Andrew Lilico is an economist and political writer.
If the Government decided it should now cut taxes in some area (e.g. because it had raised extra money or cut spending elsewhere, or because it felt it could now be more relaxed about the deficit), where would that be? Just under two-thirds of tax receipts come from the big three: Income Tax, National Insurance and VAT. Of these, the most obvious tax cuts available are those already discussed, namely raising the personal allowance from its current £11,500 level. I would suggest announcing a medium-term target of getting the personal allowance up to the salary of a full-time worker at the minimum wage (currently just over £14,500).
The next most obvious tax cut in these areas is a rise in the higher rate (40p) threshold from its current £45,000 level. The higher rate has gone from a tax only on the highest earners to a tax paid by millions of people on far-from-unusual middle class salaries. Whereas in the early 1990s there were only around six per cent of tax payers at the higher rate, by 2016 that figure was around 15 per cent, or 4.5 million people.
An alternative tactic, however, might be to freeze the higher rate threshold and phase it out, with the basic rate (20p) threshold eventually rising to meet it and the top (45p) rate threshold gradually reduced, so we can return to a two-tax-rate system (which would be better than our current three-tax-rate arrangement). If we were to choose that route, we could gradually scale down the higher rate as the basic rate threshold rose towards it, cutting it to 37.5p, then 35p and eventually to 25p at the time the two rates merged (depending on the exact level the merging level was set at). I would prefer the latter path, taking us back to the 25p basic rate, 40p top rate system that we used to have in the late 1980s.
As regards National Insurance, the most obvious area for a cut would be employers’ NI, currently 13.8 per cent. I would suggest, however, that it would be better to leave NI as it is until we are ready to switch to a new National Health Premium, replacing much of current employers’ and employees’ NI, which appears at long last to be a political possibility.
The VAT rate at 20 per cent is excessive. It would be better to get that back towards 15 per cent or even 12.5 per cent post-Brexit, but that would involve accepting a higher basic rate of income tax and could be problematic for now. I’d be inclined to leave VAT alone until we’ve finished dealing with the higher rate issue.
Corporation Tax at 20 per cent could be cut further as part of a more general tax reform, including withdrawing the tax exemption for debt interest (which is already being eroded through “anti-tax-avoidance” measures). However, I think that a large shift in Corporation Tax at present would tend to disrupt the Brexit negotiations, as certain EU member states see corporation tax cuts as a form of unfair tax competition. I’d be inclined to leave our powder dry here and come back to this after Brexit.
Fuel duties have been heavily discussed in recent years, but the outlook is for them to decline fairly rapidly in the mid-term, as cars switch to electricity. I’d probably leave them alone indefinitely now.
The three smaller areas where I would be inclined to act are the Bank Levy, Inheritance Tax, and Stamp Duty.
The Bank Levy mainly served a banker-bashing political purpose during the Age of Austerity. It is scheduled to halve over the next few years (from £2.6 billion to £1.3 billion). I suggest phasing it out altogether.
There are Inheritance Tax cuts already scheduled, with the effect of allowing a house worth £1 million to be passed on without incurring income tax. I don’t personally see why a housing inheritance should be treated so differently from other forms of inheritance — people are often understandably sentimental about the home they grew up in at the time of their parents’ death, but in due course it’s typically sold and in the end is just inherited money like other inherited money.
I’d rather see the Inheritance Tax threshold, regardless of source, be set at £1 million, then raised further and eventually phased out altogether. Inheritance tax is a pernicious, envy-based assault on the concept of private property that Conservatives have tolerated for far too long and should do away with. Placating private property-haters won’t win us votes. Those most adamantly in favour of Inheritance Tax are never going to vote for us anyway. At the very least we should look at introducing some new mechanism for automatically raising the Inheritance Tax thresholds every year — the present CPI-rise mechanism, due to come in from 2020/21, seems inadequate.
Lastly, Stamp Duty. If we want to see a healthier housing market, with more transactions along the price scale and less of a burden for people to save to buy a house, we should be cutting Stamp Duty. It’s bad enough having to save for such high deposits without having to pay taxes on top, and the tax greatly reduces the incentive to move house multiple times within a few years, creating considerably friction in a segment of the housing market which also flows down into higher prices at levels below the Stamp Duty threshold. The key here should be to cut rates rather than raise thresholds. If there were scope for just one tax cut coming soon, I would make it this one: a two per cent cut in stamp duty rates across the board.