Finance Bill Debate – Increase the top rate of income tax

Finance Bill

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC):

New clause 4, tabled in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends in Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party, would have the effect of requesting the Treasury to commission a report into reinstating the 50p tax rate for earnings above £150,000 a year, or £3,000 a week, as I prefer to explain the policy to my constituents. I look forward to pressing the new clause to a vote at the appropriate time.
This is an example of bad timing, as I understand that the President of the Republic of Ireland is about to address Members of the Commons and the Lords in the other place. I am disappointed to be missing that. However, there is little doubt that the decision in the 2012 Budget to scrap the 50p top rate and reduce it to 45p is the signature fiscal policy of the current Administration. However, I recognise that the 50p rate existed only for the dying weeks of the previous Labour UK Government, even though they were in power for more than 13 years with a top rate of only 40p. That of course leaves the impression that it was merely an election gimmick for the 2010 general election rather than a matter of deep principle.

Labour’s 13 years of the 40p rate reflected what Lord Mandelson said on behalf of the Blair Government about being

“intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”.

None the less, it was expected that the 50p rate, which existed for the first half of this coalition Government, would be set in stone while the UK Government maintained their plan A fiscal strategy of cutting the deficit. Despite disagreeing with the UK Government’s fiscal strategy since entering the House, I accept that the “We’re all in it together” slogan coined by the Chancellor was politically very successful. It was based on the notion that all parts of society were equal partners in a moral crusade to reduce the annual fiscal deficit of the state; that rich and poor, young and old would have to feel the pain as the only remedy for the excesses of the past—or so the story went.

The decision to cut the 50p rate was therefore a political miscalculation in my mind because, whatever way it is dressed up, the Chancellor offered a tax cut for those earning more than £3,000 a week. The notion of “We’re all in it together” was blown apart with one act. How can the Chancellor and the Treasury expect the most disadvantaged in society to stomach reductions in their social security support while the richest get a tax cut? It was an act that confirmed that we are not all in it together.

Let us not forget that in the 2012 Budget a further cut of £10 billion in the social protection budget was announced from 2013 onwards, on top of those announced in the 2010 emergency Budget. Those are the cuts that we are living with today, leaving the clear impression that the tax cut from 2013-14 onwards for the highest earners in society was being paid for by cuts in welfare provision for the poorest.

Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is the scale of the tax cut that is most galling for our constituents, when on average it will be a £100,000 a year tax cut, which is something beyond the imaginations of most of our constituents?

Jonathan Edwards: I can certainly assure the hon. Lady that not many people in Carmarthen East and Dinefwr are enjoying that tax cut. That is why I am speaking in such fervent opposition to it.

Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC): It is not only the fact that income tax has been cut but that further cuts to social provision are envisaged. So into the future, people at the bottom of the pile and who face disability and sickness will be seeing cuts to their benefits while the very rich will be seeing cuts to their tax.

Jonathan Edwards: I am sure that my hon. Friend’s surgeries, like mine, are filled weekly with individuals who face problems with reductions in the support that they receive. With all that in mind, it is difficult to look them in the eye and support a tax cut for those on the highest incomes. It undermines the case for the moral crusade I alluded to earlier and public support for the fiscal policy of the current UK Government.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is making some good points. Does he agree that, while there are technical issues in determining the exact point at which the Government will gain more or less from a tax, there is a significant signal from the 50p tax rate, which is that we are, at least to some extent, all in it together? His constituents are not far from mine, and the average median wage in the Ogmore valley is less than £21,000.

Finance Bill

Jonathan Edwards: The hon. Gentleman always makes very intelligent points. I believe that he is talking about the Laffer curve. I will discuss the optimal rate of taxation later, but I agree wholeheartedly with his comments.

A report for the Office for National Statistics entitled “The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, 2011/12”, which was released in July 2013, showed clearly that, while income tax is progressive, as it should be, the effect of indirect taxes such as VAT means that the bottom fifth of the income groups pay the most out as a percentage of their gross income at 36.6% in taxes, while the top fifth pay 35.5%. The overall tax system is therefore still heavily weighted in favour of the highest earners. Plaid Cymru believes in progressive taxation irrespective of the timing and state of the wider economy. We believe that those with the broadest shoulders should bear the burden of taxation. A Scandinavian model of progressive taxation is part of our DNA.

The House has voted on this measure only once, during the resolution votes following the 2012 Budget debate. I am delighted that it was Plaid Cymru and Scottish National party Members who called that vote. The shadow Chancellor must have been having an off-day, because the entire parliamentary Labour party abstained, apart from two honourable exceptions, the hon. Members for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) and for Newport West (Paul Flynn), if my memory serves me correctly. Although Labour Members voted against the Government’s 2012 Budget, which reduced the 50% rate to 45%, they missed the only vote that we have been able to have directly on the reduction of the top rate.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that what happened to the Labour party that evening was cataclysmic. Does he have any explanation as to why the Labour party missed that vote that evening? Something from the Whips Office suggested headless chickens, but that would be showing disrespect to headless chickens. Does he have any idea why Labour abstained on what was one of the key policies at that point?

Jonathan Edwards: Unfortunately, I cannot enlighten my hon. Friend, other than to say that the Western Mail informed me that senior Labour staff described it as a “balls-up”.

To be slightly more serious, I was happy that, in response to an intervention from me last week on Second Reading, the shadow Chief Secretary, who is in his place, said that should Labour form the next UK Government, it would restore the 50p top rate for the duration of the next Parliament. I would certainly support that, and I look forward to doing so if there is a Labour Government. My understanding before his answer was that Labour was proposing a temporary increase in the top rate, so I welcome that development. I hope that during today’s debate, the Labour Front-Bench spokesman will confirm that that will be its policy at the next election and beyond.

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Owing to the manner in which Finance Bills are processed, it is impossible to press to a vote amendments to alter tax band rates, which is why both new clause 4 and Labour’s amendment 4 call for a review from the Treasury of the impact of re-introducing the 50p rate. The 2011 Budget included the provision of a review to reduce the 50p rate. As I said, nobody foresaw the Treasury introducing such a policy within a year. In other words, the 2011 Budget provisions were a sop to Tory donors that their party was minded to reduce the top rate at some point in the future. The following Budget then introduced the policy.

Proponents argue that the reduction in the additional rate to 45p has led to a windfall for the Treasury because of reduced avoidance and evasion. I noticed in the lead-up to the Budget last month that some Tory Back Benchers were making the case for a reduction to 40p for this Budget based on higher than expected tax receipts—some £9 billion—following the top rate changes. In the newspapers this morning the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne) was making a similar call for his party to adopt the 40p top rate come the general election. He is not in his seat, so perhaps he has been told to go somewhere else. I find that argument difficult to swallow as individuals seeking to avoid tax at a 50p rate would surely be minded to do so with a 45p rate. The higher than forecasted tax receipts used to justify a further cut in the top rate was surely as a result of higher than projected economic performance, and therefore a 50p rate would have brought in even more receipts for the Treasury.

Hywel Williams: What credence does my hon. Friend give to the analysis that some high earners deferred declaring their income with a view to declaring it once the 45p rate was introduced, and that that led to higher receipts?

Jonathan Edwards: That is an important point about forestalling, which I will talk about in more detail later.
I note that the Office for Budget Responsibility’s March 2012 “Economic and fiscal outlook” states on page 110 that

“the revenue-maximising additional tax rate is around 48%.”

Again, that blows a hole in the Government’s argument that their reduction of the additional rate was based on sound economic and revenue-raising evidence. That is why they should now commit to carrying out a full report, as the new clause would compel them to do. I would argue that 48 is slightly closer to 50 than to 45.

The Chancellor told the House in 2012:
“The increase from 40p to 50p raised just a third of the £3 billion that we were told it would raise.”—[Official Report, 21 March 2012; Vol. 542, c. 805.]

I know my A-level maths is a little shaky, but that still makes £1 billion, a significant sum to the good people of Carmarthenshire and the good people of Wales and the rest of the UK. The Chancellor’s justification for the tax cut for the super-wealthy was that they would avoid the tax, they might leave the UK, it raised only £1 billion, and the reduction would lose the Government only £100 million. Having brought forward their income to avoid the 50p rate in the first year, the rich delayed it in the final year to benefit from the reduction to 45p. That forestalling and deferment will have cost the Treasury billions that could have been used to avoid some of the worst cuts to those on low incomes, such as those resulting from the bedroom tax.

Recent claims by some on the Government Benches that the tax cut for the richest has yielded more revenue conveniently gloss over the increased likelihood of those with an accountant being able to move their income into the following year, given the Government’s indication a year ahead of time that they were enacting the tax cut. My advice to the Government would be to enact the proper closing of loopholes to ensure that the super-wealthy pay their fair share, instead of the fig leaves of action that the Government have offered previously. They have still not introduced proper measures to make up the HMRC estimate of £35 billion lost each year through avoidance and evasion. Other estimates put the figure much higher. Claims that the rich were fleeing because of the 50% rate are also not very well grounded. Research by the TUC, using HMRC figures, indicated that 59% of those paying the 50% additional rate were employees, most working in banking and therefore unable to leave.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Does the hon. Gentleman understand the disconnect between those who are super-wealthy and the argument that he is making, when I, my constituents and my family, who rely on public services, the national health service and so on, see the sense in paying progressively higher rates of tax, myself included, to make sure that those services are available? Why is it that the super-wealthy do not see the sense in providing for public services? Is it, perhaps, because they do not rely on them?

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Jonathan Edwards: That is certainly one argument, and I shall talk about how, with such an attitude, the super-wealthy are cutting off their own noses, and how a progressive taxation system would benefit them as well as people like the hon. Gentleman and me, who earn far less than those who get hit by the top rate.

As the 2012 HMRC paper that examined the effect of the 50% additional rate of income tax noted,

“there was a considerable behavioural response to the rate change, including a substantial amount of forestalling: around £16 billion to £18 billion of income is estimated to have been brought forward to 2009-10 to avoid the introduction of the additional rate of tax.”

This is a massive sum which would arguably have been included in taxation had the measure been announced with immediate effect.
The most recent figures from HMRC revised liabilities up by £2.8 billion in 2010-11, £3.3 billion in 2011-12 and £3.5 billion in 2012-13. This means that HMRC says it earned a total of £9.6 billion more than previously thought from the 50p tax rate. These are of course projections of taxable income, but that makes the case for the new clause which I am pushing.

Ian Swales: The hon. Gentleman makes the point about the £9.6 billion. Is he aware that HMRC says that the main part of that is due to higher income levels, not to changes in tax levels?

Jonathan Edwards: That is a fair point. We are making the case for a review. Let us have the figures divulged further. As I say, they are projections.

Sir James Paice (South East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman want a review or does he want a higher tax rate? What would he do if that review demonstrated that 45p, 47p or 48p—anything less than 50p—was the point at which the Laffer curve tipped over? Is he interested in maximum receipts to the Treasury or in some sort of moral argument about equalising the distribution of income?

Jonathan Edwards: That is a very valid intervention. My political position would be to support a 50p rate, but let us have the evidence to make the decision. As I am outlining, the evidence suggests to me that 50p would be a better top rate than 45p, and certainly better than 40p.

Kelvin Hopkins: I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. If it were shown that an increased tax rate at that level brought in lower revenues, would not that simply be evidence of more tax evasion and insufficient enforcement?

Jonathan Edwards: That is the key point. If we have effective anti-evasion and avoidance measures, an increased rate of tax will inevitably lead to a higher yield.

We are living in very worrying times where wealth inequalities at geographical and individual levels are unprecedented. Parts of London have gross value added 12 times higher than parts of Wales. While London has the highest GVA per head of any area in the European Union, west Wales and the valleys has one of the lowest. The contemporary history of geographical and individual disparities has been truly depressing in this regard. Successive Governments do not have a good story to tell, with rebalancing promised but never delivered.

At the heart of the argument for a reduced top rate of tax is the trickle-down theory that underpins much of the now-discredited neo-liberal economics that the Thatcher and Reagan era ushered in. It was always sold to us that the newly re-empowered financial elites would spend their money and it would trickle down, and the people at the bottom would become wealthier as a result of this benevolent spending. But what has happened over the past 30 years? Inequality has, in fact, grown massively. Instead of the wealth of the super-rich flowing down, the rich, especially the super-rich, have got steadily even richer and hoarded their money. That money is not simply made out of the sweat and toil of their own good fortune, skill and brilliance, but often on the backs of those who work hard on the bottom rung but gain little financial reward for the true value of their efforts.

We often hear the super-rich whine that they have made their money, so why should they pay a lot of awful tax on it? Well, that tax goes towards paying for important services such as schools, to educate the work force of the next generation, and hospitals, to maintain the work force in good health. It also pays for a police force that keeps our communities safe, and a legal system that ensures that the law operates smoothly and in a trusted way to allow for a broadly prosperous economy and a society free from corruption. We erode these provisions at our peril. Taxes do not exist in a vacuum; they provide the services that create the whole that enables individuals to go on to enjoy the freedom of being able to make money and enjoy relative prosperity. That is what the proponents of the trickle-down effect have forgotten and wilfully ignored over the past 30 years, as the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) said.

My new clause would pave the way for the additional rate to be raised to 50%—a small rise of 5%—primarily because that would be symbolic of a move towards a more equal and just society. Only last month, the International Monetary Fund released a report that concluded that the more equal societies stand a better chance of long-term sustainable economic growth. Of course, the IMF is the high priest of austerity which, throughout the 1980s and ’90s, forced developing-world Governments to privatise their publicly owned industries wholesale and enact wildly free-market policies in exchange for international loans. The result was the plundering of those countries’ natural resources by global multinationals, with little benefit being felt by the poor local populations and the elites doing handsomely. It is therefore quite a turnaround for the IMF to conclude that income inequality impedes growth and that efforts to redistribute are positive.

This is the real political challenge that will face us over the next generation. That is why we should be ensuring that those with the broadest shoulders bear the burden in what will continue to be very hard times for those at the bottom of the income scale, given the massive cuts that this Government are still intent on inflicting. Let us remember that a vast tract of the austerity programme has yet to feed into the system. An additional rate of 50% would help to ensure that the super-wealthy bear the burden and pay their fair share. I urge the House to support the new clause.

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