Don't fall for the Tories' spin over the 45p rate

Why the increase in tax revenues doesn't prove that the coalition was right to scrap the 50p rate.

The Treasury is busy spinning the latest income tax receipt figures as proof that it was right to abolish the 50p rate. Last month the new top rate of 45p raised £11.5bn, £1.3bn more than its predecessor. So, has Art Laffer (of the eponymous "curve") been vindicated? Do lower rates, as the right has long claimed, produce higher revenues? Not quite. The spike in tax receipts is most likely due to the income shifted from last year to this year in order to benefit from the lower rate. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies notes: "Receipts in April will have been boosted by high income individuals shifting income such as bonuses and special dividends from 2012–13 to 2013–14 in anticipation of the fall in the top rate of income tax from 50 per cent to 45 per cent". 

This, of course, is a trick the rich can only play once (unless the rate is reduced again), just as, in the opposite direction, they shifted £16bn into the previous tax year when the rate was still 40p (the real reason that the 50p rate raised less than forecast, although a £1bn isn't to be sniffed at). There was never a "normal" year of the 50p rate. This, of course, was precisely Osborne's intention. Having falsely claimed that the (anomalous) first year of the 50p rate proved that it was ineffective, he will now use the (anomalous) first year of the 45p rate to argue that he was right to scrap it. How much would the 50p rate have raised? We'll never know; Osborne cancelled the experiment at birth. 

The 45p rate may well raise more in the months ahead but we'll have no means of detaching this from any concurrent increase in growth. But don't expect that to stop Osborne declaring victory in the 2014 Budget.

George Osborne arrives to attend a press conference at the conclusion of the IMF UK mission. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.