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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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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