Saturday, 26 March 2016

The Myth of the Squeezed Middle

One of the biggest frustrations of Liberal Democrats in the 2015 General Election was the manner in which the Conservative Party tried to claim credit for tax cuts they opposed in 2010. The Lib Dems had a policy of increasing the "personal allowance", which is the amount an individual is allowed to earn free from income tax before they have to start to pay the basic rate. The Coalition delivered on this promise, raising the personal allowance from £6475 in 2010-11 to £10600 for the tax year 2015-16.

This wasn't a cheap policy. It cut-into the tax-base of the UK by taking some people out of tax completely and drastically reducing the tax liability of everyone on low and middle incomes. It amounted, for almost everyone in full-time employment, to an £825 cut in their annual tax-bill. If the threshold had only kept-up with RPI inflation, it would only have risen to £7490 over this period, which would have only cut basic rate payers' taxes by £203. To have a tax cut of over £600 in real terms for the overwhelming majority of workers in the UK clearly wasn't nothing.

Paying for It

There were two steps the Coalition government took in relation to income tax that were intended to defray the cost of this policy. The first was to introduce a "taper" on the personal allowance. When you started to earn over £100kpa, you would lose £1 of your personal allowance for every £2 you earned above that. This created, it should be acknowledged, an anomaly whereby the marginal rate of tax paid by someone earning between £100k and £120k was actually higher than the rate paid by those earning more than that.

The other step taken was to cut the threshold above which higher rate tax would become payable. Higher rate tax is levied at 40p in the pound, and was paid on income above £43875 in 2010. As of the tax year 2015-16, this threshold kicks-in for income over £42385. This has the effect of increasing the amount of income taxable at 40p instead of 20p by £1490. This, in and of itself, increases total tax liability by up to £298.

Effect on Tax Paid

The combined effect of the changes to the personal allowance and the size of the basic-rate band is that basic rate-payers got a cash-terms £825 tax cut, whereas higher rate payers got a tax cut of £527. If both the zero-rate (personal allowance) and the basic-rate bands had expanded in-line with inflation, higher-rate payers would have expected a £1375 or so tax cut. If inflation is your standard, therefore, it's absolutely true to say that higher-rate and upper-basic-rate income tax-payers saw "fiscal drag" increase their tax liabilty in real terms (2015 prices), to pay for a substantial tax cut for everyone else.

A £622 tax cut represents about 4.6% of a full-time minimum-wage-earner's annual income. For someone on £20k, it represents 3.1%. If you earn the median household income, about £27k, that's a 2.3% cut in your taxes as a proportion of your gross income. These are very real gains which, although clearly not the whole story when you take-into account tax credits and benefits, have in themselves significantly helped most working people.

By contrast, higher-rate payers saw a maximum real-terms (2015) increase in their taxes of £803. This would apply to those earning over £50k or so, which is where the higher-rate threshold would have been had both the personal allowance and basic-rate-band been indexed to RPI inflation. That means a hike of 1.8% of their gross income. In effect, therefore, their tax hike, at its worst, is still much smaller than the tax cut everyone else got.

Is this fair?

Let's be clear who this higher-rate tax band affects: HMRC estimates show that if you are a single person and you earn over £40kpa, you are among the top 10% of household earners in the UK. For an adult with a working partner and two children, this would typically place you in the top 20% of household earners. Put more bluntly, the lowest earning four in five of adults do not and most probably will never, pay this tax.

If you put it in those terms, I suspect most people would be content and say that as a tax-priority, the lowest 4/5 of earners being given tax cuts off the backs of very small tax rises for the top 1/5 was fair.

The counter-argument, and an argument that has reared its head now that the Scottish Parliament is going to get the power to set thresholds and rates of income tax, is that over-time lots of people who would never have paid higher-rate tax in the past have now been pulled-into this category and that this is unfair. We hear the classic invocation of nurses, firemen and teachers in support of this. An audience-member in the BBC's Scottish Leaders' Debate on Friday said the very same. This rate was meant for rich people not for good and honest public-sector workers.

Never mind, of course, that a nurse has to reach band 8 of 9 on the standard pay-scale even to get close to the level of income necessary for higher-rate tax. Almost all of the positions at that pay-grade are managerial and consultant-level positions. Your conventional understanding of even a senior nurse on a hospital ward is going to be no higher than band 7, who earns less than the higher-rate threshold. In teaching the position is similar: in the public sector schools only senior management and principal teachers earn more than the threshold, and of those who do, most earn on or around the threshold. The extra tax they pay is barely if even off-set by the personal allowance tax cut they have already taken to the bank. Presenting the threshold cut as an attack on typical public sector workers is, frankly, deceitful diversion or brutal ignorance.

"Things were better in my day"

It does not even follow that levels of taxation have especially risen for middle-earners in the last 25 years or so. Let's take 1990-91, the tax year immediately before I was born. The personal allowance was £3005 (£6161 in 2015 value) and the higher-rate kicked-in at £23705 (£48601 in today's money). You'll notice this isn't too far away from the thresholds in 2010 once you've taken inflation into 2015 money into-account, and if anything both the personal allowance ends and the higher-rate threshold kicks-in at a slightly lower level of income than both at inflation adjusted 2010 rates. But all of this ignores the fact that the basic-rate of income tax was 25p, not 20p, in 1990-91.

That 5p extra means every higher-rate-payer was paying more than £2100 more in basic income tax than they otherwise would, an amount which is not-offset by a higher threshold for higher-rate tax, which cuts their taxes by just over £800, assuming a basic rate of 25p applied. If we applied the 1990-91 tax code in terms of rates and bands and adjusted for inflation, these high-flying nurses and teachers would be over £100 a month worse off!

Current Proposals

The Conservative Government at Westminster proposes to raise the 40p threshold ahead of inflation, to £45k and eventually £50k, in order to try to "remedy" this "unfairness", whereas the SNP Government have (in my view, correctly) chosen only to raise the threshold to account for inflation in Scotland. The reality of the Conservative policy especially is that in cash-terms the top 10% of earners will essentially get a bigger tax-cut than the lowest paid 90% in this country.

Even the SNP policy is imperfect, however. If Scotland is to be serious about ending austerity, we should not just be looking at the thresholds at which taxation applies. We should also be looking at the rates at which taxation applies. There are perfectly reasonable areas for disagreement about the Scottish Rate of Income Tax (SRIT), which the SNP refused to use to raise revenue on the grounds that it would also be levied on basic-rate payers. I covered the flaws of their reasoning on this in a previous post a while back. But when the Scotland Act 2016 powers come into force, there is the choice to raise revenue by raising the higher-rate of tax without raising the basic-rate, or not raising it by as much.

If the SNP were to slightly lower the higher-rate threshold (rather than to increase it with inflation) and to introduce a higher-rate of between 41 and 42p, they could have asked the top 10% of Scots to pay what they would have been asked to pay with an increase in the SRIT, without asking for a penny more from the rest of Scotland. It would not have raised as much, but it would have made something of a dent in the austerity cuts they claim not to like that are coming from Westminster. When the Scotland Act 2016 comes into full effect, they could have even used this slight increase in tax on the wealthiest Scots to protect and even supplement the welfare policies they think the Conservatives are bearing-down too hard upon.

The Live Election Debate on Tax

This would have been a more meaningful debate to have than the false one that's taking place between the SNP and Scottish Labour about the 50p rate in the Holyrood election campaign. Amusing as it is to call Sturgeon a Tartan Tory for parroting George Osborne's lines on a 50p rate, she's probably right: Scots earning significantly over £150kpa probably do have significant incentives to arrange their affairs so as not to be designated a Scottish taxpayer. As a side-point, it's also difficult to see how an independent Scotland's tax code would vary so much that they could painlessly prevent that reality. Those earning less than that, however, probably don't. You're more likely to raise more revenue from the top 10% of earners through adaptations to the higher rate than you are through the additional rate of income tax.

If the SNP cannot explain why they won't cut the threshold and levy a 41-42p higher-rate, it rather calls the bluff of the public reasons they gave for not supporting the rise in SRIT. If Nicola Sturgeon wants to run Scotland as a country with taxes not significantly at variance with those of the United Kingdom as a whole and largely in conformity with George Osborne's fiscal envelope, that's fine by me, but she should at least be up-front with the Scottish people that she's no social justice warrior in doing so. One of the big arguments made by the SNP about independence is that our current fiscal gap would not be a problem because we would totally change the dynamics of the way we tax in our state. The evidence increasingly suggests that the more tax power the SNP get, the more obviously centrist, cautious and happy to dovetail HM Treasury they become. Perhaps they're the best kind of Unionists after all.

Alas, in the heat of an election campaign, having a debate about policies that actually affect people's lives and can make a difference tend to fall by the wayside. I doubt Sturgeon or Swinney will ever need to have, let alone give, an answer to these obvious questions.

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