Scotland fixes stamp duty, the most broken tax in the nation

Now when will the rest of Britain follow suit?

Good news if you're Scottish: your government is fixing one of the most ridiculously broken parts of the British tax system! (If you aren't Scottish, you're going to have to hold on a bit longer).

Stamp duty, the fee paid upon purchase of a house worth more than £125,000, is set to be devolved to the Scottish government. It will be the first time that Holyrood has exercised the powers given to it in the Scotland Act 2012 to amend the duty on land and property.

Under the existing regime, stamp duty is one of the last taxes left in the world which features a tiered rate structure based on the entire value of the thing being taxed. That is: on a property worth £125,000, you pay 0 per cent stamp duty, but on a property worth £125,001 – exactly on the threshold – you pay a tax of 1 per cent on the entire value of the house. That's over £1000, just for a £1 increase in the sale price.

It gets even worse at higher levels. At £250,000, the duty raises from 1 per cent to 3 per cent, meaning a £1 change in house price costs an extra £5000 in tax. At £500,000, the cost of the £1 change is another £5000; at £1m, it costs £10,000; and at £2m, it costs a whopping £40,000. (Admittedly, few will weep hot tears for the people selling £2m houses).

That imposes a massive distortion onto the housing market. Take a look at this chart, from estate agent Savills, of the distribution of sale prices in London. Do you see the massive anomaly for houses priced between £250,000 and £260,000? That's entirely due to the stamp duty threshold:

If your house is surveyed at £255,000, you will actually take home less money selling it at that price than if you knocked £5,000 off the sale price (this isn't strictly true; the tax is techincally paid by the buyer, not the seller. But it's the easiest way to explain why it's stupid). And that imposes a distortion all the way up the market: if your house is surveyed at £260,000, you're having to compete with people who are selling theirs at over £5,000 below the asking price to avoid a tax. So you have to drop your price a bit as well.

Compare that to income tax, which is what's called a marginal tax: if you earn £155,000, you only pay the 45p rate on the last £5000 you earn, meaning there's no motivation to keep your earnings to £149,999.99.

The reason for Stamp duty being so unbelievably poorly designed is because it actually pre-dates our understanding of why it's a bad idea: the so-called marginalist revolution of the mid-to-late 19th century. That was when economists first started to realise that people make their decisions on the margin: that, for instance, when you are about to buy your tenth pair of shoes, you don't think "how much do I need ten pairs of shoes?"; you think "how much do I need this pair of shoes?"

Stamp duty was introduced in 1694 (and was literally a fee payable to the crown for placing its stamp on legal documents), and was first graduated according to value in 1808. Over time, we've come to realise how stupid that is, but no-one's actually had the guts to do anything about it. Although a decade ago the name was changed to SDLT, so that's something.

So congratulations to Scotland. The proposed tax will now be charged only on the value of the home above £180,000, and will be set at 7.5 per cent up to £1.5m, and 10 per cent above that. That leaves people selling houses worth less than £300,000 better off; but more importantly, it also fixes the broken structure of the old system entirely.

Hopefully the rest of Britain will follow suit – and soon.

A man walks a saltire past Holyrood. 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.

Show Hide image

What it’s like to fall victim to the Mail Online’s aggregation machine

I recently travelled to Iraq at my own expense to write a piece about war graves. Within five hours of the story's publication by the Times, huge chunks of it appeared on Mail Online – under someone else's byline.

I recently returned from a trip to Iraq, and wrote an article for the Times on the desecration of Commonwealth war cemeteries in the southern cities of Amara and Basra. It appeared in Monday’s paper, and began:

“‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the engraving reads, but the words ring hollow. The stone on which they appear lies shattered in a foreign field that should forever be England, but patently is anything but.”

By 6am, less than five hours after the Times put it online, a remarkably similar story had appeared on Mail Online, the world’s biggest and most successful English-language website with 200 million unique visitors a month.

It began: “Despite being etched with the immortal line: ‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the truth could not be further from the sentiment for the memorials in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Amara.”

The article ran under the byline of someone called Euan McLelland, who describes himself on his personal website as a “driven, proactive and reliable multi-media reporter”. Alas, he was not driven or proactive enough to visit Iraq himself. His story was lifted straight from mine – every fact, every quote, every observation, the only significant difference being the introduction of a few errors and some lyrical flights of fancy. McLelland’s journalistic research extended to discovering the name of a Victoria Cross winner buried in one of the cemeteries – then getting it wrong.

Within the trade, lifting quotes and other material without proper acknowledgement is called plagiarism. In the wider world it is called theft. As a freelance, I had financed my trip to Iraq (though I should eventually recoup my expenses of nearly £1,000). I had arranged a guide and transport. I had expended considerable time and energy on the travel and research, and had taken the risk of visiting a notoriously unstable country. Yet McLelland had seen fit not only to filch my work but put his name on it. In doing so, he also precluded the possibility of me selling the story to any other publication.

I’m being unfair, of course. McLelland is merely a lackey. His job is to repackage and regurgitate. He has no time to do what proper journalists do – investigate, find things out, speak to real people, check facts. As the astute media blog SubScribe pointed out, on the same day that he “exposed” the state of Iraq’s cemeteries McLelland also wrote stories about the junior doctors’ strike, British special forces fighting Isis in Iraq, a policeman’s killer enjoying supervised outings from prison, methods of teaching children to read, the development of odourless garlic, a book by Lee Rigby’s mother serialised in the rival Mirror, and Michael Gove’s warning of an immigration free-for-all if Britain brexits. That’s some workload.

Last year James King published a damning insider’s account of working at Mail Online for the website Gawker. “I saw basic journalism standards and ethics casually and routinely ignored. I saw other publications’ work lifted wholesale. I watched editors...publish information they knew to be inaccurate,” he wrote. “The Mail’s editorial model depends on little more than dishonesty, theft of copyrighted material, and sensationalism so absurd that it crosses into fabrication.”

Mail Online strenuously denied the charges, but there is plenty of evidence to support them. In 2014, for example, it was famously forced to apologise to George Clooney for publishing what the actor described as a bogus, baseless and “premeditated lie” about his future mother-in-law opposing his marriage to Amal Alamuddin.

That same year it had to pay a “sizeable amount” to a freelance journalist named Jonathan Krohn for stealing his exclusive account in the Sunday Telegraph of being besieged with the Yazidis on northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar by Islamic State fighters. It had to compensate another freelance, Ali Kefford, for ripping off her exclusive interview for the Mirror with Sarah West, the first female commander of a Navy warship.

Incensed by the theft of my own story, I emailed Martin Clarke, publisher of Mail Online, attaching an invoice for several hundred pounds. I heard nothing, so emailed McLelland to ask if he intended to pay me for using my work. Again I heard nothing, so I posted both emails on Facebook and Twitter.

I was astonished by the support I received, especially from my fellow journalists, some of them household names, including several victims of Mail Online themselves. They clearly loathed the website and the way it tarnishes and debases their profession. “Keep pestering and shaming them till you get a response,” one urged me. Take legal action, others exhorted me. “Could a groundswell from working journalists develop into a concerted effort to stop the theft?” SubScribe asked hopefully.

Then, as pressure from social media grew, Mail Online capitulated. Scott Langham, its deputy managing editor, emailed to say it would pay my invoice – but “with no admission of liability”. He even asked if it could keep the offending article up online, only with my byline instead of McLelland’s. I declined that generous offer and demanded its removal.

When I announced my little victory on Facebook some journalistic colleagues expressed disappointment, not satisfaction. They had hoped this would be a test case, they said. They wanted Mail Online’s brand of “journalism” exposed for what it is. “I was spoiling for a long war of attrition,” one well-known television correspondent lamented. Instead, they complained, a website widely seen as the model for future online journalism had simply bought off yet another of its victims.