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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Theresa May defies the right by maintaining 0.7% aid pledge

The Prime Minister offers rare continuity with David Cameron but vows to re-examine how the money is spent. 

From the moment Theresa May became Prime Minister, there was speculation that she would abandon the UK's 0.7 per cent aid pledge. She appointed Priti Patel, a previous opponent of the target, as International Development Secretary and repeatedly refused to extend the commitment beyond this parliament. When an early general election was called, the assumption was that 0.7 per cent would not make the manifesto.

But at a campaign event in her Maidenhead constituency, May announced that it would. "Let’s be clear – the 0.7 per cent commitment remains, and will remain," she said in response to a question from the Daily Telegraph's Kate McCann. But she added: "What we need to do, though, is to look at how that money will be spent, and make sure that we are able to spend that money in the most effective way." May has left open the possibility that the UK could abandon the OECD definition of aid and potentially reclassify defence spending for this purpose.

Yet by maintaining the 0.7 per cent pledge, May has faced down her party's right and title such as the Sun and the Daily Mail. On grammar schools, climate change and Brexit, Tory MPs have cheered the Prime Minister's stances but she has now upheld a key component of David Cameron's legacy. George Osborne was one of the first to praise May's decision, tweeting: "Recommitment to 0.7% aid target very welcome. Morally right, strengthens UK influence & was key to creating modern compassionate Conservatives".

A Conservative aide told me that the announcement reflected May's personal commitment to international development, pointing to her recent speech to International Development staff. 

But another Cameron-era target - the state pension "triple lock" - appears less secure. Asked whether the government would continue to raise pensions every year, May pointed to the Tories' record, rather than making any future commitment. The triple lock, which ensures pensions rise in line with average earnings, CPI inflation or by 2.5 per cent (whichever is highest), has long been regarded by some Conservatives as unaffordable. 

Meanwhile, Philip Hammond has hinted that the Tories' "tax lock", which bars increases in income tax, VAT and National Insurance, could be similarly dropped. He said: "I’m a Conservative. I have no ideological desire to to raise taxes. But we need to manage the economy sensibly and sustainably. We need to get the fiscal accounts back into shape.

"It was self evidently clear that the commitments that were made in the 2015 manifesto did and do today constrain the ability to manage the economy flexibly."

May's short speech to workers at a GlaxoSmithKline factory was most notable for her emphasis that "the result is not certain" (the same message delivered by Jeremy Corbyn yesterday). As I reported on Wednesday, the Tories fear that the belief that Labour cannot win could reduce their lead as voters conclude there is no need to turn out. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496