George Osborne speaks at an event in Sydney on February 21, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Those who pay the 40p tax rate are not "the middle"

Just 15 per cent earn enough to pay the higher rate. Osborne is right to focus on helping the low-paid.

Two days ahead of the Budget, the Conservative revolt over George Osborne's stance on the 40p tax rate is continuing. The Chancellor's refusal to increase the threshold for the higher rate, in favour of helping low-earners through another large rise in the personal allowance (which is set to be increased from £10,000 to at least £10,500), is enraging those Tories concerned that the party's natural "middle class" supporters are being caught in a tax band intended for the rich.

Owing to successive reductions in the 40p threshold (which currently stands at £41,451, down from £43,875 in 2010), the number of people paying the rate has risen to a record high of 4.4m, up from 3m before the election. Norman Lamont and Nigel Lawson have both urged Osborne to act to relieve the "squeezed middle", while the Institue of Directors has warned of the damaging effect on work incentives. The Chancellor's alleged suggestion that the surge in the number of 40p taxpayers would aid the Tories by making voters feel a "success" (which may be partly true) has added fuel to the fire.

But barring a surprise U-turn on Wednesday (not unheard of in Budgets), he will ignore the pleas from right and increase the threshold by no more than 1 per cent, below the rate of inflation. It is far better, he believes, to target limited resources (the deficit is forecast to be £111bn this year) at the low-paid, who will benefit significantly from another rise in the personal allowance. This invites the rejoinder that Osborne chose to cut taxes for the richest 1 per cent by reducing the top rate from 50p to 45p in his 2012 Budget. But it is at least partly to compensate for that kamikaze act that the Chancellor is determined to reposition the Tories as the party for the low-paid

In this respect, Osborne is entirely right: it is not those who pay the 40p rate who are most in need of relief. Far from representing "the middle", those who are caught by the tax band represent the top 15 per cent of earners. The median salary for a full-time employee in the UK is just £26,884, well below the £41,451 you need to earn before paying the 40p rate. And even after falling within its reach, they will only pay the rate on income above this level (not their entire salary) meaning that the effect for many will be negligible. There may well be strong arguments for increasing the 40p threshold (Osborne should certainly be taxing the top 1 per cent far more) but it says much about the gulf between rhetoric and reality that higher rate taxpayers are still routinely described by the media and politicians as "the middle".

As I've noted before, there are better ways of supporting the low paid than raising the personal allowance - which will do nothing to help the five million workers who earn below £10,000.  It is those in the second-richest decile who gain the most in cash terms from the policy (mainly due to the greater number of dual-earning households), followed by the richest tenth, who gain marginally less due to the gradual removal of the personal allowance after £100,000 (a brilliant piece of stealth redistribution by Alistair Darling). As a percentage of income, it is middle-earners who gain the most, with those at the bottom gaining the least. Progressive alternatives to raising the income tax threshold include increasing the National Insurance (NI) threshold, which currently stands at £7,748, cutting VAT, which stands at a record 20 per cent and hits the poorest hardest, or raising in-work benefits such as tax credits.

But a rise in the personal allowance will at least do something to aid lower and middle earners, in contrast to a rise in the 40p threshold, which would benefit no one but the top 15 per cent.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.