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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Pity the Premier League – so much money can get you into all sorts of bother

You’ve got to feel sorry for our top teams. It's hard work, maintaining their brand.

I had lunch with an old girlfriend last week. Not old, exactly, just a young woman of 58, and not a girlfriend as such – though I have loads of female friends; just someone I knew as a girl on our estate in Cumbria when she was growing up and I was friendly with her family.

She was one of many kind, caring people from my past who wrote to me after my wife died in February, inviting me to lunch, cheer up the poor old soul. Which I’ve not been. So frightfully busy.

I never got round to lunch till last week.

She succeeded in her own career, became pretty well known, but not as well off financially as her husband, who is some sort of City whizz.

I visited her large house in the best part of Mayfair, and, over lunch, heard about their big estate in the West Country and their pile in Majorca, finding it hard to take my mind back to the weedy, runny-nosed little girl I knew when she was ten.

Their three homes employ 25 staff in total. Which means there are often some sort of staff problems.

How awful, I do feel sorry for you, must be terrible. It’s not easy having money, I said, managing somehow to keep back the fake tears.

Afterwards, I thought about our richest football teams – Man City, Man United and Chelsea. It’s not easy being rich like them, either.

In football, there are three reasons you have to spend the money. First of all, because you can. You have untold wealth, so you gobble up possessions regardless of the cost, and regardless of the fact that, as at Man United, you already have six other superstars playing in roughly the same position. You pay over the odds, as with Pogba, who is the most expensive player in the world, even though any halfwit knows that Messi and Ronaldo are infinitely more valuable. It leads to endless stresses and strains and poor old Wayne sitting on the bench.

Obviously, you are hoping to make the team better, and at the same time have the luxury of a whole top-class team sitting waiting on the bench, who would be desired by every other club in Europe. But the second reason you spend so wildly is the desire to stop your rivals buying the same players. It’s a spoiler tactic.

Third, there’s a very modern and stressful element to being rich in football, and that’s the need to feed the brand. Real Madrid began it ten years or so ago with their annual purchase of a galáctico. You have to refresh the team with a star name regularly, whatever the cost, if you want to keep the fans happy and sell even more shirts round the world each year.

You also need to attract PROUD SUPPLIERS OF LAV PAPER TO MAN CITY or OFFICIAL PROVIDER OF BABY BOTTLES TO MAN UNITED or PARTNERS WITH CHELSEA IN SUGARY DRINK. These suppliers pay a fortune to have their product associated with a famous Premier League club – and the club knows that, to keep up the interest, they must have yet another exciting £100m star lined up for each new season.

So, you can see what strains and stresses having mega money gets them into, trying to balance all these needs and desires. The manager will get the blame in the end when things start to go badly on the pitch, despite having had to accommodate some players he probably never craved. If you’re rich in football, or in most other walks in life, you have to show it, have all the required possessions, otherwise what’s the point of being rich?

One reason why Leicester did so well last season was that they had no money. This forced them to bond and work hard, make do with cheapo players, none of them rubbish, but none the sort of galáctico a super-Prem club would bother with.

Leicester won’t repeat that trick this year. It was a one-off. On the whole, the £100m player is better than the £10m player. The rich clubs will always come good. But having an enormous staff, at any level, is all such a worry for the rich. You have to feel sorry . . .

Hunter Davies’s “The Beatles Book” is published by Ebury

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories