All the things I could do if I had a little money. (Image: Flickr/fsecart)
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Raising the personal allowance: more expensive than you'd think, and not as progressive as they say

One of the announcements from yesterday’s budget was the Chancellor setting the path of income tax bands from 2015/16 to 2017/18. The personal tax allowance, the amount of income that can be earned before paying the 20p basic rate of income tax, will rise to £11,000, and the higher rate threshold, that amount earned before paying the 40p higher rate, will rise to £43,300. 

This sounds significant, but is a substantially less generous policy than the one mooted earlier in the week, of an £11,000 personal allowance this year, not in 2017/18. Because tax bands are up-rated by inflation anyway, delaying the £11,000 by two years substantially reduces the benefit to taxpayers. In the absence of any policy intervention, the personal tax allowance would be expected to rise to around £10,760 in 2017-18. This means the announced measure is a rise of just £240, and a benefit of £48 in reduced tax for basic rate taxpayers, rather than the £80 they would receive had it been implemented this year. The rise in the higher rate threshold is £400 higher than where it would fall if increased in line with inflation.

One suspects the chancellor turned away from the idea of an £11,000 personal allowance sooner because the OBR have substantially revised down their expectations of inflation. This increases the cost of an £11,000 personal allowance, since the gap between where it would fall under inflation-uprating and £11,000 is larger. Nonetheless, putting up tax bands faster than inflation is not cheap. The modest increases proposed in yesterdays budget will, by the Treasury’s own reckoning, cost close to £1.5bn.

Also important is that the OBR’s downward revision of inflation makes both the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives tax ambitions, of a £12,500 personal allowance by 2020/21 and, in the Conservatives case, a £50,000 higher rate threshold, much more expensive. At the time of the Conservative party conference last Autumn, this package of tax cuts was costed at around £7.2bn. Factoring in the impact of lower inflation, this has risen closer to £9bn. With the Coalition setting out a fairly gentle path of rises out to 2017/18 yesterday, the assumption has to be that the remaining £6.5bn of tax cuts will be back-loaded in the remaining years of the parliament.

The Coalition have justified their expensive tax cut strategy by highlighting how many workers have been lifted out of tax in this parliament. But, as has been consistently pointed out, those on middle to high incomes benefit the most from personal allowance increases. And those on the lowest earnings do not benefit at all, as they aren’t earning enough to pay tax anyway. Our distributional analysis of yesterday’s announcements (see below) illustrates this regressive pattern.

As the personal tax allowance has continued to rise above inflation, this latter group is growing in size. Using generous and expensive tax band up-rating as a strategy to support those on low incomes hasn’t just run out of road, it was flawed from the outset. Many commentators have pointed out that a rise in the threshold at which employees start paying NICs would be a better use of similar funds. Even better would be using this money to make Universal Credit and other in-work benefits more generous, since that would be much more tightly targeted at those on low incomes, and have little to no benefit for those higher up the income distribution.

 

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR

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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue