The pre-budget airwaves are quiet... too quiet

Is that because no news is good news?

The pre-budget airwaves, normally teaming with feverish speculation, are ominously quiet. There doesn't even appear to be a 'book' on how long the Chancellor will speak for (or not that I have come across yet at least).

Unless George can produce the ubiquitous (most likely scrawny and headlight-dazzled) rabbit out of his (or anyone else's) hat, we think the Budget will aim principally for stability, with few big changes and a broadly pro-business stance to keep encouraging growth. In terms of predictions as they might affect those in the private wealth industry, we can predict what he won't do (and a little of what he might), with some confidence:

Inheritance tax won't be abolished and the Nil Rate Band won't be increased (OK - we already know that). Tinkering might involve a resurrection of the well-rehearsed fear that the Chancellor might abolish the provision whereby you can vary a will or intestacy within two years of death (usually to take advantage of an exemption from inheritance tax for gifts to charity, spouse or relief for business or agricultural assets), or even perhaps the seven-year rule for gifts, but we think this is unlikely. Given that it raises little in terms of revenue we don't think the rate will be changed either.

Capital gains tax: The extension to non-UK individuals could have been made when liability was extended to non-UK corporates in relation to real property. Although some see this in itself as an anomaly, the rates have been tinkered with over recent years without much evidence in terms of overall increase in the UK 'tax take'.

Income tax: A further reduction from the incoming 45% is unlikely, as are any major changes to other rates or (we hope) further meddling with pensions. The personal allowance could rise to £10,000 or even more, to ensure that those on the minimum wage (around £11,200 p.a.) do not pay tax.

Mansion tax: Although it has been much discussed, this seems unlikely, as it has never had Coalition Government support. The mooted tax would be primarily a tax on London and the South East, and many of those affected, especially at the introductory level of £2 million, may well be unable to pay the tax (particularly those who inherited their properties, are already mortgaged to the hilt, and/or have lived in the same house for many years).

Tax avoidance: Given the introduction of the General Anti-Avoidance Rule, which is extremely wide in its application, we struggle to see what else can be bolted on to HMRC and HM Government's ever increasing arsenal.

So that leaves us with very little in terms of predicting what he might come up with. My own wish list would include:

- a flat rate of tax (including both income and capital gains);

- the abolition of inheritance tax; and

- a four wheel drive car tax - a much better indicator of surplus wealth, better for the environment, easier to collect than a mansion tax and a positive benefit for those who have to contend with them in urban settings.

Sophie Mazzier is counsel at private client law firm Maurice Turnor Gardner LLP

This article first appeared at Spears magazine.

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Women's bodies should not be bargaining chips for the Tories and the DUP

Women in Northern Ireland have been told for too long that the Good Friday Agreement is too fragile to withstand debates about their reproductive rights

When Members of Parliament are asked to pass laws relating to when and whether women can terminate their pregnancies, women’s rights are rarely the focus of that decision-making process. You need only look at the way in which these votes are traditionally presented by party leaders and chief whips as “a matter of conscience” - the ultimate get-out for any MP who thinks their own value or belief system should get priority over women’s ability to have control over their bodies.

Today’s vote is no different. The excellent amendment that Labour MP Stella Creasy has put before the house reveals not just the inequalities experienced by women in different parts of the UK when it comes to being able to make decisions about their health, but also the latest layers of subterfuge and politicking around abortion. 

Creasy’s amendment seeks access to the NHS for women who travel to England and Wales from Northern Ireland seeking abortion. Right now women in Northern Ireland are pretty much denied abortion by legislative criteria that limits it to cases that will "preserve the life of the mother" - (that’s preserving, not prioritising) - and pregnancies under nine weeks and four days. Rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality are not included as grounds for termination. The thousands of women who thus travel to England are refused free abortions on the NHS - confirmed by a recent Supreme Court ruling - on the grounds that this is a devolved matter for Northern Ireland. 

The idea behind devolution is that power should be more evenly and fairly distributed. It is not intended to deprive people of rights but to ensure rights. In refusing to exercise the powers available to him, Health secretary Jeremy Hunt is rightly acknowledging a difficult history of power imbalance between Westminster and Stormont, but he is also ignoring a wider imbalance of power, between men and women.  

There is so very much wrong with this arrangement. But a further wrong could be done if, as reports suggest, the Conservative Party whips its MPs to vote the amendment down in order to protect the regressive alliance with the anti-abortion Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that is keeping their fragile minority government in power.

Instead of taking this opportunity to respond to the demands of women of Northern Ireland, this government is setting out the parameters of its complicity in refusing to listen to them. 

It is not the first time. In 2008 it was reported that the Labour party struck a deal with the DUP to leave Northern Ireland’s abortion laws intact, in exchange for their support over detaining terror suspects without charge for 42 days. Labour said at the time that it was concerned about the impact on existing UK abortion laws if the debate was opened.

But not one woman has equality until all women have equality. Women’s bodies are not chips to be bargained and we should not be bargaining for one group of women’s rights by surrendering the rights of another group. The UK parliament has responsibility for ensuring human rights in every part of the UK. Those include the rights of Northern Irish women.

It’s time to wake up. It’s time to stop playing politics with women’s lives. Women in Northern Ireland have been told for too long that the Good Friday Agreement is too fragile to withstand debates about their reproductive rights – a fragility that was dismissed by the Conservatives as they drew up a deal with one side of the power-sharing arrangement.

It’s time to confront the fact that nowhere in the United Kingdom – taking Northern Ireland as a starting point rather than an end in itself – do women enjoy free and legal access to abortion. Even the UK’s 1967 act is only a loophole that allows women to seek the approval of two doctors to circumvent an older law criminalising any woman who goes ahead with an abortion.

As long as our rights are subject to the approval of doctors, to technological developments, to decisions made in a parliament where men outnumber women by two to one, to public opinion polls, to peace agreements that prioritise one set of human rights over another – well, then they are not rights at all.

The Women’s Equality Party considers any attempt to curtail women’s reproductive rights an act of violence against them. This week in Northern Ireland we are meeting and listening to women’s organisations, led by our Belfast branch, to agree strategy for the first part of a much wider battle. It is time to write reproductive rights into the laws of every country. We have to be uncompromising in our demands for full rights and access to abortion in every part of the UK; for the choice of every woman to be realised.

Sophie Walker is leader of the Women's Equality Party.

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