The chancellor’s Budget decision to give pensioners more control over their pension pot was a great example of how politicians should trust the electorate to make sensible decisions. Let’s have more of it
Last week the chancellor took a step on the economic ascent to the UK’s future.
It wasn’t to do with the rarefied air of macro-economic policy; it was far more profound: the chancellor performed a simple act of trust. There were politics and statistical economics involved too, but at its heart was an act of faith: to give pensioners control over their own pension pots.
This philosophy, if widened, could have much broader impacts, including in our own industry.
When the welfare state was conceived and introduced, Britain was a very different country to the one we live in today. It was still very class conscious, still some way from being the meritocratic society that we embrace today, still a long way from enlightenment on areas such as equal rights in the work place.
But as Britain has changed, some of our most treasured institutions have not - and nor has the patronising notion that people can’t be trusted to make choices about their own money. That tricky task of changing the cultural weather through legislation falls to politicians.
However, all those of us who care about the future of this country must be prepared to contribute solutions as well as observations; we must be willing to offer alternatives not merely a critique of the status quo. For the business community this obligation is particularly present.
If welfare spending is the insurance structure of UK society, then taxation is the enabler. Whenever the public spending debate emerges, as it has under the coalition, the temptation is to dwell on the politics of tax take and tax spend, rather than on reminding ourselves of what we already know: that public spending is an act made possible from the collection of real funds, not from some magical pot. It comes from the pockets of the work force. Public money is so called because it is raised from the public, from us.
Britain has changed but some of our most treasured institutions have not - and nor has the patronising notion that people can’t be trusted to make choices about their own money
It’s probably too much to ask in a country of 60+ million people that we’d all be happy with every decision about tax and spend, but surely we would all feel slightly more engaged with the process if our input wasn’t limited to a once-in-five-years chance to vote in a general election. There are many ways in which that sense of engagement could be enhanced, but the ability to influence how our tax is spent seems like a good starting point.
I am not arguing for a free-for-all; governments are elected by a democratic process based on the policies on which it campaigned. Once elected, a government must be allowed to get on with the job for which it was chosen.
But, imagine how empowered the electorate would feel if it was given a small measure of choice over where its own hard-earned money was spent. Whitehall will no doubt revert to high Sir Humphrey mode at this suggestion. But we are a mature nation, a mature economy and a people capable of making choices and decisions that have characterised our progress over centuries of success in the face of challenges and opportunities.
Having faith in the people is a long-toothed political claim. The chancellor’s move to allow pensioners more control over their pension pots is a positive proof of this claim (the response that people can’t be trusted not to blow their lump sum on holidays and such is insulting).
Now go a step further: extend that faith to a small box on the bottom of a tax return that invites us to hypothecate just a small percentage of our tax to an area of our choice: education, transport, health, defence, housing, take your pick. I don’t doubt that there’d be a whole lot of box-ticking for housing and infrastructure from taxpayers in our own industry.
But so too perhaps from people waiting in line for a roof over their heads that they can recognise as theirs and can see as security and stability for their family. So too taxpayers working in planning… and so on.
That box marked “trust” has been opened. Don’t stop now.
James Wates is chairman of Wates, the CITB and UKCG