Across the country this month millions of us will be receiving tax returns from the government with colourful, sexy-looking pie charts on them, helpfully outlining where all our tax is being spent. This is, according to George Osborne, a revolution in transparency over how people’s money is being used by the government.
My own tax return, its shiny little pie chart practically glowing with a sense of its own transparency, arrived through the door yesterday. The first thing that struck me and shocked me about it was that the largest part – a whole quarter – was taken up by the term "welfare". Could it really be true that welfare receives more money than any other part of the public sector? More than health? More than education? Something seemed untransparent here.
Like everyone else's, my pie chart shows the largest segment of tax going on welfare (24.5 per cent) followed by health (18.9 per cent), education (13.2 per cent) and state pensions (12.1 per cent). But what is the definition of welfare here? Is it consistent with previous Government definitions of the word? Does it contain spending that the average person would normally associate with the word welfare? Does it include spending that should, more logically, be grouped into other categories?
In fact the document makes all of the above misrepresentations. Firstly, according to the independent fact checking organisation, fullfact.org, the definition of the term "welfare" as a spending category was created especially for this statement. The government previously defined the term "welfare" when it introduced the welfare cap.
However the new definition is different, containing more spending categories than before. These new inclusions comprise things like "personal social services" (like home care and child protection), and, perhaps most glaring of all, a category called "other pensions" which includes teachers’ and other state employees’ pensions. How does that make sense, especially when there is already a separate category for pensions? I don’t know about you, but teachers’ pensions are not something that I have ever associated with the term "welfare".
Another misrepresentation is lumping fire services in with "criminal justice", handily bulking up the amount of money that seems to be spent on crime. Then there’s the category called "environment" which, although not big, is at least reassuringly visible, until you find out that 73 per cent of this is "waste management" or rubbish collection. I must remember to hail my bin man as an environmental worker when he comes tomorrow.
These statements are being delivered through the doors of 24m tax payers at a cost of £5m of our own money (will future pie charts have a segment labelled "cost of these pie charts"?) That’s 24m people across the UK who will be opening these letters and thinking, “That’s a lot of money to spend on the unemployed. Maybe the Tories are right; maybe we do need to make more cuts to welfare spending.” What a nice coincidence then that this comes after George Osborne signalled that he wants to make a further £12bn worth of cuts to welfare spending. Who knows, it might even get people thinking, “Maybe I should vote Conservative after all, rather than Labour or Green who’d only increase spending on welfare.” Again, a coincidence that these pie charts come winging through our doors in the run up to the general election? Don’t be silly, this is all about transparency, right?
The word "transparency" in the mouth of the Tory government is like the words “won’t feel a thing” in the mouth of a dentist. These "transparent" tax returns are nothing more than targeted pamphleteering for government propaganda, designed to make us believe their hype that cutting money to the poor and needy and giving it to the rich is good for the country.