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Nick de Bois MP: The bishops may be vocal on benefits, but why were they silent about 90% tax rates on the poor?

Debois-nickNick de Bois is the Member of Parliament for Enfield North. Follow Nick on Twitter.

The intervention from 43 Anglican bishops in the public debate on welfare benefits could not be more timely. As a country, we are in very choppy waters. Public policy decisions due to be made in the next few months and years will be critical to setting Britain’s future course. The bishops’ letter strikes a moral tone against limiting benefits rises to 1% a year for the next three years. But it is their position which should provoke moral outrage.

No-one wants to take away benefits from people who are worst off in society. No-one. The fact that we have to do so lies with the economic reality that, even in times of growth and prosperity, the previous Government increased the welfare bill by some 60%, to a staggering £200billion. To fund what the Government was giving with one hand, it simply took more with the other.

Labour took us to the position where, in Britain, the Government imposes high taxes on its citizens in order to give them back their own money in benefits. As Dr Liam Fox rightly argued yesterday:

“Today, we see the full destructive consequences of that behaviour with ordinary families paying too much tax so that it can be given back to them in benefits and credits… It is debilitating for society, demeaning for individuals and expensive for the taxpayer.”

The Welfare Trap that the last Government created ensnared five million people, and meant almost two million children were growing up in homes where nobody worked. Where was the moral outrage when the welfare system made it financially disadvantageous for the worst off in society to take a job instead of benefits? Was it not “deeply disproportionate” that some of the poorest and most vulnerable in society were subject to tax rates of 70%, 80% or even 90% due to the structure of the benefits system? It is disappointing that only now, with a Conservative-led Government seeking to free people from welfare dependency, that the bishops have found their voice.

William Hague as Party leader in 2003 made the moral case against government imposing high taxes on its citizens. “High taxes”, he said, “mean less freedom, less responsibility, less community, more dependency, a less elevated human condition”. It was right then, and it’s right now.

High taxes do of course mean less freedom. The more a government takes from a person in tax, the more it limits that person’s ability to follow their own values and preferences rather than someone else’s. “It is this recognition of the individual as the ultimate judge of his ends”, wrote Hayek, “the belief that as far as possible his own views ought to govern his actions, that forms the essence of the individualist position”.

More government activity funded by higher taxes then creates a downwards spiral. As the state gets larger, the individual gets smaller. But worse, the more the state grows by providing more for its citizens, the more its citizens come to expect from their government. The more we pay, the more we expect to see the state do for us and therefore the less responsible we become.

This downward spiral continues because when individuals begin to rely on the state more, community recedes. Eamonn Butler, Director of the Adam Smith Institute, spoke at a TaxPayers' Alliance event entitled “The Moral Case for Lower Taxes”. He explained how higher taxes mean less community, saying:

“Politicians and officials have their own interests and agendas when tax is taken from us… I think it promotes interest group politics because you have this wodge of public cash and people are vying for their share of it and they want other people to pay. It’s morally corrosive because it makes us think of ourselves as ‘groups’ which are supplicants to the state, and ‘let’s get our bit and stop everyone else getting theirs’”.

I look forward to even more Conservatives taking up this theme and resisting the urge to enter into a bidding war with Labour on who raises more tax.

And of course, with a Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill, higher taxes under Labour led to greater dependency. It is difficult to see how anyone could argue that trapping people into welfare dependency creates a more ‘elevated human condition’.

The moral arguments for reducing the welfare bill are there to be made, and as this week proves beyond all doubt, it is only Conservatives that will make them. Making difficult decisions in order to deliver welfare reform will stand as one of the Conservative-led Government’s proudest achievements. In 2015 when Britain chooses its Prime Minister, achievements like this will reinforce in people’s minds that Britain can continue on a clear course with David Cameron, or risk being sunk by putting Ed Miliband at the helm.


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