Raising the NI threshold would have cross-party support

In Wednesday’s Budget we saw the personal allowance threshold rise again; starting April 2016, earnings up to £10,800 will be tax-exempt.

The coalition knows that raising the personal allowance is a politically popular idea (not to mention good public policy). It’s great to see them inch slightly closer to taking minimum wage earners out of income tax all together.

But given how in-tune they are with the tax relief this policy provides to low earners, it’s hard to make sense of their decision to ignore the National Insurance threshold, which currently sits well below the personal allowance threshold at £7,956/year. 

Especially when it would be politically popular to address it.

A pre-Budget poll from YouGov asked Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem and UKIP respondents which policies they would support or oppose if the Chancellor were to announce them on Wednesday. The policy that received the most support (83%) was raising the personal allowance threshold to £11,000, followed by “raising the National Insurance threshold, so it is no longer paid by the lowest earners”, which received 71% support.

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It gets even more interesting if you break it down by party. On NI, both Conservatives and Lib Dems supported the policy with a 75% majority, followed closely by Labour at 72%. UKIP brought the average down slightly, but with a significant majority still favouring the policy at 68%.

Getting the poor out of tax has strong cross-party support and the Chancellor should, in theory, be able to implement changes to the NI threshold without extreme push back from any opposition parties. Yes, the coalition should be credited for their reforms to the personal allowance, but now is hardly the time to go soft on a bad tax that continues to hit the poor hard.

Osborne’s cuts take us back to the dark days of, umm, 2001

It’s good to see that we’re not the only people who have realised that Osborne’s cuts are not about to plunge the nation back into the penury of the 1930s. We’re actually going back to the dark old days of 2001:

Because the government does not want to raise taxes to fund these plans, public spending is forecast to fall from 41% of GDP today to just 35% by the end of the decade.

That has prompted accusations that the government wants the country to go back to the late-1930s—and the Britain Orwell describes in his cri de coeur against poverty. The Office of Budget Responsibility, Britain’s fiscal watchdog, stated that Mr Osborne’s plans would force public spending down “below the previous post-war lows reached in 1957-58 and 1999-00 to what would probably be its lowest level in 80 years”. “You’re back to the land of Road to Wigan Pier”, one BBC journalist roared. The opposition Labour party also sensed good electioneering material; on December 17th, Ed Miliband accused the prime minister of wanting to send Britain “back to the 1930s”.

Hmm, well, yes:

Stripping away the hyperbole about Mr Osborne’s plans shows that in reality they only amount to a reduction to the levels of public spending seen in 2002-03 in real terms, or 2001-02 in real terms per capita. The government could, back then, clearly afford a welfare state, as it will be able to still do in 2020.

You might think this a tad cynical, in fact, so do we think it a tad cynical. But then we are cynical about politics. Blair and Brown were elected: they stuck to the previous Tory budget plans for their first couple of years. Then they let rip: raising public spending as a portion of GDP from the levels it had so painfully been managed down to. No, this isn’t bank bailouts, nor is it just the result of the recession. It was a deliberate plan for what they thought would be a better Britain (obviously we disagree on that betterness). All that is being done now is a reversal of that Brown Terror and splurge. You might agree that this should happen, you might think that it should not, but those screaming that it’s a return to the 30s well, here’s the cynicism: we think they’re the people that that extra money has been spent on these past 12 years. No one likes to see the gravy train shunting back into the yard one last time, do they?

Is this a fiddle in the Autumn Statement?

As we all know, knowledge is local and dispersed. A corollary of this is that you, the readers collectively, will always know more on any specific subject than one single writer on this side of the software. At which point to ask you a question.

We’ve got the BBC telling us that public spending is going to fall to levels not seen since the 1930s. This does seem unlikely: although if we could get government back to the sort of levels of interference in our lives of the 1930s that would be both nice and an achievement.

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) says spending on public services is heading for an 80-year low.

In its report accompanying the Autumn Statement, it projected that spending by central government on public services was going to fall from 21.2% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2009-10 to 12.6% in 2019-20.

As a proportion of GDP, that would probably take spending on public services to its lowest since the 1930s.

That report is here.

Note that this isn’t public spending as a whole: this is nothing to do with pensions or the welfare state or other transfer payments. This is solely what is spent upon public services, not money shuffled from one citizen to another.

And the question is, how important is that word “central” in that calculation?

For example, just imagine we moved NHS funding from its current system to the Swedish or Danish one? There it is, respectively, the counties and the communes that raise and spend the taxation that pays for the health care systems. That money simply doesn’t flow through the national treasury nor the central government (which is why Denmark’s standard national income tax rate is 3.76% and the top one 15%). We can all think of reasons why this might be better (local accountability, greater efficiency) and possibly some that it might be worse (postcode lottery!). But it’s not obvious that there’s either less or more government spending on public services in either system: but there’s obviously a huge difference (as much as 10% of GDP) in central government spending.

So, of this reduction in central government spending on public services how much is a reduction in government spending on public services and how much is just the movement from central to some other level of government spending?

We could argue that the Scottish and Welsh NHSs, for example, are covered by the Parliament and the Assembly, therefore aren’t any longer central government. There’s a change coming in the allocation of business rates. As was these were all collected centrally and then apportioned. The new system will see some being retained locally and spent locally: if that a reduction in central spending but not in public spending? As things become devolved do they fall out of central spending but still remain public spending?

In other words, how much of this reduction is not really a reduction, just changes in the budgets that the spending is coming from?

Over to you: and let there be more light than heat.

It’s time the government let adults – even the smokers – grow up

While the under-12s and orchestras hit the jackpot in yesterday’s Autumn Statement, tobacco companies were subtly thrown under the bus, as the Chancellor quietly committed to a consultation to determine how much more money tobacco companies should be contributing to public services; a pledge Labour has already signed on to as well.

Specifically, the consultation will look at the “introduction of a levy on tobacco manufactures and importers,” which could raise taxes on tobacco companies by millions of pounds a year.

From the Independent:

The tobacco industry should pay for the costs it imposes on British society, the Chancellor has said, signalling that the Government will back a levy on tobacco manufacturers and importers.

In a low-key Autumn Statement announcement, George Osborne committed the Government to a consultation on how tobacco companies could make bigger contributions to the public purse.

Specifically he said:

Smoking imposes costs on society, and the Government believes it is therefore fair to ask the tobacco industry to make a greater contribution.

The Government will shortly launch a consultation on introducing a levy on tobacco manufacturers and importers.

My colleague Ben has just recently addressed these ‘costs on society’ the Chancellor references, and debunked a fair few of them. He also pointed out the known, positive effects of nicotine, and reminded us that, despite all the lies perpetuated around smoking and NHS spending, smokers, on average, take up less health expenditure over their lifetime than non-smokers do.

My two-cents goes something like this: What cost on society? Sure, there’s a cost on the smoker, who will deal with the consequences that come from inhaling all sorts of questionable stuff – but adults get to make those personal decisions and take those risks. All choices have a cost, but in the case of cigarettes, the individual bears the brunt of the consequences; not the public at large.

But more powerful than the adults trying to make decisions about their personal lifestyles is the government, which is treating cigarettes the same way children tend to treat stuffed animals – labelling them with human-characteristics; acting as if objects are inherently bound to be good or bad.

And when it comes to cigarettes, the government has deemed them inherently evil. And it’s the tobacco companies, of course, that are proliferating them (remember, public demand matters very little to paternalists), so naturally, they must be taxed to the death.

But you know who’s really going to suffer when push comes to shove and levies are imposed? Low earners – who probably will, but can’t afford to, see cigarette prices rise when the levy comes into play. Because, at the end of the day, these levies aren’t coming in to save public health; they’re there to save vulnerable public budgets. It’s time the government came clean on that—childish, indeed.

Osborne scraps the worst tax in Britain – the ASI’s reaction to the Autumn Statement

Here are our comments on today’s Autumn Statement:

Stamp duty:

Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute, Ben Southwood, said:

The old stamp duty slab system was one of the worst taxes Britain had, and we welcome the Chancellor’s radicalism in abolishing it, rather than simply tinkering around the edges.

According to the best economic research, raising £1 through stamp duty imposes £2-£5 of cost on the economy. Though it will still, as a transactions tax, cost the economy heavily, the reform will reduce the economic cost substantially. This is a tax cut for the squeezed middle that will make a big difference to a lot of people’s lives. Politically, it could be a game-changer.

Business rates:

Deputy Director of the Adam Smith Institute, Sam Bowman, said:

A cap on business rate rises is welcome but the rates system itself needs more fundamental reform. The longer rates take to be revalued, the more distortionary the system is, penalising firms located in areas that have done badly since the last valuation. The longer the gap between rates revaluations, the greater the penalty for businesses in poorer areas and the effective subsidy for businesses in richer ones. Ideally the government should move towards a system of constantly rolling rates revaluations. If Zoopla can judge land values accurately on a rolling basis, so can HM Treasury.

Road infrastructure:

Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute, Ben Southwood, said:

Infrastructure investment, especially into congested roads, is bound to pass a cost-benefit analysis. The problem is that we had to wait this long. If private firms could build roads, funded by tolls, then we’d likely have all of these roads already. As well as providing funds for investment, and making sure the investment goes to the most in-demand areas, pricing roads also means they get used more efficiently.

Pensions: 55% tax, tax-free inherited ISA

Director of the Adam Smith Institute, Dr Eamonn Butler, said:

The Chancellor is right to kill off the iniquitous 55% tax on inherited pensions, as well as the tax on inherited ISAs. If people have saved for their retirement but die before exhausting their nest-egg, it should go straight to their dependents, not to the Chancellor.

NHS Spending:

Communications Manager at the Adam Smith Institute, Kate Andrews, said:

The Conservatives, along with the opposition parties, are playing politics with the NHS budget. Everyone is vying to be seen as the ‘party of the NHS’ but no one is willing to have a serious conversation about the reforms that could make the NHS financially viable for the next ten years, let alone for future generations; like charging small fees for non-emergency visits.

It’s been estimated that the NHS could fall into a budget crisis as early as 2015, which could result in cuts to core staff, longer patient waiting lists, and a deterioration in the quality of health care. While the extra £2 billion per year proposed by Osborne today will offsets short-term worries, it merely kicks the can down the road for a little while longer. Serious proposals to address the spending and demand that comes with free care ‘at the point of use’ could not come soon enough.

Personal Allowance rise:

Deputy Director of the Adam Smith Institute, Sam Bowman, said:

The Adam Smith Institute has called for the personal allowance to be raised to the full-time minimum wage rate for over a decade and it is welcome to see the government move in this direction. But the National Insurance Contributions threshold has been left untouched, which costs full-time minimum wage workers £667.68 a year. To really help low-income workers the Chancellor should make raising the National Insurance threshold one of his top priorities.

Capital gains tax on property for foreigners:

Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute, Ben Southwood, said:

Capital gains taxes are some of the worst ones on the statute book, making society poorer by reducing the efficiency of investment and its total amount, but if we have to have them then everyone should pay them.

This is not just because of fairness, but because it causes massive distortions when different groups face different tax rates. In this case it’s likely to both lead to excessive foreign ownership of property—both by favouring foreigners over natives in property taxes and by favouring property over other assets for foreigners.

Masters degree loans:

Director of The Entrepreneurs Network, Philip Salter, said:

By extending Entrepreneurs’ Relief and R&D tax credits George Osborne is backing Britain’s entrepreneurs. However, the government’s intervention in the postgraduate student loan market risks crowding out private sector solutions. Banks already provide Professional and Career Development Loans, and entrepreneurial companies like Future Finance, StudentFunder and Prodigy Finance are responding to the demand for loans for postgraduate studies. We are on the verge of the equivalent of the funding revolution we are seeing in SME finance but this intervention risks stymieing it.

The deficit:

Deputy Director of the Adam Smith Institute, Sam Bowman, said:

The deficit is still enormous and much higher than anybody expected at the beginning of this Parliament. We are borrowing £100bn this year, both because planned cuts to the welfare budget have not taken place and because the growth we have had has not translated into much extra tax revenue. But as high as this is, the Chancellor’s plans to reduce the deficit still seem credible – financial markets are lending to the country at unprecedentedly cheap levels and once productivity eventually does start to recover, things should begin to look considerably better.

Notes to editors:

For further comments or to arrange an interview, contact Kate Andrews, Communications Manager, at kate@adamsmith.org / 07584 778207.

The Adam Smith Institute is an independent libertarian think tank based in London. It advocates classically liberal public policies to create a richer, freer world.