The welfare cuts that the 50p tax rate could have prevented

George Osborne abolished the top rate of tax after it "only" raised £1bn - but which welfare cuts could have been avoided for that amount?

George Osborne's stated justification for abolishing the 50p income tax rate was that, due to mass avoidance, it raised "just a third of the £3bn" expected. Even by Osborne's standards, this was a peculiarly unconvincing argument. It's true that £16bn of income was shifted into the previous tax year  - when the rate was still 40p - but this was a trick the rich could only have played once. Moreover, as the government has acknowledged in other instances, tax avoidance isn't an argument for cutting tax, it's an argument for limiting avoidance. 

But leave this aside. The fact remains that, as Osborne conceded, the 50p rate raised £1bn (and had the potential to raise far more). Not a transformative amount, to be sure (the deficit is forecast to be £120.9bn this year), but hardly to be sniffed at. Indeed, it's precisely this argument that the government makes when justifying "tough" measures such as the "bedroom tax" (which it is hoped will save £465m a year): every little helps. 

Osborne claims that the reduction in the top rate to 45p will cost the government just £100m but, once again, this is based on an anomalous year's data. Having brought forward their income in order to avoid the 50p rate in its first year, the rich have now delayed it in order to benefit from the reduction to 45p (again, a trick they can only play once) this year. The reality is that the cost of scrapping the rate is likely to be far higher, with up to £3bn in revenue forsaken. But as I show below, even if we accept the anomalous figure of £1bn, a significant number of the welfare cuts introduced by the government could have been avoided if the 50p rate had remained in place. 

The "bedroom tax"

The measure, which will see housing benefit cut by 14 per cent for those social housing tenants deemed to have one spare room and by 25 per cent for those with two or more, is forecast to save £480m - less than half of the yield from the 50p rate. 

It will cost 660,000 tenants an average of £14 a week or £728 a year. Exemptions have been introduced for 5,000 foster carers, some armed forces families and families with severely disabled children - but not families with a severely disabled adult

Estimated saving: £465m a year.

And

Council tax support cut by 10 per cent

The retention of the 50p rate could also have paid for the reversal of the 10 per cent cut in council tax support, which is forecast to save up to £480m a year. The measure will cost 1.9 million families who do not currently pay council tax an average of £140 a year. In addition, 150,000 low income families will pay on average £300 more a year.

I've written about the policy in greater detail here (Will this be the coalition's poll tax moment?).

Estimated saving: £480m a year. 

Or

Legal aid cuts

Alternatively, the 50p rate could have prevented the lowering of the cut-off point for legal aid to a household income of £32,000 and the introduction of a means-test for those earning between £14,000 and £32,000. 

Estimated saving: £350m.

Or

1% cap on benefit increases

Around half of the revenue raised by the 50p rate in its first year could have allowed the government to uprate benefits in line with inflation (which stood at 2.2 per cent in September 2012, the month traditionally used to calculate benefit increases), rather than by just 1 per cent. 

Estimated saving: £505m in 2013-14.

George Osborne scrapped the 50p tax rate in his 2012 Budget after it raised "just a third of the £3bn" expected. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.