It’s typical of the way Parliament works that what has been mandatory for local councils to do is only now becoming a consideration for central government: sending taxpayers a breakdown of how their money is spent each year. For years this has been the norm in local government, but when central government told councils to do it, it missed itself off the list.
It looks as if that is going to be remedied this year, and generally it is good news. A lot rests on presenting the information in a clear and balanced way. Arguments over the wording of referendum questions show how hard it can be to pick neutral wording that does not influence people’s views.
The political fallout could be very mixed. Take the figures from the Treasury’s example mock-up. This person has paid £2,438.12 in tax, of which only £12.13 went to the EU. Pro-Europeans are likely to cheer the distribution of that sort of knowledge. Development campaigners too are likely to see their hand strengthened by the low figure for overseas aid – £24.26.
What about welfare figures? It’s no coincidence that Tim Montgomerie has highlighted the £812.71 figure. Pointing out that around a third of the tax paid has gone on welfare is, if anything, likely to increase the public scepticism about total levels of welfare spending.
But, but, but… in there is the big figure for old age support: £342.06. The high propensity to vote of pensioners and the strong emotional impact of people such as impoverished war veterans make most politicians run a mile for anything that suggests treating pensioners less well. Seeing quite how much money goes to pensions may, however, make people rather keener on targeted rather than universal benefits for older people.
There is plenty more to pick through in the other figures, and plenty of argument to come over quite what they show (especially as direct taxes are a long way short of all taxes). However, expect the annual statements to trigger significant shifts in the background of public instincts against which all politicians and campaigners have to operate.