Leader: Far tougher choices are needed on tax and spend

Neither the tax rises proposed by Labour, nor the benefits cuts proposed by the Tories would make a significant dent in the deficit.

The 2010 general election was defined by a conspiracy of silence between the main parties. For fear of the electoral consequences, neither Labour nor the Conservatives spelled out to voters what austerity would entail in practice. While vowing to halve the deficit, Gordon Brown never acknowledged the scale of spending cuts that would be needed to meet this pledge. The Tories, who promised to eliminate the structural deficit in a single parliament, were no better. The weekend before the election, David Cameron declared that any future cabinet minister who proposed “front-line reductions” in services would be “sent straight back to their department to go away and think again”. During the campaign, he said that his party had “absolutely no plans” to raise VAT, that he “wouldn’t means-test” child benefit, that Sure Start centres would not be closed and that the Education Maintenance Allowance would remain in place. Each one of these promises was broken before the year was out.

This year has begun with both the Tories and Labour declaring that they are prepared to make the “tough choices” required to reduce the deficit – which the government forecasts will be £111bn this year – in the next parliament. George Osborne has promised to implement £25bn of further spending cuts, including £12bn from welfare, in the two years after the next general election. Ed Balls has announced that Labour will seek to achieve a current budget surplus by the end of the next parliament and will reintroduce the 50p income-tax rate to help with this task. Both men wish to be seen as fiscal disciplinarians, taking difficult but necessary decisions in the national interest. Yet neither can credibly claim this mantle.

There is little that is brave about cutting benefits for the poor or raising taxes on the rich, policies that have the overwhelming support of the public. Voters, unsurprisingly, are most in favour of austerity when it does not affect them. Just 1.5 per cent of taxpayers have earnings above the £150,000 threshold at which the 50p tax rate would be introduced and a similarly small proportion of households is affected by measures such as the benefit cap. For this reason, none of the policies recently announced by Mr Balls and Mr Osborne would make a significant dent in the deficit. Rather, their logic is almost entirely political. The Tories are seeking to frame Labour as the party of welfare, Labour to frame the Tories as the party of the wealthy. One can hardly blame politicians for playing politics but the danger is that this ideological skirmish denies the country the open debate it needs about its fiscal choices.

Despite the return of consistent growth, the scale of austerity required after 2015, owing to the persistence of the structural deficit (which stands at 3.6 per cent of GDP), has not lessened. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that £12bn of further tax rises or welfare cuts will be needed merely to maintain departmental spending cuts at their current level. While Mr Osborne has declared his willingness to make welfare reductions of this size, he has notably refused to specify any beyond the abolition of housing benefit for the under-25s, a measure that would raise at most £1.2bn, and likely less after exemptions for the disabled and other vulnerable groups. Beyond the tax rises announced by Labour, most of which are to fund new spending programmes, Mr Balls has offered to remove winter fuel payments from the wealthiest 5 per cent of pensioners, a cut that would save just £100m.

For the sake of democracy as well as good government, we need a far wider debate about the services the state should fund and the taxes it should levy to pay for them. Both parties should consider significantly deeper cuts to a defence budget that remains the fourth largest in the world. At a time when property values are rising far faster than incomes, they should also look to increase the taxation of high-value estates, including steeper rates of stamp duty and the imposition of capital gains tax on first properties. Other imaginative options include the introduction of a land value tax and a higher rate of VAT on luxury items. But given that it seems the limits of departmental cuts will soon be reached, the parties ultimately may need to discuss openly the possibility of raising the only taxes that reap reliably large revenues: the basic rate of income tax, National Insurance and VAT. That would be a properly “tough choice”.
 

Ed Balls and George Osborne attend the State Opening of Parliament on May 8, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The seven per cent problem

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As a Conservative MP, I want Parliament to get a proper debate on Brexit

The government should consider a Green Paper before Article 50. 

I am very pleased that the government has listened to the weight of opinion across the House of Commons – and the country – by agreeing to put its plan for Brexit before Parliament and the country for scrutiny before Article 50 is triggered. Such responsiveness will stand the government in good stead. A confrontation with Parliament, especially given the paeans to parliamentary sovereignty we heard from Leave campaigners during the referendum, would have done neither the Brexit process nor British democracy any good.

I support the government’s amendment to Labour’s motion, which commits the House to respecting the will of the British people expressed in the referendum campaign. I accept that result, and now I and other Conservatives who campaigned to Remain are focused on getting the best deal for Britain; a deal which respects the result of the referendum, while keeping Britain close to Europe and within the single market.

The government needs to bring a substantive plan before Parliament, which allows for a proper public and parliamentary debate. For this to happen, the plan provided must be detailed enough for MPs to have a view on its contents, and it must arrive in the House far enough in advance of Article 50 for us to have a proper debate. As five pro-European groups said yesterday, a Green Paper two months before Article 50 is invoked would be a sensible way of doing it. Or, in the words of David Davis just a few days before he was appointed to the Cabinet, a “pre-negotiation white paper” could be used to similar effect.

Clearly there are divisions, both between parties and between Leavers and Remainers, on what the Brexit deal should look like. But I, like other members of the Open Britain campaign and other pro-European Conservatives, have a number of priorities which I believe the government must prioritise in its negotiations.

On the economy, it is vital that the government strives to keep our country fully participating in the single market. Millions of jobs depend on the unfettered trade, free of both tariff and non-tariff barriers, we enjoy with the world’s biggest market. This is absolutely compatible with the result, as senior Leave campaigners such as Daniel Hannan assured voters before the referendum that Brexit would not threaten Britain’s place in the single market. The government must also undertake serious analysis on the consequences of leaving the customs union, and the worrying possibility that the UK could fall out of our participation in the EU’s Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with non-EU countries like South Korea.

If agreeing a new trading relationship with Europe in just two years appears unachievable, the government must look closely into the possibility of agreeing a transitional arrangement first. Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief negotiator, has said this would be possible and the Prime Minister was positive about this idea at the recent CBI Conference. A suitable transitional arrangement would prevent the biggest threat to British business – that of a "cliff edge" that would slap costly tariffs and customs checks on British exports the day after we leave.

Our future close relationship with the EU of course goes beyond economics. We need unprecedentedly close co-operation between the UK and the EU on security and intelligence sharing; openness to talented people from Europe and the world; and continued cooperation on issues like the environment. This must all go hand-in-hand with delivering reforms to immigration that will make the system fairer, many of which can be seen in European countries as diverse as the Netherlands and Switzerland.

This is what I and others will be arguing for in the House of Commons, from now until the day Britain leaves the European Union. A Brexit deal that delivers the result of the referendum while keeping our country prosperous, secure, open and tolerant. I congratulate the government on their decision to involve the House in their plan for Brexit - and look forward to seeing the details. 

Neil Carmichael is the Conservative MP for Stroud and supporter of the Open Britain campaign.