Why the Tory right's "growth plans" won't work

Scrapping workers' rights and deregulating planning laws won't stimulate growth.

Labour may be most associated with calls for a "plan for growth" but recently they’ve been joined by another force: the Conservative right. Liam Fox was in the Times yesterday arguing for one, and the Free Enterprise Group group of backbenchers also have a book out entitled Britannia Unchained. Some of their ideas, however, might be not be helpful.

Cutting taxes for business

Cutting corporation tax has been proposed as a stimulus for business. There are two arguments behind this: firstly, a lower rate might attract foreign direct investment to the UK, and secondly, reducing the tax rate leaves overburdened businesses with more money, which could help them expand and create jobs.

Let’s first remember that any benefits from foreign corporations setting up shop in the UK would take years to filter through, and so not be suitable as a stimulus. In addition, it's not clear that cutting the rate further would attract much new business anyway. At 22%, the UK already has the fourth-lowest headline rate in the G20 after Saudi Arabia, Russia and Turkey. Comparable countries (Germany 31%, USA 41%, Japan 40%, France 35%), who all do far better in terms of domestic industry, all have higher rates. Any gains in competitiveness would be marginal at best.

As a boost to our existing businesses, a corporation tax cut is also largely pointless. This is because businesses have plenty of cash: UK firms are currently net savers and are sitting on a combined total of £754bn. This is not normal for a healthy market economy, where firms should be borrowing to invest. But there are no available investment opportunities, either because of a lack of demand or because of a more fundamental slowdown in the rate of innovation, and firms are just doing what is rational. Pumping them with more cash would be unlikely to have any effect. Since corporation tax is on a percentage of profits, there is also no reason why cutting it would make previously unprofitable investments viable. A cut in the rate would be unlikely to help.

Making it easier to fire people

The main recommendations to come out of the government’s Beecroft Report were ideas like no-fault dismissal and other restrictions on workers' rights. The stated justification is that firms are too scared to take on employees because it is difficult to get rid of them if they are underperforming.

One of the economic trends that ministers have sought to draw attention to is the contrast between growth and employment. Unemployment has been slowly but consistently falling, despite the economy shrinking. The most common explanation for this is because firms are hoarding labour, so they don’t have to reconstruct a skilled workgroup when demand returns in the future. The Bank of England looked at five indicators of labour hoarding and found that there was good evidence to suggest this is what was happening.

If this is the case, then firms are, in aggregate, feeling quite the opposite way that Beecroft suggests they are: hoarding labour beyond the point you need to is not really consistent with being terrified of taking on workers.

Conversely, if you’re suspicious of the Bank’s findings (and why not?) it could be possible that firms desperately want to get rid of these workers but can’t. This is unlikely because overall the UK labour market is pretty flexible (the third least regulated in the OECD according to the CIPD), but if this were true, then a lot of people would lose their jobs as newly liberated firms sacked with abandon. This would make the Beecroft proposals a recipe for unemployment.

Scrapping planning regulations

The Labour left has led calls for a housing stimulus, mainly composed of council housing. But an alternative take on this comes from Tory elements, within and without government. Get rid of planning laws, they say, and market-led housebuilding will commence.

The evidence suggests this policy has been plucked out of thin air. The Local Government Association reports that there are 400,000 homes with planning permission that haven’t been started by developers or have stalled their construction. Last year in London, where demand is highest, London Councils counted around 170,000 homes that had gained planning permission but were not been built.

This is not a picture of a planning bottleneck. It’s also why claimed successes of previous planning reforms that count permissions granted as delivery should be ignored, and why getting rid of more regulations will likely have higher costs than benefits.

Tory MP and former defence secretary Liam Fox is leading calls for deregulation. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jon Stone is a political journalist. He tweets as @joncstone.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: whatever you hear, don't forget - there is an alternative

The goverment's programme of cuts is a choice, not a certainty, says Jolyon Maugham.

Later today you will hear George Osborne say there is no alternative to his plan to slash a further £20bn from lean public services by 2020-21. He will also say that there is no alternative to £9bn cuts to tax credits, cuts that will hit the poorest hardest, cuts of thousands of pounds per annum to the incomes of millions of households.

But there is.

As I outlined here the Conservatives plan future tax cuts which benefit, disproportionately or exclusively, the wealthy. Suspending those future tax cuts for the wealthy would say, by 2020-21, £9.3bn per annum.

I also explained here that a mere 50 of our 1,156 tax reliefs cost us over £100bn per annum. We don't know how much the other 1,106 reliefs cost us - because Government doesn't monitor them. And we don't know what public benefit they deliver - because Government doesn't check.

What we do know, as I explained here, is that they disproportionately and regressively benefit the wealthy: an average of £190,400 per annum for the wealthiest.

And we know, too, that they include (amongst the more than 1,000 uncosted reliefs) the £1bn plus “Rights for Shares Scheme” - badged by the Chancellor as for workers but identified by a leading law firm as designed for the wealthiest.

Simply by asking a question that the Chancellor chooses to ignore - do these 1,156 reliefs deliver value for money - it is entirely possible that £10bn or more extra in taxes could be collected without any loss of  public benefit

To this £19bn, we might add the indiscriminate provision - both direct and indirect - of public money to wealthy pensioners.

Those above basic state pension age enjoy a tax subsidy of up to 12% on earned income.

Moreover, this Office for National Statistics data (see Table 18) reveals that the 10% of wealthiest retired households - some 714,000 households - have gross pre-tax and pre-benefit private income of on average £43,983. Yet still they enjoy average cash benefits from government of £11,500 per annum.

Means testing benefits to exclude that top 10 per cent of retired households would save £8.2bn per annum. And why, you might wonder aloud, should means testing be thought by the government appropriate for the working age population, yet a heresy for retired households?

Add in abolition of that unprincipled tax subsidy and you'll save even more. 

So there are alternatives. Clear alternatives. Good alternatives. Alternatives that enable those with the broadest shoulders to bear some share of the pain. Don't allow yourself to be persuaded otherwise.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.