The tax system is the biggest barrier to growth

Outside of academic papers that too rarely see the light of day, most “research” is unremarkable in its optimism about the state of entrepreneurship in the UK. That’s why the RSA’s Growing Pains: How the UK became a nation of “micropreneurs” caught my eye. It paints a stark picture.

The UK, according to the report, has become a nation of micro businesses, while the proportion of high-growth businesses has plummeted: “UK businesses are becoming increasingly micro in size – reducing the overall potential for economic output and future growth, and increasing the economy’s reliance on a relatively small number of larger businesses.”

Since 2000, the proportion of businesses classified as micro (0-9 employees), as a share of all UK businesses has grown from 94.3 per cent of all private sector companies to 95.4%. This represents an additional 1.4 million micro firms and an increase over the same period of 43%.

“At the same time, the proportion of high-growth enterprises has declined sharply, falling by more than a fifth in the majority of regions since 2005.”

Although the number of high-growth firms is expected to rise over the coming years, the report cautions optimism: “performance is expected to remain below 2005 levels in all regions except London”.

So how can we solve the problem? According the entrepreneurs, the tax system (44%) is the biggest barrier to growth – ahead of a lack of bank lending (38%) and the cost of running a business (36%).

Another problem highlighted by the report is that entrepreneurs don’t know what the government is up to:

“Around three-quarters (73%) of small business leaders also say the Government must make it easier for SMEs to access the right information and support for growth. While several of the Government’s recent incentives to support SMEs are designed to address the top-cited barriers, perhaps this information is not reaching the people who need it the most.”

Two polices are put forward in the conclusion to help entrepreneurs. First, “continued reform of the apprenticeship scheme could help micro firms to grow out of this business size category”. Second, “more tax relief like the National Insurance holiday could also pay real dividends.” It would be worth exploring the former in detail (something I plan to work on), but I don’t think another NI holiday goes nearly far enough: Employers’ National Insurance should be scrapped entirely. And no just for small businesses.

Being an entrepreneur is tough. As the report points out, “the majority (55%) of new businesses don’t survive beyond five years.” Scrapping Employers’ NI is the logical place to start.

Philip Salter is director of The Entrepreneurs Network.

Another exercise in rewriting economic history

It is just so fun watching people rearranging the historical deckchairs to make sure that their tribe looks good and that the tribe of their opponents can be portrayed as those nasty, ‘orrible, people over there. And so it is with this latest from Ha Joon Chang:

First, let’s look at the origins of the deficit. Contrary to the Conservative portrayal of it as a spendthrift party, Labour kept the budget in balance averaged over its first six years in office between 1997 and 2002. Between 2003 and 2007 the deficit rose, but at 3.2% of GDP a year it was manageable.

Quite: in those first few years Blair and Brown held to the spending limits that had been suggested by the previous, outgoing, Tory government. On the basis that if anyone thought they were the spendthrift Labour party of old then they wouldn’t get elected. So there was, in there, a period of a public sector surplus. It’s only after the second election that they ripped up that idea of fiscal restraint and became that Labour party of old again. So “balance” over the six years is actually a couple of years of Tory policy then spend, spend, spend.

And a deficit of 3.2% a year might be manageable: except of course it wasn’t, was it? But more importantly it is a grave violation of the precepts of Keynesian economics to be having a deficit of any sort at that point in the economic cycle. If we are to take Keynesian demand management seriously (we don’t, but let us do so arguendo) then yes, there should be fiscal expansion in the slumps. But the counterpart to that is that in the boom there should be restraint: a surplus, not a deficit. This is not to pay off the previous debt, it’s not to create the borrowing room to provide the firepower for that next slump. It’s because demand management means that you temper the booms as well as the busts. Given that the middle part of the Brown/Blair Terror was in fact the tail end of the longest modern peacetime boom then the public accounts should have been healthily in surplus. In order to temper that boom.

Chang is doing an edit to history here, to show that his tribe is better than the other one. Given the circumstances of the time Labour really were sailor-type drunken loons going on a spree with the nation’s chequebook and don’t let anybody tell you different.

The mansion tax is theft, a bit at a time

Labour’s mansion tax was already starting to unravel even before Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls tried to save it with a few palliatives today. When you have left-wing Labour MP Diane Abbott complaining that the mansion tax would be little more than a tax on Londoners, and when other MPs and candidates nursing slim majorities are worrying that the tax might hit their own voters, and not just rich Tories, you know it’s time to throw in the towel.

Strange, is it not, how politicians never ask how they could cut their own spending, but only think about how they can raise taxes from other people. Mr Balls reckons he can raise £1.2bn from the tax, which he says would come in handy for the NHS, he reckons (though the emerging black hole in the NHS budget is much larger than that). How does he know? He says much of the tax would come from foreigners with big houses in London, but does not seem to know how many of them there are. No, as usual, it will be the Great British public who foot most of the bill, and not just the rich. Tens of thousands of homes in London will be caught by it, for example, where the average price in a ‘prime area’ will probably hit the £2m mansion tax threshold by the time of the 2015 election. And ‘prime’ includes areas like Battersea and Clapham, not just swanky Kensington and Chelsea.

There are already plenty of taxes on property. Not only is there the council tax, but there is stamp duty when you buy a house and inheritance tax when you give it to your kids. Now the plan is to add another, of perhaps £4,000 a year.

We all know what will happen. The tax will be imposed on properties of £2m, and over the years, thanks to (politician-created) inflation and (politician-created) planning restrictions, the cost of property will rise. More and more properties will be hit by the ‘mansion’ tax (yes, including broom cupboards in Kensington), just as more and more people now pay the 40% higher rate of income tax, which was originally targeted at the wealthy but is now paid by people like teachers and police officers.

And our tax (and subsidy) system is already highly progressive. Wealthier people pay higher taxes of many kinds, while poorer areas get subsidies through the local government finance system.

The mansion tax is theft, a bit at a time. There will be many people who happen to live in large houses but have little or nothing in the way of income (such as those on pensions) with which to pay the tax. Perhaps the house was their childhood home and they can’t face moving. Moving is a strain even for the most robust of us. Ed Balls says, well maybe poorer people could defer the tax until they sell the house or pass it on after their death. But that makes the tax even more complicated – it is going to need a means test and a lot of extra bureaucracy, more lines on the tax form and all the stuff that has already got us in such an overtaxed bureaucratic pickle. This is a tax we could well do without.

HMRC, you had one job

It can be frustrating to state the obvious. But, typical to its nature, HMRC has forced me to do just that.

In 2013, the average Briton had to work 150 days into the year to pay their total tax bill. Not until May 30th did UK residents stop working for the Chancellor and started earning for themselves

It’s simple, really. Brits earn the money, and HMRC arranges to have it taken away through a variety of different taxes—VAT, National Insurance, and of course, income tax.

It’s a tough job the HMRC has—to tax and tax some more—but it’s probably safe to say the average earner has the harder job – to supply both the government with the funds it needs to run the country, and the funds she (and potentially her family) need to live on.

So it should be expected, at the very least, that the taxation process be as smooth and simple for the earner as possible; that those 150 days worth of earnings be transferred without fuss…

If only. From The Telegraph:

“Four months ago, HM Revenue & Customs admitted it had collected the wrong amount of tax from more than five million people in the 12 months to April 2014.

Since then, the taxman has sent those affected notification letters explaining how it would claw back or issue refunds for on average £300.

In an email leaked to The Telegraph, a select group of senior HMRC staff and accountants were told “thousands” of mistakes were made.

The recipients were advised to tell taxpayers who questioned their bills “not to repay any underpayment” of tax.

It said anyone who had overpaid tax should not cash any cheques they had received. Anyone who has already cashed a cheque will see the money potentially clawed back if a mistake has been made.”

Mistakes happen, sure. But such levels of incompetence, without any offer of compensation, can only be the work of the public sector.

In almost any exchange between a customer and a private business, over-charges and under-charges play out in the customer’s best interest. If a hotel or restaurant accidentally over-charges you, a refund is surely made (often with sincere apologies and some form of compensation for the trouble). If a grocery store under-charges you for fruit purchased, no letter comes through the post asking you to make up the sum.

But when HMRC makes not one bad calculation, but a series of wrong calculations for millions of customers, the inconvenience falls on the taxpayer, who will have to make up the difference calculated or wait months for her rebate.

Of course, taxation isn’t a voluntary transaction, the taxpayer isn’t considered a customer, and the government’s a monopoly—so blatant incompetency shouldn’t be a surprise at all.

It sounds like we’ve the possibility of a deal here

These new figures do need to be taken with a pinch of salt, of course. But even so there does arise the possibility of an interesting deal:

Kevin Farnsworth, a senior lecturer in social policy at the University of York, has spent the best part of a decade studying corporate welfare – delving through Whitehall spreadsheets and others, and poring over Companies House filings. He’s just produced what is, as far as I know, the first ever comprehensive audit of the British corporate welfare state.

The figures, to be published in a forthcoming report, are astonishing. Farnsworth takes the financial year 2011-12 and tots up the subsidies and grants paid directly to businesses. They amount to over £14bn – that is, almost three times the £5bn paid out that year in income-based jobseeker’s allowance.

Add to that the corporate tax benefits, the value of the cheap credit made available to banks and other business, the insurance schemes run by the government to protect exporters, the marketing for British business laid on by Vince Cable’s ministry, the public procurement from the private sector … Farnsworth calculates that direct corporate welfare costs British taxpayers just shy of £85bn a year.

No, let’s not try to pry into the accuracy of those numbers for a moment. Let us, for the sake of argument, take them to be true. And let us add one more piece of data. Corporation tax revenues run around £40 billion a year or so. So, if we are to believe these new figures it would appear that we’ve the possibility of a very promising agreement here. From our side the simple abolishment of corporation tax and also the abolishment of all that corporate welfare sounds like a great idea. And clearly those who believe that number for corporate welfare should also leap at such a deal. The Exchequer would be, by those numbers, near £40 billion a year better off.

The only problem with this deal is that those who claim to believe those corporate welfare numbers simply wouldn’t take it. Meaning that they might not believe in them quite as much as they say they do.