Goldman Sachs avoiding the 50p rate proves the folly of cutting it too soon

The 45p rate gets an artificial boost while 50p is made worse in comparison.

Goldman Sachs is considering whether to defer bonuses for its employees into the new tax year, starting 6 April, in order to avoid the 50p tax rate.

The Guardian's Jill Treanor reports:

A number of banks are known to have considered whether to make the move, which would save their top employees thousands of pounds. But City sources believe many of them have rejected the idea to avoid any negative publicity in the wake of the row surrounding corporation tax paid by Starbucks in the UK.

The Wall Street firm – which publishes its full year results on Wednesday and tells staff their bonuses for 2012 shortly afterwards – is not thought to be considering changing the way the bonuses for 2012 are handed out. The proposal being considered would benefit parts of bonuses deferred from the years 2009, 2010 and 2011, which are due to be handed to staff this year in the form of shares.

The move underlines the lack of evidence available that the 50p rate actually hurt revenues. HMRC's analysis in March last year determined that the optimal tax rate was 48 per cent, a figure which 1) didn't justify cutting the rate to 45 per cent and 2) was only derived due to a specific statistic – TIE, taxable income elasticity – being given a value of 0.45. Given studies cited by HMRC for TIE showed it being anywhere from -0.6 to 2.75, there's rather a lot of uncertainty in that analysis.

But the bigger problem for evidence of the tax cut's effects is that, in cutting the 50p rate so rapidly, the Chancellor destroyed the possibility that we might actually get some useful data. The most effective way to avoid the tax is to shift income forward or backward. As a result, the first year it was in operation revealed that £6.6bn of taxable income had been shifted forward by a year; and we now know that this year, the last it will be in operation, a significant chink of income will be shifted back to the 2013/14 tax year.

Add in the fact that even HMRC assumed that some income in 2011/12 will have been declared in 2009/10, and some more will have been coincidentally forestalled to 2012/13 (when it could be forestalled further to 2013/14), and it is clear: there has not been a single year when a "normal" amount of tax was paid at the 50p rate. Every year it was in operation will have resulted in an artificially depressed take.

Similarly, the 45p rate will, for the first few years of its operation, have an artificially boosted take. It will look far more effective at discouraging tax avoidance than it actually is.

Consider this a warning, then: 2014 will see a lot of attempts to misuse data to prove a point. Don't take it at face value.

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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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.