A tax on aspiration?

The complex new student support system will result in eye-watering effective tax rates for many low-

Governments, like individuals, often like to believe their varying instincts and aspirations all fit comfortably together even when they don't. They prefer to try to keep these tensions under wraps and sometimes don't even like to admit them in private to themselves. And the coalition is a case in point.

One of its favourite claims is that, despite the fact that all sorts of welfare support is being removed from families on middle incomes, when it comes to the very poorest they are doing more than their predecessors. The pupil premium usually gets a mention here, followed by the expansion in student support for the most disadvantaged.

Another cherished claim is that punitive marginal tax rates for those struggling on modest incomes seeking to earn their way up will be reduced - a point  made with great passion by David Cameron in his 2009 Conservative party conference speech when he railed against an example of a 96 per cent tax rate hitting a single mother. At this point, the coalition tends to highlight the Olympian ambition of the Universal Credit and its effort to integrate benefits and tax credits and create a single, smoother means-test in our welfare system. 

A final claim is that it is right and proper to localise decision making about how to allocate scarce financial support – for instance through the decentralisation of council tax benefit.

Many would want to challenge each of these claims; but let’s leave that to one-side. What should be beyond dispute – though this is rarely recognised – is that these three agendas don’t make for comfortable bed fellows; indeed, they don’t really belong in the same room at all. Try and defend them individually if you so wish, but don’t pretend they add up to a coherent strategy.

The recent Child Benefit saga gave daylight to some of these tensions, demonstrating in vivid terms how poorly designed middle-class welfare retrenchment can generate nasty means-testing problems that then have to be mitigated.  As of next January the removal of Child Benefit from households with someone on over £50k will mean a new 50p or higher effective tax rate for these families if they have one child, and 60p for those with two kids. If the Budget hadn’t had so many other highlights the dragging of the 50p tax rate from the super-rich down the income scale would surely have received more notice.  

Now a new report by professor John Hills, perhaps the UK’s foremost authority on the welfare state (together with his LSE colleague Ben Richards), provides us with another dramatic case study of how different policy objectives combine to form a nasty cocktail. The perhaps unintended and unforeseen effect of a shift to greater private contribution in welfare (this time in the form of higher tuition fees), combined with efforts to protect the position of the very poorest (increased bursaries and grants aimed particularly at families with earnings under £17k), and a nod towards localism (universities run their own support system) is to create a new aspiration trap – truly eye-watering effective tax rates hitting families in low-to-middle income Britain sending a child to university this autumn.

This stems from the way in which the complex patchwork of student support gets withdrawn as household earnings rise. Some of the resulting ‘cliff edges’ soar high above those that triggered the Child Benefit row. 

To understand how this will actually play out in practice Professor Hills considers two families each with a child about to go to the University of Oxford. One family has earnings of £17k and the other £44k – so a difference in gross earnings of £27k.  After we take account of the impact of the overall tax and benefit system the difference between these families falls to £13,250. But once we factor in the additional impact of all the different elements of the new student support system the gap collapses to a grand total of £200 (yes, you read that right).

To restate: an initial difference in gross earnings of £27k between (broadly speaking) a low-income and middle-income family is completely wiped out. The withdrawal of student support, together with the tax and benefit system, creates an effective 99 per cent tax rate on earnings between £17k and £44k. There is no point being better off. And that’s before we consider some truly scary effective tax rates at particular points in the earnings distribution (see chart). I think it is fair to say that the coalition hasn’t fully got its head around the politics of this.

And don’t think this is just some quirky Oxford phenomenon, though the issue is most dramatic there (which, to be fair, is because the support on offer at Oxford for those with the very lowest incomes is most generous). Hills surveyed the support at our largest 52 universities representing 60% of all HE students and finds that it is common for small differences in parental earnings to lead to several thousand pounds less support. 

Now, we can ask questions about aspects of this. There will be some parents who couldn’t care less about the financial position of their 18 year old, so they won't view a drop in support as any sort of hit on the family budget. And the report significantly understates the extent to which the withdrawal of some financial support, like cash bursaries and maintenance grants, may feel more like an effective 'tax rise' on the family than others, such as the removal of fee discounts (which may seem like a problem for the student tomorrow rather than the family today). Despite this the overall argument is strong.

The usually understated Hills concludes that despite the towering rhetoric about the what the universal credit will achieve, some parts of government are moving in “precisely the opposite direction”,  giving rise to new poverty traps. “It looks as if we will see a lot more of this in the future.  Already councils have each been told to work out their own way of making savings on Council Tax Benefit, which could result in them withdrawing benefit faster, adding to the poverty trap – but with rates and rules varying across local authority boundaries.  With budgets under pressure, it’s an obvious reaction to withdraw services from those with higher incomes, while keeping means-tested support for the poor. But what may seem a reasonable response to fiscal constraints while trying to protect the poorest in one sphere may overlap chaotically with other attempts to do the same thing”.

If this new twist to the student finance reforms sparks to life, as its impact on household budgets becomes clearer, it will send a shiver down the spine of leading members of the coalition. At the time they took the decision to bring in the new funding system they knew, of course, they were in for some choppy politics and that those on middle and high incomes would take a hit. But I very much doubt they grasped that it would lead to what many of them would consider to be totalitarian tax rates being imposed on families in the so-called striving classes whose kids are aiming high.

Students walk under the Bridge of Sighs along New College Lane on March 22, 2012 in Oxford. Photograph: Getty Images.

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.