Osborne's plan to tax foreign property owners is smart politics and smart economics

Imposing capital gains tax on this increasingly resented group will gift the Treasury more easy revenue.

After stoking a new housing boom with Help to Buy, George Osborne has every intention of taking advantage of it. Sky News's Ed Conway reports this morning that the Chancellor is investigating imposing capital gains tax on foreign property owners with an announcement expected in the Autumn Statement. At present, while British citizens pay CGT at 18% or 28% when they sell a property that is not their main home, non-residents are exempt. But with foreign investors purchasing around 70% of all new builds in central London, Osborne, still burdened by a deficit that stood at £115bn last year, has spied a revenue-raising opportunity. 

The move would follow logically from the new charges already introduced by the Chancellor. Largely unnoticed, he has imposed CGT on residential properties bought through overseas companies (thus eliminating a popular loophole) as well as stamp duty of 15% - and the Treasury is pleased with the results. As the Telegraph's Benedict Brogan wrote in his column this week, "Not only did introducing a swingeing 15 per cent recurring levy on properties held by off-shore companies drive plenty of buyers to switch to pay high levels of stamp duty, but it appears a good number of wealthy foreigners are more than happy to pay the charge, enriching the Exchequer still further." He added: "Indeed, it is tempting for the Treasury to conclude that there is more to be plucked from this golden goose than initially realised. First non-doms, then company-held property, next the foreigners queuing at property fairs in Singapore and the Gulf to buy a little piece of London off-plan, with no intention of ever living there: the political case for monetising this wealth looks increasingly attractive."

It is the latter group that Osborne is targeting with his new raid on capital gains. Esate agency Knight Frank estimates that 65% of overseas buyers rent their London properties rather than live in them, using the housing market as a global reserve currency. For this reason, the move is politically astute; it targets an increasingly resented group and allows the Chancellor to claim, however implausibly, that he is ensuring the wealthy pay their fair share. 

It is also smart economics. Property taxes are easy to collect (you can't move a mansion to Geneva) and aid growth by shifting investment away from housing and into wealth-creating industries. Consequently, they are less economically harmful than taxes on consumption, income and corporations.

But one person unlikely to be impressed by Osborne's plans is Boris Johnson. The capital's mayor wrote recently in his Telegraph column: "It is true that London is now globally recognised as such a desirable city that its property is treated effectively as another asset class – a safe investment in a turbulent world. It is also true that this phenomenon has helped – I stress helped – to buoy property values and to fuel the anger of professional people who cannot live in districts where their parents grew up, and who cannot see how their kids will ever be able to afford to buy in London.

"But the answer is not to try to persecute rich foreign investors with new mansion taxes, or complicated and unenforceable taxes on the tiny proportion of homes they leave empty."

It looks as if Osborne, to quote Gordon Brown, has rejected his representations.


George Osborne leaves 10 Downing Street on October 7, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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7 problems with the Snooper’s Charter, according to the experts

In short: it was written by people who "do not know how the internet works".

A group of representatives from the UK Internet Service Provider’s Association (ISPA) headed to the Home Office on Tuesday to point out a long list of problems they had with the proposed Investigatory Powers Bill (that’s Snooper’s Charter to you and me). Below are simplified summaries of their main points, taken from the written evidence submitted by Adrian Kennard, of Andrews and Arnold, a small ISP, to the department after the meeting. 

The crucial thing to note is that these people know what they're talking about - the run the providers which would need to completely change their practices to comply with the bill if it passed into law. And their objections aren't based on cost or fiddliness - they're about how unworkable many of the bill's stipulations actually are. 

1. The types of records the government wants collected aren’t that useful

The IP Bill places a lot of emphasis on “Internet Connection Records”; i.e. a list of domains you’ve visited, but not the specific pages visited or messages sent.

But in an age of apps and social media, where we view vast amounts of information through single domains like Twitter or Facebook, this information might not even help investigators much, as connections can last for days, or even months. Kennard gives the example of a missing girl, used as a hypothetical case by the security services to argue for greater powers:

 "If the mobile provider was even able to tell that she had used twitter at all (which is not as easy as it sounds), it would show that the phone had been connected to twitter 24 hours a day, and probably Facebook as well… this emotive example is seriously flawed”

And these connection records are only going to get less relevant over time - an increasing number of websites including Facebook and Google encrypt their website under "https", which would make finding the name of the website visited far more difficult.

2. …but they’re still a massive invasion of privacy

Even though these records may be useless when someone needs to be found or monitored, the retention of Internet Connection Records (IRCs) is still very invasive – and can actually yield more information than call records, which Theresa May has repeatedly claimed are the non-digital equivalent of ICRs. 

Kennard notes: “[These records] can be used to profile them and identify preferences, political views, sexual orientation, spending habits and much more. It is useful to criminals as it would easily confirm the bank used, and the time people leave the house, and so on”. 

This information might not help find a missing girl, but could build a profile of her which could be used by criminals, or for over-invasive state surveillance. 

3. "Internet Connection Records" aren’t actually a thing

The concept of a list of domain names visited by a user referred to in the bill is actually a new term, derived from “Call Data Record”. Compiling them is possible, but won't be an easy or automatic process.

Again, this strongly implies that those writing the bill are using their knowledge of telecommunications surveillance, not internet era-appropriate information. Kennard calls for the term to be removed, or at least its “vague and nondescript nature” made clear in the bill.

4. The surveillance won’t be consistent and could be easy to dodge

In its meeting with the ISPA, the Home Office implied that smaller Internet service providers won't be forced to collect these ICR records, as it would use up a lot of their resources. But this means those seeking to avoid surveillance could simply move over to a smaller provider.

5. Conservative spin is dictating the way we view the bill 

May and the Home Office are keen for us to see the surveillance in the bill as passive: internet service providers must simply log the domains we visit, which will be looked at in the event that we are the subject of an investigation. But as Kennard notes, “I am quite sure the same argument would not work if, for example, the law required a camera in every room in your house”. This is a vast new power the government is asking for – we shouldn’t allow it to play it down.

6. The bill would allow our devices to be bugged

Or, in the jargon, used in the draft bill, subjected to “equipment interference”. This could include surveillance of everything on a phone or laptop, or even turning on its camera or webcam to watch someone. The bill actually calls for “bulk equipment interference” – when surely, as Kennard notes, “this power…should only be targeted at the most serious of criminal suspects" at most.

7. The ability to bug devices would make them less secure

Devices can only be subject to “equipment interference” if they have existing vulnerabilities, which could also be exploited by criminals and hackers. If security services know about these vulnerabilities, they should tell the manufacturer about them. As Kennard writes, allowing equipment interference "encourages the intelligence services to keep vulnerabilities secret” so they don't lose surveillance methods. Meanwhile, though, they're laying the population open to hacks from cyber criminals. 


So there you have it  – a compelling soup of misused and made up terms, and ethically concerning new powers. Great stuff. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.