No decision on 50p tax this year, says Downing Street

Official figures show that the tax could raise nearly £13bn over five years, as PM says there will b

The 50p tax rate continues to cause tension within government, as Downing Street made it clear last night that there would be no decision on scrapping the rate this year.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister said it would be difficult to make a decision before 2012, when we will have the results of a review into the income tax rate for those earning over £150,000. Realistically, it would not be politically expedient to make a decision before 2013, when the public sector pay freeze ends. The tax is too charged with political symbolism about fairness to be scrapped without being seen to provide relief elsewhere, too.

Although Osborne has expressed doubt over how much money the tax raises, official figures released by the Treasury show that the 50p rate would raise £12.6bn over the next five years, a calculation which incorporates the chance that top earners might leave the country to avoid the tax. This would mean that by 2015-16, the 50p rate would raise £3.2bn more than if the top rate was 40p. It provides ammunition with those who disagree with a letter sent by 20 economist to the Financial Times, calling for the rate to be scrapped early.

Yet debate around the controversial tax rate rolls on. In an interview with the New Statesman's political correspondent, Rafael Behr, Danny Alexander makes clear his priorities on taxation. Here is an extract from the interview (available in this week's magazine, currently on the newsstands):

From the Treasury perspective, the main Lib Dem contribution to government has been the plan to raise the income-tax threshold to £10,000 by the end of the parliament. Alexander is very attached to this policy as a way of compensating people on low incomes for the cuts. "I think it's a direction that we will want to push further," he says. How much further? "I don't see why, in the next parliament, we shouldn't be trying to get to a situation where people in a full-time job on the minimum wage are paying no income tax at all. That, to me, is a higher priority than reducing the overall tax burden on the wealthy." I take this to mean that he rejects the aim, supported by many Conservatives and endorsed by a group of 20 economists in a public letter to the Financial Times, of abandoning the 50p top rate of income tax. "At a time when the whole country is facing serious financial challenges, the priority needs to be people on low and middle incomes."

Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have both made it clear that they have no ideological objection to scrapping the tax, as long as it is replaced by another measure to tax the rich. One measure they are looking at is a property tax. Tim Farron, the president of the Liberal Democrats, was more unequivocal:

What an outrage, in tough times like this, if the government was to give a tax cut to those who earn more than £150,000 a year and not give any more to those people who are struggling to get by, many of whom are paying the price for the profligacy and recklessness of very wealthy people that got us into this mess in the first place.

Meanwhile, Conservatives continue to be frustrated with the fact that the tax rate has not been dropped. Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, conceded that the tax could be dropped only "when the time is right", but added:

I think there is a strong and reasonable case to say, 'Come on, this is not actually contributing very much'. On balance, it's probably doing more damage than it's doing good.

This latest debate was triggered after 20 economists wrote to the FT to urge George Osborne to abandon the top rate in order to stimulate the faltering economy. As we at the Staggers have argued repeatedly, reversing their hike in VAT would do far more to stimulate the economy.

 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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