If the likes of Philip Green's family desire the rights that come with UK citizenship, they should be required to make fair tax contributions. Photo: Getty
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Leader: Labour should make itself the party of tax cuts and bold tax reform

If the party was radical rather than obsessed with process and presentation, it would be setting out proposals to overhaul our tax system.

Our tax system is just about the most unfair and inefficient imaginable. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that the UK has “an opaque jumble of different effective rates [of tax] as a result of tapered allowances and a separate National Insurance system”. The system urgently needs reform but which politician has the stamina and originality of thought to achieve it?

However, some change might be coming. It has been reported that George Osborne is considering merging National Insurance (NI) and income tax into a single tax. Such a move would, it has been suggested, have advantages for a Conservative chancellor. It would further weaken the contributory principle that was the foundation of the welfare state but that has long since been eroded; it would also raise the headline rate of taxation, and thus increase a desire for tax cuts because people would have a clearer sense of how much of their income they were paying to the state.

Yet, in spite of these objections, we would support the merging of NI and income tax in the interests of greater transparency but also because we believe low- and middle-income earners in Britain already pay too much tax, especially when fuel duty, VAT, council tax and stagnant real wages are taken into account. Ed Miliband complains about a “cost-of-living crisis”. Perhaps, in response, he should consider cutting the average earner’s tax burden.

Our income-tax system is opaque. Governments delight in obfuscation and complication. At present, the marginal income-tax rate on a single earner on the median salary of £26,500 is officially 20 per cent; in fact, when you take NI into account, it is 32 per cent. The coalition government likes to boast that, by raising the personal tax allowance to £10,000, it has taken low earners out of income tax altogether. It has done nothing of the kind.

If the Labour Party was radical rather than obsessed with process and presentation, and if it wanted to win a popular mandate rather than merely limp over the line in coalition with whatever might be left of the Liberal Democrats at Westminster after the general election in 2015, it would be setting out proposals to overhaul our tax system.

Indeed, it would aspire to become a party of tax cuts for low- and middle-income earners and seek to switch some of the burden of taxation from income and consumption to static assets such as property and land, as well as environmental bads. It would reform inheritance tax so that the rich become less able to avoid it. It would introduce land value taxes, at least for business and agricultural land but also potentially for property. The rebanding of council tax, which is based on valuations more than 20 years old, would also be an essential part of any wide-ranging programme of reform.

Such policies would ensure that those who have benefited most from the house-price inflation of the past decade or so were making a fair contribution to the national burden: property, unlike capital, cannot be hidden in offshore accounts.

Creating the political space for such a course of action, however, would require the Labour Party to make a more persuasive case for progressive taxation. For too long, paying your fair share in taxes has been framed as an unfortunate burden, rather than part of what it means to live as a responsible citizen in a free and open society.

A first, bold step towards achieving a more equitable and transparent tax system would be to change the rules concerning those ultra-rich British citizens who reside abroad for tax reasons. If those such as the family of Philip Green – the billionaire chief executive of the Arcadia retail group (and adviser on public spending to the Conservative Party) whose wife is resident in Monaco – desire the rights and security that come with British citizenship, they should be required to make a fair contribution in taxation to the British state.

If an American wishes to retain US citizenship, he is liable for federal taxes no matter where he lives in the world. It is a convention that dates back to 1861 and the American civil war. Surely it is time for all those Britons who hide their money tax-free in overseas accounts or in tax havens to pay up, as Americans are obliged to do – or renounce the right to be British. Here is one policy that, if it were adopted by the Labour Party, would have genuine popular appeal. What’s there not to like about it? 

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.