The welfare cuts that the 50p tax rate could have prevented

George Osborne abolished the top rate of tax after it "only" raised £1bn - but which welfare cuts could have been avoided for that amount?

George Osborne's stated justification for abolishing the 50p income tax rate was that, due to mass avoidance, it raised "just a third of the £3bn" expected. Even by Osborne's standards, this was a peculiarly unconvincing argument. It's true that £16bn of income was shifted into the previous tax year  - when the rate was still 40p - but this was a trick the rich could only have played once. Moreover, as the government has acknowledged in other instances, tax avoidance isn't an argument for cutting tax, it's an argument for limiting avoidance. 

But leave this aside. The fact remains that, as Osborne conceded, the 50p rate raised £1bn (and had the potential to raise far more). Not a transformative amount, to be sure (the deficit is forecast to be £120.9bn this year), but hardly to be sniffed at. Indeed, it's precisely this argument that the government makes when justifying "tough" measures such as the "bedroom tax" (which it is hoped will save £465m a year): every little helps. 

Osborne claims that the reduction in the top rate to 45p will cost the government just £100m but, once again, this is based on an anomalous year's data. Having brought forward their income in order to avoid the 50p rate in its first year, the rich have now delayed it in order to benefit from the reduction to 45p (again, a trick they can only play once) this year. The reality is that the cost of scrapping the rate is likely to be far higher, with up to £3bn in revenue forsaken. But as I show below, even if we accept the anomalous figure of £1bn, a significant number of the welfare cuts introduced by the government could have been avoided if the 50p rate had remained in place. 

The "bedroom tax"

The measure, which will see housing benefit cut by 14 per cent for those social housing tenants deemed to have one spare room and by 25 per cent for those with two or more, is forecast to save £480m - less than half of the yield from the 50p rate. 

It will cost 660,000 tenants an average of £14 a week or £728 a year. Exemptions have been introduced for 5,000 foster carers, some armed forces families and families with severely disabled children - but not families with a severely disabled adult

Estimated saving: £465m a year.


Council tax support cut by 10 per cent

The retention of the 50p rate could also have paid for the reversal of the 10 per cent cut in council tax support, which is forecast to save up to £480m a year. The measure will cost 1.9 million families who do not currently pay council tax an average of £140 a year. In addition, 150,000 low income families will pay on average £300 more a year.

I've written about the policy in greater detail here (Will this be the coalition's poll tax moment?).

Estimated saving: £480m a year. 


Legal aid cuts

Alternatively, the 50p rate could have prevented the lowering of the cut-off point for legal aid to a household income of £32,000 and the introduction of a means-test for those earning between £14,000 and £32,000. 

Estimated saving: £350m.


1% cap on benefit increases

Around half of the revenue raised by the 50p rate in its first year could have allowed the government to uprate benefits in line with inflation (which stood at 2.2 per cent in September 2012, the month traditionally used to calculate benefit increases), rather than by just 1 per cent. 

Estimated saving: £505m in 2013-14.

George Osborne scrapped the 50p tax rate in his 2012 Budget after it raised "just a third of the £3bn" expected. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?