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.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.