Is Osborne really about to give people on £100k a tax cut?

The coalition’s travails over child benefit mean Osborne may revisit his decision to raise the perso

As we close in on the Budget, most eyes are still fixed on the fate of the 50p tax rate. Ignore for a moment some of the squeals from Labour on this issue (more in excited anticipation that it will be axed than horror) and spare a thought for the dwindling band of true Tory modernisers. Their two central ambitions over recent years have been to demonstrate an unswerving commitment to the National Health Service, and to show that they could govern the economy – and tax policy in particular – in the interests of the broad majority rather than the affluent elite. They are struggling to believe that, having watched the coalition conspicuously squander the first of these strategic objectives, it could be planning to deliver the last rites to the second, too.

Yet whatever the decision on the 50p tax rate, the heated debate over it risks obscuring another more nuanced, but still highly revealing choice facing Goerge Osborne. Who should benefit from the widely expected and costly increase in personal tax allowances: the vast majority of all taxpayers, including individuals to over £100,000 a year (and indeed households on £200,000), or just basic-rate taxpayers? It's an important issue in its own right – and one that has been given fresh impetus by the coalition's travails over child benefit.

To understand why this is the case, turn the clock back to 2010 when the personal allowance was first increased and the decision taken to limit the gains to basic-rate taxpayers. This was achieved by lowering the income threshold at which the 40p rate starts in order to cancel out the gains for higher-rate taxpayers – leaving them no better or worse off. Creating more 40p tax-rate payers has obvious political downsides. However, it makes the personal allowances policy both less regressive and significantly less costly. The savings could be used to help reverse this year's cuts to tax credits.

One of the main reasons why there was such a hostile reaction from many quarters to the initial decision to target the gains from the personal allowance in 2010 was the disastrous way it got caught up with Osborne's proposal to abolish child benefit for households with a higher-rate taxpayer. It meant those basic-rate taxpayers who found themselves shunted into the 40p rate not only faced a higher marginal tax rate but were also set to lose £1,750 of child benefit if they had two children.

This was pure political poison. Consequently, when a further increase in the personal allowance was announced in 2011, a different approach was adopted and the gains went to higher-rate taxpayers, too.

Which brings us to next week's Budget and how the decision that is set to be made on revising the policy on child benefit could also affect the one on personal allowances.

To date, the coalition's argument on child benefit has been that, given the scale of the deficit, the state can no longer afford to pay it to households with someone earning above £42,500; indeed, it is also argued that it is morally unfair to ask low-income families to contribute towards higher earners' child benefit. In which case you might well ask why we can afford tax cuts for individuals earning £100,000 (and households with a joint income over £200,000), regardless of whether they have children. You might also ask why it is fair to ask the same low-income family to contribute towards the cost of these tax cuts for the affluent.

I don't know how the coalition proposes to answer this. But as things stand they'll need to do so next Wednesday. Pity the poor soul in the Treasury being tasked with drafting the "lines to take" for ministers.

There is, however, a potential get-out clause for them. The approach now being touted as the likely change to Osborne's child benefit policy is to means-test the benefit at a higher level of income – say, £50,000 rather than £42,500. Whatever other problems this creates (and there are many), it will make it possible to restrict gains from an increased personal allowance to basic-rate taxpayers without creating the toxic side effect of stripping child benefit from those who get tipped into the 40p tax band. The coalition could, if it so wished, show that its priority really is basic-rate taxpayers (and in doing so save money).

We'll know soon enough. My tentative hunch is that the government won't opt to restrict the gains from increased allowances to 20p tax-rate payers – even though it is clearly more progressive and cheaper. I doubt the Chancellor will be willing to incur the price of creating more 40p taxpayers. If this is the case, the coalition will have some explaining to do, not least to its own backbench rebels on child benefit, about why a family on £50,000 should lose cash support while individuals without kids earning double that amount should get a tax cut.

And all this, of course, is before we get to the decision on whether to abolish the 50p tax rate . . .

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

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.