TaxPersonal TaxCaesar, his wife and the taxman

Caesar, his wife and the taxman

Individuals' tax affairs are sacrosanct. A tax inspector who breaks confidentiality is the Inland Revenue equivalent of a priest disclosing a penitent's confession.

Yet this secrecy has now been violated. Lord Levy’s tax affairs are plastered all over the press, accompanied by pages of speculation. Is this right?

Is Lord Levy not a citizen too, entitled to the same privacy as other people?

However, by taking high office, Lord Levy has set himself apart. He is the equivalent of Caesar’s wife, and his behaviour should be ‘above suspicion’.

His activities will be more carefully scrutinised than those of ordinary mortals, and actions that could be misinterpreted are thus best avoided.

This is not to justify the illegal acquisition of tax information, if that is what occurred in Lord Levy’s case. But those in high office should not rely on secrecy to protect themselves. Good tax advisers work on the principle of ‘full disclosure’. This means that, if challenged by the Revenue, they are prepared to explain and justify every step in their transactions.

Ministers should operate on the same basis. In all aspects of their lives, they should be prepared, if challenged, to place their cards face up on the table. We, the public, are not unreasonable. But neither are we stupid.

When a hidden fact has come to light, no matter by what means, we look for a straightforward, honest, and speedy explanation. And in the public mind, hypocrisy comes a close second to dishonesty.

Lord Levy is a millionaire holding high office in a government that has explicitly and repeatedly attacked tax avoidance. When it comes to light that he has paid only £5,000 in tax, the public’s curiosity is naturally roused. Just as the Tories lost votes when their ‘back to basics’ campaign collapsed following allegations about MPs’ private lives, so New Labour’s moral high ground is threatened by this sort of disclosure.

Those who live in glass houses should open their curtains. This is better than relying on the fact that throwing stones is illegal.

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