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  1. Politics
4 March 2014

When Cameron said “we cannot afford“ a £10,000 tax threshold

The PM said during the first 2010 leaders' debate that the Lib Dem policy was too expensive.

By George Eaton

With David Cameron again trying to claim credit for the increase in the income tax threshold to £10,000, it would be remiss not to post this exchange between him and Nick Clegg from the first leaders’ debate in 2010. Back then, Cameron told his future deputy: (from 1:18:15 onwards):

I would love to take everyone out of their first £10,000 of income tax, Nick. It’s a beautiful idea, it’s a lovely idea – we cannot afford it.

But after the Lib Dems forced the inclusion of the policy in the Coalition Agreement, Cameron has embraced it, with the Tories even listing it as their greatest achievement in government. With the threshold rising to £10,000 from this April (a year ahead of schedule), George Osborne is likely to announce in this month’s Budget that it will be increased to £10,500 or even £10,750 next year. 

The policy, as I’ve noted before, is not as progressive as the Lib Dems suggest. At a time of falling living standards, raising the personal allowance will do nothing to help the five million lowest-paid workers who earn less than £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. 

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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. As the IFS noted last week, aligning the NI threshold with the personal allowance would “cut taxes for 1.2 million workers with earnings too low to benefit from an increase in the personal allowance, would benefit only workers, and would simplify the direct tax system.” Alternatively, raising the level at which in-work benefits are withdrawn by 20 per cent would be “a bigger giveaway in entitlements to working families in the bottom three income deciles than the gains to that group of raising the personal allowance to £12,500, despite costing £10 billion per year less”.

But whatever the flaws of the policy, Cameron deserves to be called out for championing a measure he once insisted was unaffordable. Britain, it turns out, wasn’t “bankrupt” after all.