Sunday, 28 March 2010

Invasive taxation

Thanks to Tom Paine, I discovered an article by Henry Porter: Intercepting mail is worthy of the Stasi. Incredibly, you can find it at
The last days of this dreadful government are being accompanied by an attack on rights and privacy that seems unprecedented during Labour's 13-year rule.

The government is now drawing up plans to amend the Postal Services Act to allow tax inspectors to intercept and open people's mail before it is delivered. Given the state's ambitions to collect all communications data this is hardly surprising, but we must ask ourselves how many more rights are seized by government and its agencies before Britain becomes the GDR's most obvious European imitator.

Currently postal workers have the right to intercept suspicious letters and packages and pass them to HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and then at an agreed moment the item is opened in front of the addressee. The change in the law will mean that HMRC will be able to open whatever it likes without the addressee being present or being made aware of the interception.
Years ago I found myself in a dismal room at the Stasi headquarters in the East German town of Leipzig and saw the piles of opened mail left by Stasi officers when the Berlin Wall came down. There was a pulping machine, adapted from a piece of agricultural machinery, which had been hastily used to destroy the evidence of the massive programme of interception. It was an impressive sight and to me a lasting symbol of the East German dictatorship.

It seems extraordinary that we are about to allow the exact same type of interception to be established in Britain with such little complaint. How long will it be before we protest? Where is the political leadership needed to assert that these sorts of laws are unacceptable in a democracy? And for Pete's sake, how does the government square the measure with the rights to privacy "guaranteed" by its own Human Rights Act?
It is a truly frightening step, all the more frightening for the silence with which it has been received.

HMRC was also in the news recently for not answering the phone. Coverage focused on how to improve service, but that is surely the wrong solution. The real problem is that we have a tax system so complicated that phone calls to HMRC are required. A simplified tax system would deliver massive savings within HMRC, and even more significant savings in compliance costs. Rather than burning time and money on tax avoidance, companies and individuals would focus on what they do best, creating real wealth.

Porter's article highlights another danger of our current system. By tying contributions and rebates to our individual circumstances, it creates an incentive, or excuse, for the government to pry into our most private affairs.

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