From striver alert to future cuts: five things to expect from the Autumn Statement

A few insights from Gavin Kelly to help you navigate Osborne's fiscal arithmetic.

In the Autumn Statement there will be a blizzard of facts, figures, assertions and counter-assertions. There have been a few helpful pointers on what lto ook out for (try this and this), and I’ve already given my tuppence worth on what may happen to the faltering fiscal rules. But here are a few further insights to bear in mind.

First, be on striver alert. Expect plenty of warm words about "do-ers and grafters" who get up and work hard on modest means. In a different part of the Chancellor’s speech there will be tough messages and measures for those working age families who receive tax credits and benefits. Not for the first or last time the impression will be given that these are two distinct groups inhabiting different moral and economic worlds. They aren’t. Three quarters of tax credits go to working households. If reports about capping tax credit increases at 1 per cent are correct then so-called strivers are about to be squeezed too. 

Second, there will be new news on wages – and the longevity of the squeeze. Buried in the OBR report there will new estimates for what is expected to happen to wages and inflation until 2018. In terms of the economics, and politics, of living standards from now until the election this is key data. Given that the OBR’s forecast for growth in 2013 is very likely to be marked down (from rosy 2 per cent figure it set in March) the assumption for earnings may well also fall. Also, for those who want to get inside the numbers, be warned that the figures the OBR uses tend to be a bit optimistic as they are based on the mean rather than typical (ie median) wage.

Third, watch out for childcare. Given the size of the cuts that are coming down the path you might not expect any new areas of spending. But if there is to be any (outside of new capital investment – or more accurately a slowing down of the rate of infrastructure cuts) then childcare may be a beneficiary. Measures to help with childcare costs would support employment, speak to concerns over the cost of living, and be a nod to the Coalition’s woes with some women voters. In terms of what might actually get announced there is likely to have been a lively internal debate. On the one hand, there are those who favour introducing tax-relief – a slightly saloon bar approach - which will inevitably favour the better off (and which has been skewered by my colleague James Plunkett). Against this are those who would like to build on the 15 hours of free guaranteed pre-school childcare. This latter approach would be a step in the right direction and do something to reduce the shocking disincentives to work that many second earners face in low and middle income families. That said, the government may want to hold any such announcement back to the New Year when its Childcare Commission reports.

Fourth, there is the widely anticipated raid on pension tax relief for the affluent. The briefings are that around £1-1.5bn might be raised by lowering the annual limit on pension contributions from £50k to £30k. If so, be ready for a bit of a storm from the well-organised pensions lobby. But bear in mind that tax-relief is highly regressive and very expensive. It is indeed remarkable that the support for higher rate tax payers has been so protected given some of the cuts being made – some of the claims about these measure hammering "middle-earners" are very overdone.

Even so, there are better ways of cutting tax-relief for the affluent than restricting the annual limit: the lifetime allowance for tax privileged pension contributions should be cut instead. Bringing it down from £1.5m to £1m would raise up to £1.5bn (to put this perspective note that the typical size of annuity purchased is £25k). It’s also the case that those who say that this salami slicing of pension tax relief is destabilising for savers have a point: the government should work out once and for all how much it wants to raise from pension tax relief in this Parliament and then draw a line. And when it does this, it should bear in mind that it still needs to find the billions to pay for the final increase in the personal tax allowance to £10k before 2015.

Finally, care needs to be taken in adding up the scale of the future cuts. The briefing by the IFS on Thursday lunchtime will provide the definitive view on this. But if a figure is revealed for new cuts that need to be made in 2017/18 (because the structural deficit gets pushed back by another year) then bear in mind that this will be on top of a pile of other cuts – roughly £23bn - that have already been pencilled in for 2015/16 and 2016/2017 but are yet to be allocated. Osborne is accumulating an ever larger mountain of fiscal misery to be dished out between departments and welfare spending. For a guide to this unpleasant fiscal arithmetic you won’t do better than reading this from the IPPR and this from the SMF.

But also bear in mind, that if the OBR decided at some future date to change its assumptions about the amount of spare capacity in the economy, and therefore the size of the structural deficit, then all of these numbers would be greatly affected. In which case there would be probably be a need for another Autumn Statement.


George Osborne. Photograph: Getty Images

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation 

Show Hide image

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.