It's easier to tax pensioners than rockstars

Protesters highlight Chancellor George Osborne's reduction in income tax for high earners

The chancellor told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the 50p tax rate he inherited from the last Labour government was a "con" that the rest of the world "laughs at".

What he meant by that is the people it was supposed to tax have been adept at exploiting devices to avoid paying it. So, he claims, it yielded very little and cutting it to 45p in the pound will cost virtually nothing.

Hmmm. The statistics produced by HMRC indicate the yield from the tax was small. But that doesn't mean its abolition won't be expensive.

As I pointed out here on Wednesday, the £3bn question is whether a direct £3bn reduction in the tax payable by the 250,000 people earning more than £150,000 a year gives them a strong enough incentive to stop exploiting tax reliefs and loopholes.

And if they won't volunteer to be less aggressive in tax planning, will the planned new ceiling imposed by government on the exploitation of tax reliefs, combined with the impact of a General Anti-Avoidance Rule, turn out to be effective?

We are not going to know the truth of any of this for years, because the tax cut and ceiling on reliefs won't come in for a year, and the anti-avoidance rule will take longer to put in place.

Also, because of the lag in tax payments built into the self-assessment system, it will be the start of 2014 before we have any serious clue about what kind of money is being raised from the lower rate.

In the meantime, the government expects to lose £2.4bn of precious revenue in the current year, as the 250,000 highest earners defer dividends and bonuses to take advantage of the deferred lower tax rate and load up with tax reliefs before a ceiling is put on them.

Which is why, as I mentioned on Tuesday, it is odd that the chancellor deferred the introduction of the tax cut and the clamp-down on reliefs.

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Most pensioners can't change their domicile to Monaco”

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He knows that one of the iron laws of tax policy is that those who can avoid paying tax - wealthy individuals, multinationals - will do so.

Take Glaxo, which is back building a new factory in the UK for the first time in 40 years, largely because of a reform called the "patent box" that reduces the tax payable on British exploitation of some forms of intellectual property.

Then there are the changes to the taxation of multinationals, the Controlled Foreign Company Rules, that are supposed to be tax cuts, but which the Treasury expects to raise £300m of additional revenue - presumably because fewer companies will have an incentive to move abroad.

Of course the vast majority of British people and British companies have limited ability to avoid tax or to relocate abroad to escape it altogether.

What Mr Osborne didn't say Thursday morning, though he might have thought it, is that his freeze on age-related allowances - his so-called "granny tax" that raises more than a billion pounds a year - is a completely bankable tax-raising measure, for the simple reason that most pensioners can't change their domicile to Monaco.

So being chancellor involves two often conflicting judgements: which tax measures will actually be effective in raising money; and which tax measures will be seen to be fair?

He can reach into grannies' pockets, although many would say that's not fair. Whereas he might well be widely cheered if he did the same for the super-rich, except that their pockets seem to be sewn shut.

The other challenge is that the consequences of tax changes are dynamic, not static.

If businesses and business leaders who benefit from tax cuts use some of the extra income they've retained to make new job-creating investments, as Glaxo has done, then the benefits of their tax saving will be more widely shared.

But, at the risk of stating the obvious, just as it's difficult to force the wealthiest to pay tax, so it's impossible to force them not to hoard all their extra cash.

Robert Peston Article written by Robert Peston Robert Peston Economics editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    It should not be beyond the gumption of a G8 country like the UK to arrange its tax affairs so as to capture suitable levels of taxable income at all levels of society. The tax avoidance industry is good - but so should be the government.

    It is good to see therefore that the budget introduced taxes on high value properties: there are some loopholes here, too, but they can easily be closed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.


    The problem of your analogy is that no one wants to pay more for the expensive seats,

    Given the choice of 2 rollercoaster’s (one yours and another called, Monaco for example) if you try and force them into expensive seats, they just ride on Monaco and you'll be without any income at all from them!

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Phew, for one minute Robert I thought you were going retro on the trickledown effect of letting the super rich escape all but nominal taxation. Hopefully we have all moved on from this illusion. For what was said to be an ineffective tax the big decibels have been in action for weeks. I too cant see why if you can avoid the 50p rate then "carry on avoiding" - include the 40p rate & why stop there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Paid for the banks, now we must pay the bankers?

    I remember DC in a warehouse on TV talking about looking after who looked afer themselves. DC and Co do so. That's what he meant.

    Old should get a lot more, as they have done more!

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Gold coins are currently not taxed.
    Gold Bars are subject to capital gains tax.
    It's suggested there is a difficulty distinguishing between Investors and genuine collectors.
    Well just tax them both.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Removing the "temporary" 50% tax band, won't suddenly result in fewer measures to avoid tax. Everyone will try to do what they can with their money to pay the least tax - that's human nature.
    The point of this cut was increase the appeal of the UK to big business managers who are then more likely to make the UK their base of operations. That way everyone benefits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    "What he meant by that is the people it was supposed to tax have been adept at exploiting devices to avoid paying it."

    What he really means is that he is a member of this group of people and that he has no intention of upsetting this state of affairs which serves him so well at present.
    This whole situation is an exercise in smoke and mirrors.
    Pensioners will remember this come the next election.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    The answer is simple. Identify the Tax loopholes and close them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Without exchange controls the concept of taxing the rich has become meaningless. The tax will be avoided. This is a measure of the futility of our politics and economy. Put simply the social- democratic model which depends on wealth to sustain its redistributive ambitions militates against wealth creation unless the economy is based on value adding manufacturing with full employment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Imagine I setup a rollercoaster. There are two kind of seats, standard and luxury (front-seats, more comfy), the later costing more. However, I don't properly control the flow of customers, so some people pay for standard seats but sneak their way into luxury seats.

    Do i:
    a) Reduce the price of luxury seats?
    b) Improve control of who goes into luxury seats?

    I'd choose B, Osborne chose A.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    The easiest method to make 50% taxes work is to go after the tax havens. Obama announced in 2008, that governments should be cracking down on tax havens that hid the extent of bad debt.

    These institutions (they're not really countries) are like ulcers. They haemorrhage reinvestment in democratic countries and weaken the money supply.

    Unfortunately most of those in power have fingers in the pie.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    if they dodge 50p they'll dodge 45p, or 40p or any amount at all. that is such a smokescreen, and nobody seems to have called it out at all

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    "Grannies" will receive more in their pension due to the £5/week increase in the basic pension than this £1.34/week freeze in the allowances will cost them. In addition, why do the retired get a higher tax allowance in the first place? They have much lesser costs than working families.


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