London

London elections: The taxing issue that will not go away

  • 10 April 2012
  • From the section London

Refreshed by the solemnities - or chocolate - of Easter, for many the race to run London has now begun in earnest.

It could be close. It could turn on a number of things. But one drone seems unlikely to be banished from the ears.

The Green Party's Jenny Jones said on BBC Newsnight last week that the only way to end the recent distraction and squabbling over personal taxation would be for all the mayoral candidates to publish details of their income and what was paid on it.

Despite the release of some basic information so far, this may prove unlikely.

It may be diverting some attention from the major issues.

Complete picture

But now it has unleashed pressure for members of the government to declare their financial circumstances as well, and in other words become a firm narrative, then why stop here? Why stop, when only so little is known?

If the arrangements of Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson are now of legitimate public interest, then arguably Londoners need a complete picture on all sides.

How else can voters assess private behaviour against public pronouncement and judge overall fitness for the job?

Do you go for the Labour man accused of not practicing what he preaches?

Elements of complexity

Or the Tory mayor whose big extra-curricular earnings subject him to allegations he is a major beneficiary of tax reductions he has so heartily advocated?

What we have had so far are statements of personal earnings and taxation. They are partial and second-hand, coming from campaign teams and accountants.

But if we are going to do this properly, why confine it to a narrow view of income and corporation tax?

Most people's financial affairs have some elements of complexity. And with companies, second homes and the lot involved here, don't we now need to know it all?

Certainly, some believe what should happen is both publication in full of the candidates' actual annual tax return documents and more besides.

To ensure no imbalance or partiality, why shouldn't disclosure now encompass all sources of income, including shares or savings, any arrangements to minimise tax liabilities - for instance capital gains, mortgages on properties, arrangements with spouses, trust funds, any dividends or benefits to all involved, salaries to employees, expenses set against tax and any devices used to spread income - for instance advances or royalties for book deals - over subsequent years.

In short, where all the money goes.

The big problem is that, unlike in the United States, this is new territory and there is no system nor individual in place to arbitrate.

Unless some independent accountant or watchdog steps rapidly into the breach to act as honest broker and cast an impartial eye across the paperwork, there is a danger of innuendo and argument pervading the whole campaign.

Read carefully those who've taken an active interest in these matters so far. It's not just what they know but the timing of further disclosures which will be intended to wound.

It is a drone Londoners can probably live with.

But it would be a pity if it drowns out a genuine debate about the capital's future and which course should be steered through choppy waters to optimise the benefit to the most people possible.

Ah yes, talking about money, there's a budget of £15bn of public funds to manage.

Done the job

And as a recent survey for BBC London suggested , the public do not think there is much between Mr Johnson and Mr Livingstone on who is likely to make best use of it.

Over the next three weeks we will hear a lot from the candidates about what they will do.

Some may think it is worth listening closely more to how they will do it.

Unusually for an election, there is a main choice between two people who have done the job already.

There are records to assess and compare.

It should thus be possible to conclude who does - or is going to do - what they say they will do.

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