for the publication of everybody’s tax returns, and how many are against, in next week’s Tax Brief.

For more information on this please contact George Bull.