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.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Notes from a crime scene: what Seymour Hersh knows

Xan Rice meets the tireless Seymour Hersh to talk My Lai, pricey coffee and Bin Laden.

It’s late on a lazy Wednesday afternoon when Seymour Hersh comes bounding down the stairs. “Let’s find somewhere to sit,” the American investigative journalist says, striding over to the café area of the hotel in Bloomsbury where we meet.

Not quiet enough, Hersh decides, and he marches into an adjoining branch of Steak & Lobster, past a startled waiter who tries to explain that the restaurant isn’t open yet. “He’ll have a coffee,” Hersh tells the man laying the tables, gesturing in my direction. When the drink arrives, he remarks that, at £4.39, it’s the most expensive coffee he has bought in some time.

“I’m older and crankier than [Bernie] Sanders,” the 79-year-old says with a smile, leaning back in his seat, his tie loose and his top button undone. Hersh’s many notable stories include the My Lai Massacre and cover-up in Vietnam, which he exposed in 1969, and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal during the Iraq War. He’s in good health, relishing his speaking tour of London to promote his new book, The Killing of Osama Bin Laden, and hearing “how wonderful I am”.

“I come home from a trip like this,” he says, “and my wife can’t stand me. She says, ‘Get away, I don’t want to talk to you because you want everybody to bow and scrape.’”

Hersh never planned to be a journalist. After he was thrown out of law school for poor grades in 1959, he heard about an opening for a police reporter at a small news agency in Chicago. “I was reasonably coherent and could walk in a straight line, so they hired me,” he explains. Hersh learned on the job, covering his beat with a zeal that did not always impress his editors, one of whom liked to address him, without fondness, as “my good, dear, energetic Mr Hersh”.

“He saw me as a bleeding heart,” Hersh says, “who cared about people ‘of the Negro persuasion’ dying.”

Half a century later, he cannot say exactly what drove him to become an investigative reporter. “What defect did I have in my life that made me want to make everyone else look bad?” he wonders. “I almost viewed myself like a public defender: my job was to be there on the scene of a crime and to write about it in such a way that the police could not have the only call.”

Later, as his range widened, Hersh came to see his role as keeping in check “the nincompoops and criminals and fools running the world”.

He had been a journalist for ten years when he received a tip-off about an army officer being court-martialled for killing civilians in Vietnam. After investigating, he broke the story of the massacre at My Lai, in which a group of US soldiers murdered at least 347 people. The work earned him a Pulitzer Prize and soon afterwards he wrote his first piece for the prestigious New Yorker magazine. After sending in a draft, he was told that it would be read by the editor, William Shawn, and that he would receive a proof copy in the mail.

“Seven days later, the envelope comes and I’m terrified,” he recalls. “It was a writer’s magazine and any change they wanted, they asked you about. On the third page, I had some cliché or figure of speech. It was circled and in
the margin Mr Shawn had written: ‘Mr Hersh. Pls use words.’ I had a one-year course, a Master’s degree in journalism, in one sentence!”

Hersh has written regularly for the New Yorker over the years, though the relationship has recently come under strain. After researching the death of Osama Bin Laden, he became convinced that the Obama administration’s account of what happened before, during and after the raid in which Bin Laden was killed was a lie. He argued that the al-Qaeda leader had been captured by Pakistani intelligence in 2006 and held in Abbottabad until the US navy Seals operation five years later, which, Hersh claimed, was conducted with Pakistan’s assistance – rather than being a daring mission into hostile territory.

The New Yorker declined to run the story, so Hersh wrote it for the London Review of Books, which published it last year. The piece was read widely but attracted criticism from some American journalists who argued that it relied too heavily on a single, unnamed source and veered dangerously in the direction of conspiracy theories. Hersh is convinced that his version is correct and makes no apologies.

“I remember saying to my wife, ‘Don’t [these journalists] have mothers that tell them what to do better?’ . . . They insisted what they knew, what they wrote, had to be the story.”

Hersh’s mistrust of the official line is undiminished. His new book also questions whether it really was the Assad regime that carried out the chemical attacks in Ghouta, Syria, in 2013. Even the culprits of the recent Paris and Brussels massacres are not beyond doubt. “I don’t think Isis had a goddam thing to do with these kids,” he says. “The truth is, I don’t have any idea. I’m just telling you, heuristically, it’s an idea I would pursue if I was still a reporter.”

There is more to tell but Hersh has another interview. “Talk to me tomorrow,” he says, running back upstairs to collect his coat. “I’ll be around. I still have a lot of energy.” 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism