Treasury considers shifting tax burden for mid-sized companies

Move could lower avoidance rates if done well.

The Telegraph's Roland Gribben reports:

Two key proposals designed to simplify taxation of their businesses and shareholders by replacing the current set-up with a single layer and align tax treatment with commercial reality have been submitted to the Treasury.

One involves giving medium-sized companies the opportunity to elect to be taxed as if they were partnerships or sole proprietors to produce a single tax level for business profits.

The second would extend the real estate investment trust regime to include all privately owned businesses, freeing them of corporation tax but paying taxable dividends to shareholders.

It's a scary experience, pre-empting the treasury. As I wrote last month, such a move could be remarkably effective at tackling tax avoidance. It is a lot harder for individuals to avoid tax than it is for businesses to, if for no other reason than that individuals have an actual corporeal existence and find it significantly harder to be "headquartered" in a country they've never actually been to.

The Telegraph quotes the senior tax partner of the consultancy which drew up the reforms as suggesting that the changes as described would not reduce the tax take. That seems doubtful – especially the former suggestion, since allowing companies to elect to change their taxation rate all-but-guarantees that the only companies which take up the offer are those which would lower their taxable income by doing so. Realistically, such a move would have to be combined with an increase in the dividend tax rate to keep the tax take level. That increase would then probably require an increase in the marginal tax rate – at least at the top –  to retain the incentives to investment in the current tax system… which means that it's a policy move which no politician would touch with a ten-foot pole.

Still, we can but dream. If the Treasury does take up the policy, expect it to focus more on the "making companies pay less tax" aspect of it, which is far more in line with previous moves.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.