Budget 2013: The £10k personal allowance won’t reverse the impact of welfare cuts

The small benefits the lowest earners will see from today's tax allowance rise does little to compensate for the enormous hit they will take from cuts to benefits.

One of the key measures in today’s budget was an increase in the personal tax allowance, which will rise from £9,440 in to £10,000 in 2014/15. It was always an ambition of the Coalition to reach 10k before the next election, but they have revealed today that they will get there a year earlier. Taking people out of the tax system has an intuitive appeal if, like the Chancellor, you want to ‘set free the aspirations of the nation’. But what is the actual impact on household incomes?

The red bars in the chart below shows what the distributional impact of the change. While personal allowance rises are often presented as a measure benefitting those on the lowest incomes, in actual fact it is middle and higher earning households that gain the most. Indeed, the lowest earners will only gain 0.05 per cent of weekly incomes from the change. The biggest winners are those earning more than median earnings, who will see their weekly income rise by over than 0.2 per cent. The reason for this is simple – the lowest earning households are less likely to have incomes above the personal allowance anyway, so an increase has little or no effect on them. The highest earners, on the other hand, will often have two earners earning above the personal allowance, so they get the full benefit.

When compared to the impact of the 1% benefit up-rating cap announced in the Autumn Statement, the regressive nature of the coalition's tax and benefit policies is even starker. The red bars in the chart show the distributional change in household incomes as a result of the reforms announced last December. It is clear the small benefit the lowest earners will see as a result of today’s tax allowance rise does little to compensate for the enormous hit they will take because of real-terms cuts in child benefit, tax credits and a host of other working-age benefits.

The Chancellor wants to do something to help hard-working families, but some of the hardest-working families on low-incomes will see little benefit from today’s announcement on income tax, while at the same time bearing the brunt of the coalition’s cuts to welfare. Looking to the future, with the prospect of even more cuts to come, we have to ask whether it is fair for the poorest to shoulder so much of the burden.

A demonstrator wears a mask depicting George Osborne during a gathering by the Public and Commercial Services Union. Photograph: Getty Images.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.