Budget 2012: the tax battlegrounds

It's the most exciting period of the year (for accountants): the run-up to the budget. But what's in

1. Mansion Tax

What is being proposed?

An annual tax of around 1 per cent on property values above £2m.

Who is behind it?

Business secretary Vince Cable.

Will it work?

The devil is in the details. The central idea is to move some of the tax burden from wealth to income. So far, so good. Unfortunately, using property value as a proxy for wealth is open to abuse, difficult to administer and will lead to some strange quirks in who does, and doesn't, pay.

The tax will hit almost exclusively the older rich, writes Chris Dillow -- those who already own houses worth over the £2m threshold. Not only will they have to pay the tax, but they will very quickly see a deprecation in the value of their houses as the tax is priced in to the sale price. Who benefits from this?

The younger, slightly less rich -- those who might well already own houses in the £1-2 million bracket.

The administration of the tax will require a massive investment by the government to put together a database of house values (Sale prices can't be used, for obvious reasons), or piggybacking on the information already gathered for council tax -- which would have been easier before Eric Pickles sabotaged the data. Simulating the tax (£) by adding new bands to council tax would be a possibility -- but would move the burden of payment from landlords to renters.

Will it in be in the Budget?

The tax is the most popular of the possible replacements for the 50p tax (see below), but it is very much a Liberal Democrat desire, even though Nick Clegg appears to have cooled on the idea, and it is burdened with some seemingly-intractable problems standing between it and implementation.

2. Tycoon Tax

What is being proposed?

A British equivalent of the American "alternative minimum tax", ensuring that the wealthiest Brits pay overall tax rates of at least 25 per cent.

Who is behind it?

Nick Clegg, attempting to outflank Cable's mansion tax.

Will it work?

No. The alternative minimum tax, the last attempt to pass this sort of rule in the US, is itself the subject of reform, and failed to stop Mitt Romney paying a total tax rate of 13.5 per cent. Discovering this fact was, apparently, Nick Clegg's motivation for introducing the idea in the first place.

Richard Murphy has a handy checklist of reasons to doubt the tycoon tax could work, of which the strongest is the same problem facing the US: capital gains tax. While that and the dividend rate are less than income tax, a great number of the wealthiest in society will be paying miniscule proportions of their income. Yet the aim of capital gains tax, to encourage investment, remains something we greatly desire. Until that contradiction is ironed out, the tycoon tax is going nowhere.

Will it be in the Budget?

Maybe. Although Nick Clegg appeared to have backtracked, using his keynote speech at the Lib Dem conference to promise to "call time on the tycoon tax dodgers" without actually calling for a new tax, new reports this morning suggest that the Chancellor is giving the idea serious consideration, since he prefers it to the mansion tax.

3. Raising the tax threshold

What is being proposed?

Speeding up the rate at which the tax threshold (the level below which income tax is not payable) is raised, ensuring that it hits the target of £10,000 before the current deadline of 2015.

Who is behind it?

As a Lib Dem manifesto pledge, it has support from most senior Lib Dems, who see it as a chance to finally put the party's stamp on some progressive policy. Raising the threshold to £10,000 by 2015 is in the coalition agreement -- but then again, so are a lot of things.

Will it work?

If the aim is to help the worst off in society most, then it seems unlikely that it will be able to achieve that goal. The IFS analysis shows who the biggest winners are.

A

The chart above shows the effect of the £10,000 tax threshold when the unit of analysis is the family, rather than the individual. As the IFS says, "We would expect at least some degree of income sharing within families."

In addition, the raised threshold isn't a particularly good fiscal stimulus. The IFS write that effective stimulus needs to be "timely, targeted and temporary", and raising the threshold is none of those. As a result, it seems unlikely that it would provide much of a boost to the economy.

The policy is a very expensive commitment, and if the Lib Dems can't easily win the argument as to whether or not it is progressive, they may think twice about pushing it too hard. The staggered introduction -- the threshold will already be £1500 higher in 2012/13 than it was in 2010/11 -- also means that they don't have nearly as much public support as they would have hoped, since voters haven't noticed any sizeable change in their tax bill.

Will it be in the Budget?

The ball is largely in the Liberal Democrats' court for this one. If they keep pushing, the tax threshold will keep rising, but if they decide the money would be better off spent elsewhere, then there's no-one to argue with them. If they go the other way, and try to get the whole of the £10,000 threshold introduced in one go, there will be considerable opposition from the Conservatives, who have their own pet projects to spend the money on.

4. Scrapping the 50p tax

What is being proposed?

Getting rid of the 50p tax rate, currently levied on income over £150,000.

Who is behind it?

The Tory right, but the pre-budget horse-trading has secured the support of Lib Dems provided it is replaced by another tax on the rich -- most probably the mansion tax -- rather than being scrapped outright

Will it work?

The problem the opponents of the 50p tax have is that it has its second birthday next month, and the sky has not yet fallen on their heads. The first revenue figures are dripping in, showing a "surge" of hundreds of millions of pounds, and there is no evidence of any widespread flight to low-tax nations either. In the 2011 budget, there was a chance the Chancellor could confidently state that the downside simply hadn't started yet; this year, that claim will be harder to make.

Then again, the reasons for keeping the 50p rate have never been entirely down to revenue. As Fraser Nelson, who is confident the tax will end up damaging income, wrote:

It's not just that the Tory leadership are nervous about being teased for their own backgrounds. It's that they believe there is no choice but to assuage the eat-the-rich mood in the country. The argument for 50p is political, not economic.

For this reason, it is hard to work out what the desired result from scrapping the rate is. It will definitely result in the richest Britons getting richer; it will almost certainly result in a lower tax take; and with the "eat-the-rich" mood showing no signs of abating, it's not going to be a vote winner either.

Will it be in the Budget?

This is the big one. Almost every other proposal has been priced against the 50p tax, either to fill in the gap left by its abolition, or to show how much more effective it would be. There is a widespread understanding that if Osborne can find a replacement which ticks all the boxes, he would love to be done with it. Yet there doesn't seem to be that easy replacement on the horizon.

5. Changing pension taxation

What is being proposed?

A raft of measures, from exempting the state pension from the income tax, to ending tax relief on private pension contributions from top-rate taxpayers.

Who is behind it?

The independent government body the Office for Tax Simplification, the Centre for Policy Studies, and "senior Liberal Democrats".

Will it work?

Taken as a bundle, the measures pay for themselves. In addition, they form a broadly progressive change, moving some of the burden of taxation to top-rate taxpayers from those who rely solely on the basic state pension. The biggest concern is that doing so will introduce some element of double taxation; not an intractable problem, as Richard Murphy explains, but potentially unpopular nonetheless.

Will it be in the Budget?

Some big guns are in support, and there is little heavy opposition, but a change funded entirely on the back of top-rate taxpayers may have trouble getting through the doors of number 11.

6. Corporation tax

What is being proposed?

A long term plan to take Britain's corporation tax rate down to 20 per cent (£). Britain's corporation tax rate currently stands at 25 per cent, and the Chancellor has already pledged to reduce it to 23 per cent over the course of this parliament.

Who is behind it?

The Chancellor himself.

Will it work?

It is unlikely to do a great deal to lure businesses over to the UK; any that choose their headquarters based on the tax rate still have a wealth of options to pick from, including Ireland (with a rate of 12.5 per cent), Liechtenstein (12.5 per cent) or the Isle of Man (0 per cent). It will make us competitive with Luxembourg, which has a rate of 20 per cent, and increase our lead over America (35 per cent), France (33.3 per cent) and Germany (15 per cent, "but additional social taxes mean an effective rate of more than 30 per cent" according to the Sunday Times).

Those leads have stood for quite some time, however. Before Osborne became Chancellor, corporation tax stood at 28 per cent, and yet there was no flood of companies moving headquarters across the Atlantic to take advantage of our low rates. It seems unlikely that much will change with a further cut.

Will it be in the Budget?

It has the Chancellor behind it, no opposition, and is being pre-briefed to the Sunday Times. It may as well be law already.

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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