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.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR