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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.