PMQs review: Cameron's 50p tax problem hasn't gone away

The PM's decision to cut taxes for the highest earners left him vulnerable to Miliband's Reagan-style attack over living standards.

It was Ronald Reagan who Ed Miliband channelled at today's PMQs as he asked his own version of the US President's famous question to Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential debate: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" 

After today's Resolution Foundation report on "Squeezed Britain" warned that household incomes will not return to pre-recession levels until 2023, Miliband asked David Cameron: "At the end of the parliament, will living standards be higher or lower than they were at the beginning?" 

Understandably reluctant to reply "no", Cameron pointed to the action the coalition had taken to protect living standards, including the rise in the personal allowance and the council tax freeze. But Miliband swiftly countered that the biggest tax cut of all was for those earning over a million pounds a year, who would see their income tax bill fall by more than £100,000 from this April. What made the PM think that those earning £20,000 a week needed "extra help to keep the wolf from the door", he asked.

It was a reminder of why the decision to scrap the 50p rate tax was so politically disastrous for the Tories; it confirmed their status as the party of the rich and overshadowed the Budget's more popular measures. Cameron may contend that the 50p rate was a revenue loser for the Treasury but to most voters that sounds like an argument for cracking down on avoidance, not for cutting taxes. Later asked by Labour MP Stephen Pound whether he would personally benefit from the move, Cameron replied evasively that he would "pay his taxes". Expect Labour to take every opportunity to ask this question before the start of the new tax year on 6 April. 

But Cameron gained the upper hand when he turned his fire on Miliband. Referencing the "major speech" that the Labour leader will give on the economy tomorrow, he mockingly quoted reports that "it won’t have any new policies in it". Jon Cruddas had said that "simply opposing the cuts without an alternative is no good", the PM went on to note. "That is right, the whole frontbench opposite is no good." 

It was punchy stuff but Cameron's decision to cut the 50p rate, combined with the suspicion that he will benefit from the move, means he remains vulnerable on the subject of living standards. With this in mind, Tory MP Robert Halfon has imaginatively called for the reintroduction of the 10p rate, to prove that his party believes in "tax cuts for the many, not just for the few", while simultaneously reminding voters of a Labour error. 

So it was notable that Cameron remarked towards the end of the session, "we won't forget the abolition of the 10p tax rate". Was this is a hint of action to come in the Budget? Almost certainly not (the fiscally conservative Osborne wouldn't allow it), but it would be exactly the kind of "trump card" that Tory MPs have been urging the Chancellor to play. 

David Cameron waits outside Number 10 Downing Street in London on February 11, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry insiders imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that fracking is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.