IFS: tax and welfare measures are “regressive”

Osborne caught out on claim that combined tax and benefit changes are “progressive”.

The oracle has spoken. At its media briefing this afternoon, the Institute for Fiscal Studies concluded that the tax and benefit measures announced in the Spending Review are "clearly regressive".

It flatly rejected the Treasury's argument that its combined tax and welfare measures up to 2012/13 are "progressive", a claim that was made possible only by the fact that the government's analysis ignores a third of the changes due to take place. These include some of the most regressive measures, such as the cap on housing benefit, the cuts to council tax benefit and the disability living allowance, and the time-limiting of the employment and support allowance.

The Treasury's justification was the lack of data available to "attribute changes in tax, tax credits or benefits to individuals". But the IFS number-crunchers believe that a "rough estimate" of the likely distributional impact can be made. The graph below is the result.

Graph

As the IFS notes, the white line (measuring the impact of tax and benefit changes as a proportion of income) shows that the changes were "slightly regressive or flat within the bottom nine-tenths of households".

The IFS has also produced another graph (see below), estimating the distributional effect of changes up to 2014/15, which shows the regressive impact even more clearly. As a percentage of net income, the poorest 10 per cent lose more than every other group, including the richest 10 per cent.

Graph

In many ways it's admirable that the coaliton, unlike previous Conservative administrations, is willing to engage in the progressive/regressive debate. But it can't choose to fight on this terrain and then cry foul when it's caught out.

Some on the right are starting to wonder whether a straight-out Thatcherite defence of regressive economics would serve the government better.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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