Osborne aims to scrap the 50p rate by 2013

Chancellor pencils in 2013 as the earliest possible opportunity to remove the top rate.

George Osborne made his ambition to scrap the 50p tax rate clear in last month's Budget. "[T]he 50 pence tax rate would do lasting damage to our economy if it were to become permanent. That is why I regard it as a temporary measure," he said.

Now, for the first time, we learn that the Chancellor has "pencilled in" 2013 as the earliest possible opportunity to remove the top rate. It's no coincidence that this is the same year that the public-sector pay freeze ends. Osborne, a keen political strategist, won't want to hand a tax cut to the richest 1 per cent until he can provide relief elsewhere. But I'd still expect Labour to contrast the "temporary" 50p rate with the "permanent" VAT rise.

HM Revenue and Customs is about to begin its review of how much money the new rate brings in and, as David Laws revealed last month in the Financial Times, the Treasury believes that the bulk of the revenue expected from the 50p rate is "lost in avoidance". I'd be surprised if the top rate raises £2.4bn a year (the initial Treasury forecast) but I'd still expect the Chancellor to benefit.

Those who claim that the new rate will bring in no revenue are fond of pointing out that Treasury receipts increased after Nigel Lawson reduced the top rate from 60 per cent to 40 per cent in 1988. But this had less to do with the Laffer curve than the fact that fiscal drag (when earnings rise faster than tax thresholds) meant high numbers of people were sucked into the 40p band, more than compensating for the removal of the 60p band.

In the meantime, Labour needs to establish a fixed position on the 50p rate. Since Ed Miliband became leader, he has described the top rate as "permanent", although Alan Johnson's tenure as shadow chancellor brought a greater emphasis on merely retaining it "for this parliament". At the same time, Ed Balls has suggested that reducing the starting threshold from £150,000 to £100,000 is still an option.

Then again, the shadow chancellor has also warned against turning "rates into principles" and has emphasised that "the principle is the tax system should be progressive". This leaves open the possibilty of Labour supporting the removal of the 50p rate in favour of a range of new property taxes.

As Balls appeared to suggest, in the event that the 50p rate raises little or no revenue, his party may need a plan B.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign. 

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation