Osborne isn't increasing funding for HMRC - he's cutting it

The Chancellor's £154m "blitz" on tax avoidance will do little to compensate for £2bn of cuts.

With two days to go until his Autumn Statement, George Osborne is attempting to convince the public that he's launched a "blitz" against tax avoidance. The Chancellor has announced £154m of funding for HMRC to draft in an "army of investigators" to target those companies, like Google, Amazon and Starbucks, who, in the words of the Commons public accounts committee, pay "little or no corporation tax here".

Osborne said:

The government is clear that while most taxpayers are doing their bit to help us balance the books, it is unacceptable for a minority to avoid paying their fair share, sometimes by breaking the law. We are determined to tackle this problem and HMRC are making good progress, but we are giving them additional tools to bring in more.

But what the Chancellor won't say is that the £154m will barely begin to compensate for the cuts he's made. In the Spending Review in 2010, Osborne announced that funding for HMRC would be reduced by 16.5 per cent (£2bn), including 10,000 job cuts. By 2015, staffing levels will be at an all-time low of 56,100, significantly limiting HMRC's ability to collect taxes. A report earlier this year by the public accounts committee found that job cuts among revenue officials meant the government collected £1.1bn less in tax than it would otherwise have done. "We are not convinced that the decision to reduce staff numbers working in this area in the past represented value for money for the taxpayer," it said.

The cuts didn't begin under Osborne - staff levels fell from 97,073 in April 2005 to 66,992 in November 2010 as a result of spending reductions made by Labour - but he has made the problem worse. So, while £154m of funding is welcome, as far as these things go, it's unlikely that Google will be losing any sleep. 

Chancellor George Osborne speaks at the Conservative conference in Birmingham earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR