11 EU countries are about to implement an FTT: the UK should make it 12

The Overton window is shifting, and now might be the time for an FTT.

In UK political circles, little serious consideration was given to the idea of a general financial transaction tax (FTT) before the financial crisis and recession. The City’s view that it would damage the UK’s successful financial industry held sway. But in the last few years, politicians have become more sceptical about what the City tells them and have expressed varying degrees of support for the principle of an FTT. The stumbling block, though, remains the possibility that an FTT introduced unilaterally in the UK would see the City lose business to other financial centres, in particular to New York.

Like the perennial threat that bankers are on the brink of leaving London for other shores as a result of the bankers bonus tax, or the bank levy, or the 50p tax rate, this claim is exaggerated. A badly designed FTT might result in business leaving these shores; a well-designed one could minimise that risk.

And the UK already has a well-designed FTT to act as a model: stamp duty on share purchases. This is very hard to avoid because the tax is paid when the change of legal ownership of shares is registered. If the tax is not paid, the purchaser does not legally acquire the shares. At least 30 other countries also have effective FTTs, and they are applied in 13 of the world’s top 15 financial centres.

Now 11 EU countries, including Germany, France and Italy, intend to introduce a financial transaction tax of 0.1 per cent on trades in shares and bonds and 0.01 per cent on trades in derivatives. We have argued in a recent paper that the UK should join with these countries broaden its FTT to trades in bonds and derivatives. If it is worried about losing business to New York, it should actively lobby US policy makers to introduce an FTT of their own, rather than waiting passively for them to act.

It has been estimated that joining the other 11 EU countries could raise up to £20bn a year in additional tax revenues. These could be used to ease the pressure for cuts in departmental spending and welfare payments. Better still, some of these revenues could be diverted to capitalise a British Investment Bank that would invest in infrastructure projects and lend to small and medium-sized business.

In a recent speech, Ed Miliband backed the idea British Investment Bank, together with a network of regional banks to help revitalise the economy. But he has not identified where the money to set up these banks and enable them to start lending would come from. Given the UK’s still large public sector borrowing requirement, this is a serious omission. An FTT could be the answer.

Of course, setting up these banks will take some time. In the interim, revenues from an FTT could be used directly to increase public spending on infrastructure. This would reconcile theviews of the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, who made the case for kick starting economic growth by investing in infrastructure projects and the Prime Minister, who has argued against unfunded tax cuts and borrowing for spending.

Extra infrastructure spending, a new bank – or set of regional banks – and a tax on financial transactions will not, on their own solve the UK’s economic problems. But they would be a step in the right direction. 11 EU countries are about to implement an FTT; the UK should make it 12.

Photograph: Getty Images

Tony Dolphin is chief economist at IPPR

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.