Borrowing figures show how Osborne allowed thousands to avoid 50p tax rate

The spike in tax receipts was caused by individuals deferring income and bonuses to benefit from the new 45p rate, not a surge in earnings.

The latest borrowing figures are being trumpeted by the Tories as evidence of the success of George Osborne's economic plan, with tax receipts up by 7% compared to last year. But what they won't mention is that this spike has more to do with high earners avoiding the 50p tax rate than it does with any rise in earnings. By deferring income and bonuses from 2012 until this year to take advantage of the new 45p rate, taxpayers have caused a £2.9bn increase in receipts. But with earnings growth of just 0.7% in the most recent month, it's far from certain that this improved trend will continue. 

As the OBR notes in its commentary on the figures: 

Growth in both income tax and NICs for the year-to-date is above the full year forecasts, but this largely reflects the fact that receipts in the first few months of the year benefited from the deferral of some income/bonuses to take advantage of the reduction of the additional rate of income tax to 45p and some temporary effects in non-PAYE income tax. Prospects for PAYE and NIC receipts growth will depend on the feed-through from the low growth in average weekly earnings in the latest data.
The IFS similarly warns
It is important to note that some of the strong growth in receipts observed earlier in the year may not be expected to persist for the rest of the financial year, as it may be the result of some high income individuals pushing part of their income from last year into the beginning of this tax year in order to take advantage of the reduction in the higher rate of income tax.
And with individuals paying tax at 45p, rather than 50p, the Exchequer is left out of pocket. Osborne's stated justification for abolishing the 50p rate was that, due to mass avoidance, it raised "just a third of the £3bn" expected. But while it's true that £16bn of income was shifted into the previous tax year  - when the rate was still 40p - this was a trick the rich could only have played once. And as the government has acknowledged on other occasions, tax avoidance isn't an argument for cutting tax, it's an argument for stopping avoidance. 
 
Having falsely claimed that the (anomalous) first year of the 50p rate proved that it was ineffective, the Tories are now using the (anomalous) first year of the 45p rate to argue that they were right to scrap it. We'll never know how much the 50p rate would actually have raised - and that is just as Osborne intended. 
 
Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Chris Leslie said: "It’s significant that the OBR has pointed out that very high earners delayed their bonuses to take advantage of David Cameron’s top rate tax cut.

"While this artificially boosts this year’s borrowing figures, overall the Treasury will have lost millions of pounds as a result of the highest earners deferring income to pay tax at a lower rate."

"This is yet more proof that David Cameron stands up for the wrong people. While those at the top are reaping the benefits of a huge tax cut, ordinary people on middle and low incomes are seeing their living standards fall."

George Osborne speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.