Why is tax avoidance a reason for letting people off tax?

Tax dodging, the Laffer curve, and the 50p rate

The reason given for cutting the 50p rate of tax to 45p was avoidance. It wasn't clearly phrased as such – most of the talk was about how it had raised less money than expected, or had changed behaviour in ways that harmed growth – but that is what it was nonetheless. To many, this will seem strange. "You avoided tax, so we will make you pay less". But it is an integral part of the line of thought that lies behind the cut.

Art Laffer first made the argument that cutting tax rates could boost revenue. The reasoning is broadly that, when the marginal tax rate (the amount you pay on each extra pound earned) gets too high, people start doing things to reduce their taxable income.

The palatable version is that they work less, because an extra hour of work no longer pays as well as it did, and this is probably true; there are certainly anecdotal tales of highly paid consultants turning down work later on in the year to spend more time at home.

The less palatable version is that they avoid more tax, because spending the money and effort required to set up a limited company, be paid "overseas", or funnel your income through a Swiss bank account in the name of your dog becomes more worthwhile the more it saves you.

Both of these "behavioural changes" are factored in to the Laffer curve, the rough prediction of how much revenue will be gained at various marginal tax rates. HMRC produced three such curves, each based around a different "taxable income elasticity" (TIE), a measure of how much an individual's behaviour changes given the tax rate:

They based their analysis around a TIE of 0.45 (a figure basically plucked from thin air – HMRC admit the evidence to choose is "extremely limited", and the studies they cite range from -0.6 to 2.75), which showed a peak of revenue at around 48 per cent. Quite why this then led the Chancellor to cut the rate to three per cent below that is unclear. If he wanted to raise revenue, his own analysis is showing that he's done it wrong.

The problem is, one thing which affects the TIE is the ease with which one can avoid tax. Make tax avoidance harder, TIE goes up, and the peak revenue rate increases. In fact, given the anti-avoidance measures announced at the budget yesterday, TIE will already be higher than it was at the time of the analysis, boosting the argument for keeping the 50p rate.

There is one massive category of avoidance which can't be cited as a reason for cutting the rate, however. The HMRC's stats show that £6.6bn less income was declared in 2010-11 due to it being "forestalled" – paid the year before, so as to take advantage of the lower rate. This is avoidance on a massive scale (Richard Murphy points out that it is £1.6bn more than the estimation for all tax avoidance in 2011), yet, contra Tim Worstall, it has no bearing on the decision on whether or not to cut the rate, because it can only ever be done once. 

By cutting the tax so early in its life, Osborne has ensured that we make the decision unable to know the full effect of cutting it. We can guess at how much will have been raised for the 2011-12 tax year, when forestalling was harder (although not impossible, and HMRC warn that it "continues to reduce revenues in 2011-12 and beyond"), but by the time we know for sure, it will be too late. The 45p tax will be in, and there won't be a "normal" year of the 50p rate to compare it to.

Tax dodging is an emotive issue. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation