Why Osborne is wrong on the Robin Hood Tax

The Chancellor has framed the debate as an EU attack on British prosperity. This does not stand-up.

George Osborne ripped back his well maintained veneer of ambivalence towards the Robin Hood Tax this week, revealing his true identity as the protector of the privileged few in City.

Having been given the advice of the IMF, Bill Gates and the European Commission who have all shown Financial Transaction Taxes (FTTs) are feasible, Osborne chose to ignore them, declaring instead it would be "economic suicide". But while his attempt to frame the debate as an EU attack on British prosperity may have superficial appeal -- John Major has made a similar attack today, claiming in the Guardian that an FTT would fan the flames of Euroscepticism -- it does not stand-up to economic scrutiny.

Let's start with the growth argument. Earlier this year, Osborne increased VAT (the transactions tax we all pay in the real economy) by 2.5 per cent to 20 per cent. VAT increases push up prices and are certainly not good for growth and they hit the poorest twice as hard as the rich. Yet now Osborne is casting a 0.05 per cent tax on the financial transactions of investment banks and hedge funds as bad for growth. The irony is of course, that as the IMF pointed out, financial transactions are VAT exempt.

The fact that a Robin Hood Tax would raise billions to protect jobs, services and the poorest was handily ignored. So too was the fact it would rein in rogue elements of the financial sector responsible for a crisis that will, according to the Bank of England, ultimately cost the UK at least £1.8 trillion and as much as £7.4 trillion in lost GDP. The biggest threat to our long term growth is surely an unrestrained financial sector and not a 0.05 per cent tax on their transactions. Any job losses are likely to occur in the exclusive corners of the investment banks a million miles away from high street banking.

Osborne's claim that not a single bank would pay this tax is plain wrong. The bit he did get right is that banks as intermediaries would not pay the tax, but the parties initiating the trades would. So who are initiating the trades? Er, it's the banks. And other financial institutions such as hedge funds who represent high net worth individuals and the richest segments of society. It's why the IMF has said an FTT would in all likelihood be "highly progressive": being paid by those most able to afford it.

More surprising than Osborne's offensive has been Vince Cable's amazing transformation. Cable himself has on a number of occasions supported the Robin Hood Tax, it's even in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. Until Wednesday that is, when he described it as a "tax on Britain", seemingly conflating the financial sector with the UK as a whole.

Worse still, Cable resorted to citing the infamous Swedish FTT from the 1980s. Focusing on this example, unique in its bad design, whilst omitting to mention the Stamp Duty on UK shares which successfully raises the Exchequer more than £3 billion a year, is disingenuous at best. It's a bit like showing us a picture of a square-wheeled bike as evidence that all bicycles are flawed, having just arrived by bike. The key to the Stamp Duty's success is the way it is levied; wherever in the world a UK share is traded - London, New York or the Cayman Islands - the tax still has to be paid.

Osborne and Cable were right about one thing however; no one wants all this money to disappear into the European coffers. A Robin Hood Tax has received such massive support -- from the UK public (who back it by two to one), the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Vatican and millions around the world -- not just because it would curtail casino capitalism but also because it would help tackle poverty and climate change at home and abroad.

Thankfully, the threat of co-option into a "Brussels tax" is overblown. As the Germans recently pointed out, each country would collect the tax nationally. Our campaign wants to see half the money spent helping poor countries and half (that's billions of pounds) spent protecting schools and hospitals, teachers and nurses at home. So, far from the size of the UK's financial sector meaning we have the most to lose from an FTT, we have the most to gain.

By ignoring the positives and exaggerating the negatives the government is compiling themselves a dodgy dossier of reasons not to back the Robin Hood Tax. In doing so they risk putting themselves at odds with public opinion and international momentum behind ensuring the financial sector pays its fair share.

Simon Chouffot is the Robin Hood Tax campaign's spokesperson

Simon Chouffot is a spokesperson for the Robin Hood Tax campaign and writes on the role of the financial sector in our society.

Getty
Show Hide image

There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.