Ten things about your money and how they spend it

  • 23 November 2011
  • From the section UK Politics
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If you spend hours worrying whether you've got the best mobile phone tariff. If you look for three for two offers in the supermarket. If you collect those coupons that give you discounts - then you are like millions of others.

That's also the case if you don't know how much tax you pay, what the difference is between income tax or national insurance or what has VAT on it and what doesn't - even though the sums involved are much more significant.

If you happen to know how much of your money the government spends on debt interest or defence you are not one of millions, but one in a million.

That's what I've discovered making a two part series for BBC Two called Your Money And How They Spend It, which is airing at 9pm on the next two Wednesdays.

To whet your appetite, the BBC has produced a tax calculator to show what people like you pay in tax and get back in the form of government spending. We've also produced a list of things you (probably) never knew about your money and how they spend it:

1. More Of Us Are Winners Than Losers

Some 60% of households are net recipients from the Treasury - though it may not always feel that way. The top 10% of households contribute, on average, five times more than they get back. Our tax and spend calculator can't give you an exact account of your individual circumstances, but it will give you a ballpark figure of what households like yours pay in tax, and get back in benefits and services. It's not perfect, but it does give us a fascinating insight into whether we're net winners or losers.

2. The Big Three Are Taking a Growing Share of Your Money

Public spending is increasingly dominated by three big spending areas: social security, health and education. Together, they took up 60% of the total spending pie in 2010-11. Back in 1978-9 that figure was 45% (source: IFS). That's because there's been a shift of resources away from areas like defence, and towards the welfare state in its broadest sense, which has been happening for decades - under both Labour and the Tories.

3. Peters Stringfellow and Mandelson Agree on Something…

Both think that Winter Fuel Allowance - the benefit the government currently pays to all pensioners at this time of year to help with their fuel bills - should be changed. Peter Stringfellow tells me he was horrified to find he was getting an extra £200. Peter Mandelson agrees that the problem with the benefit is that it gives "a reasonably significant amount of money" to people who don't need it. So the two Peters agree, but will our frontbench politicians? Watch this debate run and run.

4. National Insurance and Income Tax are actually paying for the same things

Many of us still think that National Insurance pays exclusively for our pensions and health. In fact, it all effectively goes into the same pot for general expenditure - though our confusion is often rather convenient for politicians.

5. The Rich Pay More Than You Might Think

The top 1% of earners - just 300,000 people - pay 27% of all income tax. Of course, many people believe that the rich should pay more, but identifying who's "rich" - and getting them to stump up - is fiendishly difficult for our politicians.

6. The Difference Between Dog Food and Rabbit Food is…

You pay VAT on dog biscuits, but you don't pay VAT on rabbit food. It's just one example of the bewildering complexity of our tax system - with which we've had some real fun in the tax film. But woe betide any well-meaning politician with big ideas about simplifying it.

7. Debt Interest Gets More Than Defence

In 2010-11, we spent more paying interest on our national debt than we did defending the realm. It's worth remembering that there's an important difference between national debt - which is best thought of as the giant rolling overdraft of money we've borrowed down the years, often to pay for wars - and the deficit, which is the gap between spending and tax in any given year. That debt/deficit distinction is often confused in the heat of political debate.

8. Deficits Are The Norm

Deficits have been a feature of British political life for decades. In the early 1990s, for instance, John Major's Conservative government ran up a deficit of more than £50bn, or £77bn in today's money. The deficit which the coalition inherited is much bigger, but spending money we haven't got is nothing new.

9. There's More Trouble Down The Line

In a rather gloomy November, you wouldn't expect me to be bringing you good news, would you? The independent Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) has predicted a possible double whammy for our politicians in decades to come: that our ageing population will see even more pressure on big spending areas like pensions and health, and that tax revenues from areas like fuel duty and North Sea Oil are likely to decline. As if George Osborne hasn't got enough to worry about right now.

10. We Need A More Honest Debate

For much of the last 30 years, our politicians have promised higher spending, and lower taxes - and we've encouraged them. But the future pressures on spending are such that sooner or later all of us - journalists, voters, politicians - need to have a more honest debate about how our money's spent. That's likely to mean either accepting that we should do more for ourselves, or that we'll have to foot the bill. That's the really big thing I've taken away from making the series. I hope you enjoy the films - and that they kick-start that debate.

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