Where the tax burden falls

Where does the tax burden fall, and why do loopholes help the rich?

The TPA's Matthew Sinclair has produced an interesting graph from HMRC's data on the share of income, which charts clearly what it means to have a progressive taxation system (click for big, and note that the top four categories are equal in size to one of the other four; the top 25 per cent has been split up to better show the progressive nature of the system):

Mulling over Osborne's tycoon tax, Sinclair provides an example of a tax "loophole" which he thinks is anything but – loss relief:

Suppose you make a £15 million loss one year, then enjoy a £15 million income the next year. How much have you made overall? £0. If you get full loss relief then you will be taxed on that basis and pay nothing, as you have no income to pay from. If your loss relief is capped at 25 per cent of your income, as the Government seems to be proposing, then you presumably have to pay tax on over £10 million. From an income of £0. Good luck.

It is difficult to argue with the ideal of loss relief; people shouldn't be penalised by being taxed exorbitantly on multiple years' income just because they happen to receive the actual payment in one lump sum. But the existence of loss relief is also a wonderful example of a tax system built with one set of rules for the rich, and another set for everyone else.

Suppose a different pattern of income: You are a novelist working for £10,000 a year, barely supporting yourself while you write on the evenings and weekends. (For simplicity's sake, lets set this in 2015 when the 10k tax threshold is in effect). After five years, your book takes off, and you earn a quarter of a million in a year. Not only are you paying income tax for the first time in your life, you are straight in at the top rate.

In this situation, can you claim tax relief? Of course not. You pay your tax for the year your income comes in, and if you took a hit in earlier years, that's something you have to suck up. Yet if that quarter of a million had been spread out over the five years before, you would have paid at least £50,000 less in tax.

It's easy to see why this isn't the case. It would be hell to administer, and would basically end up with everyone paying tax on their average lifetime earnings. Yet this awkwardness results in a tax system which allows relief for those who are in a position to gamble millions on a business, but not those who can only gamble thousands on a career. It's a pattern repeated throughout the tax system, but as we've seen with the charity debacle, while these loopholes are used, they will be very hard indeed to close.

The BP board, 1960. These gentlemen are probably the 1%. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.