Clegg: property taxes should replace the 50p rate

Deputy Prime Minister says 50p rate will be scrapped once low and middle incomes are “breathing more

If George Osborne's hint in last week's Budget wasn't enough, we now know for certain that the 50p tax rate will be scrapped at some point during this parliament. In an interview with the Financial Times, Nick Clegg suggests that the tax will be abolished once those on low and middle incomes are "breathing more easily" and will be replaced with a range of new property taxes.

As Clegg points out, Osborne won't want to scrap the 50p rate until he's certain that he can offer relief elsewhere. Polls show that the tax is relatively popular with voters and Labour would seize any opportunity to portray the Chancellor as a friend of the rich. It's notable that while the progressive 50p rate is "temporary", the regressive VAT increase is "permanent".

Senior Lib Dems, most notably Vince Cable, have long spoken of their desire to divert taxation away from income and towards property. In his recent New Statesman essay on reclaiming Keynes for the coalition, the Business Secretary wrote of the need to shift taxation "away from profitable, productive investment (as opposed to unproductive asset accumulation, as with property)".

Before this, in his speech at last year's Lib Dem conference, Cable also argued for higher taxes on land as well as property (the subject of a recent NScover story by Jason Cowley).

He said:

It will be said that in a world of internationally mobile capital and people it is counterproductive to tax personal income and corporate profit to uncompetitive levels. That is right. But a progressive alternative is to shift the tax base to property, and land, which cannot run away, [and] represents in Britain an extreme concentration of wealth.

Over the weekend, Cable returned to this theme in several interviews and spoke of the need to "shift from high marginal rates of tax on income which are undesirable, to taxation of wealth, including property". Asked if he was considering a so-called "mansion tax", he said: "I'm sure that's one of the things we're going to have to look at."

Clegg's FT interview is short on detail, although, unlike Cable, he rules out a version of the "mansion tax" proposed by the Lib Dems at the last election and supported by David Miliband during the Labour leadership contest. Instead, he suggests the coalition will "look at the way the council tax system is structured; the way stamp duty is structured".

Another option, as Jason suggested in his piece, would be to introduce capital gains tax on the profits made from the sale of first homes.

On taxation at least, the Lib Dems can now claim to be exerting serious influence on the Tories. Osborne has embraced their plan to raise the personal income-tax allowance to £10,000 by the end of this parliament and is now set to restructure the taxation of top earners along liberal lines.

Labour must hope that the 50p rate raises some significant revenue. If not, the party could be left on the wrong side of the tax debate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.