How the mansion tax will work, and who it will hit

If you're planning to own a mansion in the future, the tax isn't as bad as it seems…

Let's clear up one myth about the mansion tax straight away: it is not going to work the way Tim Montgomerie suggests in his Times column today. Montgomerie writes:

Last week Ed Miliband joined Nick Clegg in proposing a mansion tax so that the people who live in London’s parallel universe — many of whom come from overseas and pay little in the way of income taxes — might make a greater contribution. It was a perfectly reasonable intervention but, in a sign that the Conservative Party still hasn’t understood why it can’t win elections, many Tory MPs reacted with fury. Such a tax was, they complained, unfair on the person in a £2 million home who didn’t have the necessary £20,000 to spare.

A person with a £2m home would pay nothing in tax under any version of the mansion tax previously suggested. A £20,000 tax bill implies a house worth £4m. That's because the tax Miliband eventually produces is near certain to follow the same lines as the Lib Dems' desired tax, and be set at 1 per cent of the value of the home above £2m.

The reason why is obvious: if the tax was set at 1 per cent of the total value of any home above £2m, then there would be a huge incentive to depress, either artificially or actually, the value of the home. If your house was worth £2,010,000, it would be worth paying someone up to £10,000 to come round and do £10k worth of damage to it.

More practically, the lack of a cliff-edge at which the tax comes in is also likely to prevent it doing too much to property values. It will have a depressive effect, getting stronger as the house gets more valuable, and will likely knock quite a bit off the price of a £4m house. But the changes will be about pricing in the expected future cost of the tax to the sale price, not about avoidance. For much the same reason that no-body ever says "no thanks, I'd rather earn just £8,104 and not pay tax on my income", houses aren't going to start being sold at £1.99m in any real numbers.

But that example does reveal one of the bigger problems with the fairness of the tax. No, it's not the ridiculous example given by Toby Young of someone who finds themselves living in a £4m house without the money to pay the tax bill. If you can sell your house, buy a £2m one, and pocket the lifetime earnings of someone on the median wage as the difference, you do not really get to plead poverty.

Instead, it's that the vast majority of the incidence of the tax will be on the people who own the houses today. The depressive effect it will have on house prices will be pretty much instantaneous, and will then sit there forever. The tax will also slightly dampen the rate at which house prices above £2m increase — because every £100 increase in price imposes a £1-a-year increase in tax liability — but that is small fry compared to the initial hit.

That quirk explains why the suggestion of a tax provokes such vociferous outrage amongst those owning £2m+ houses. It really is unfair on them; but it's not a matter of unfairness against the rich, so much as unfairness against this generation of the rich. And really, for a government which has done so much to harm the cause of intergenerational fairness, that's a small hit in return.

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.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.