On March 23, Rishi Sunak, the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, delivered his Spring Statement, in which he announced changes to various taxes and grants. These measures were made against the background of rising inflation and falling living standards.
CPI inflation, currently at 6.2%, is still rising and the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that inflation will average 7.4% this year. The poor spend a larger proportion of their income on energy and food than the rich. With inflation rates especially high for gas, electricity and basic foodstuffs, the poor have been seen their cost of living rise by considerably more than the overall inflation rate.
According to the OBR, the higher inflation, by reducing real income and consumption, is expected to reduce the growth in real GDP this year from the previously forecast 6% to 3.8% – a much smaller bounce back from the fall in output during the early stages of the pandemic. Despite this growth in GDP, real disposable incomes will fall by an average of £488 per person this year. As the OBR states:
With inflation outpacing growth in nominal earnings and net taxes due to rise in April, real living standards are set to fall by 2.2 per cent in 2022/23 – their largest financial year fall on record – and not recover their pre-pandemic level until 2024/25.
The Chancellor announced a number of measures, which, he argued, would provide relief from rises in the cost of living.
- Previously, the Chancellor had announced that national insurance (NI) would rise by 1.25 percentage points this April. In the Statement he announced that the starting point for paying NI would rise from a previously planned £9880 to £12 570 (the same as the starting point for income tax). This will more than offset the rise in the NI rate for those earning below £32 000. This makes the NI system slightly more progressive than before. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
- A cut in fuel duty of 5p per litre. The main beneficiaries will be those who drive more and those with bigger cars – generally the better off. Those who cannot afford a car will not benefit at all, other than from lower transport costs being passed on in lower prices.
- The 5% VAT on energy-saving household measures such as solar panels, insulation and heat pumps will be reduced to zero.
- The government’s Household Support Fund will be doubled to £1bn. This provides money to local authorities to help vulnerable households with rising living costs.
- Research and development tax credits for businesses will increase and small businesses will each get another £1000 per year in the form of employment allowances, which reduce their NI payments. He announced that taxes on business investment will be further cut in the Autumn Budget.
- The main rate of income tax will be cut from 20% to 19% in two years’ time. Unlike the rise in NI, which only affects employment and self-employment income, the cut in income tax will apply to all incomes, including rental and savings income.
The Chancellor announced that public finances are stronger than previously forecast. The rapid growth in tax receipts has reduced public-sector borrowing from £322 billion (15.0 per cent of GDP) in 2020/21 to an expected £128 billion (5.4 per cent of GDP) in 2021/22, £55 billion less than the OBR forecast in October 2021. This reflects not only the growth in the economy, but also inflation, which results in fiscal drag.
Fiscal drag is where rises in nominal incomes mean that the average rate of income tax rises. As tax thresholds for 2022/23 are frozen at 2021/22 levels, a greater proportion of incomes will be taxed at higher rates and tax-free allowances will account for a smaller proportion of incomes. The higher the rate of increase in nominal incomes, the greater fiscal drag becomes. The higher average rate of tax drags on real incomes and spending. On the other hand, the extra tax revenue reduces government borrowing and gives the government more room for extra spending or tax cuts.
The growth in poverty
With incomes of the poor not keeping pace with inflation, many people are facing real hardship. While the Spring Statement will provide a small degree of support to the poor through cuts in fuel duty and the rise in the NI threshold, the measures are poorly targeted. Rather than cutting fuel duty by 5p, a move that is regressive, removing or reducing the 5% VAT on gas and electricity would have been a progressive move.
Benefits, such as Universal Credit and the State Pension, are uprated each April in line with inflation the previous September. When inflation is rising, this means that benefits will go up by less than the current rate of inflation. This April, benefits will rise by last September’s annual inflation rate of 3.1% – considerably below the current inflation rate of 6.2% and the forecast rate for this year of 7.4%. This will push many benefit recipients deeper into poverty.
One measure rejected by Rishi Sunak is to impose a temporary windfall tax on oil companies, which have profited from the higher global oil prices. Such taxes are used in Norway and are currently being considered by the EU. Tax revenues from such a windfall tax could be used to fund benefit increases or tax reductions elsewhere and these measures could be targeted on the poor.
- Overview of the March 2022 Economic and fiscal outlook
Office for Budget Responsibility (23/3/22)
- Spring Statement: Key points at a glance
BBC News (23/3/22)
- Spring statement 2022: key points at a glance
The Guardian, Richard Partington and Jessica Elgot (23/3/22)
- People face biggest drop in living standards since 1956
BBC News (23/3/22)
- Spring Statement: Rishi Sunak accused of not doing enough for poorest households
BBC News (24/3/22)
- Chancellor provides minimal help to households on cost of living crisis
Financial Times, Chris Giles (23/3/22)
- Britain’s poorest left to bear brunt of squeeze on cost of living
Financial Times, Delphine Strauss (23/3/22)
- Spring statement: How does Rishi Sunak’s national insurance change affect you?
Sky News, Daniel Dunford and Ganesh Rao (24/3/22)
- Spring Statement 2022 – An initial response from IFS researchers
Institute for Fiscal Studies Press Release, Stuart Adam, Carl Emmerson, Paul Johnson, Helen Miller, Isabel Stockton, Tom Waters and Ben Zaranko (23/3/22)
- Chancellor prioritises his tax cutting credentials over low-and-middle income households with £2 in every £3 of new support going to the top half
Resolution Foundation press release (23/3/22)
- Richest handed £480 boost in Spring Statement, say researchers
- UK’s most vulnerable face crunch as Rishi Sunak helps better-off
The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Heather Stewart (23/3/22)
- Rishi Sunak tackled over failure to help poorest families
The Guardian, Richard Partington and Aubrey Allegretti (24/3/22)
- A Spring Statement for White Wealth Drivers
Byline Times, Stan Norris (23/3/22)
- Rishi Sunak’s Fiscal Drag Race
Evening Standard, Jack Kessler (23/3/22)
- Rishi Sunak fails to address the hit to living standards
Financial Times, Martin Wolf (23/3/22)
- Why Rishi Sunak refused a windfall tax on oil and gas companies
The New Statesman, Philippa Nuttall (23/3/22)
OBR data and analysis
- Are the changes made to national insurance by the Chancellor progressive or regressive? Could they have been made more progressive and, if so, how?
- What are the arguments for and against cutting income tax from 20% to 19% in two years’ time rather than reversing the current increases in national insurance at that point?
- What will determine how rapidly (if at all) public-sector borrowing decreases over the next few years?
- What are automatic fiscal stabilisers? How does their effect vary with the rate of inflation?
- Examine the public finances of another country. Are the issues similar to those in the UK? Recommend fiscal policy measures for your chosen country and provide a justification.
Many economists argue that the most effective policy for dealing with climate change is carbon pricing. This reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in a way that minimises the costs to the economy.
For the policy to work effectively it is important that the price per tonne of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) does not vary with the activity that causes the emissions. In other words, whether you drive a car, heat your house using gas or travel by air, the GHGs you create need to be priced at a unified rate.
Governments can introduce carbon pricing in two different ways – cap-and-trade schemes and carbon taxes.
With a cap-and-trade policy, emission allowances are either issued or sold to the organisations covered by the scheme. They must accumulate enough of these allowances to match the actual level of emissions they produce or pay a large fine. After the initial allocation, allowances can be bought and sold in a secondary market and prices can be quite volatile.
With a carbon tax, the government directly sets the price of GHGs through the tax rate but has less control over the quantity of emissions.
Policy in the UK
The UK Emissions Trading Scheme – an example of a cap-and-trade scheme – clearly places a price on GHG emissions. As this price is determined by market forces it can vary on a daily basis. The scheme applies to electricity generation and other energy-intensive industries that account for approximately 30 per cent of all emissions.
Although the UK does not have a specific carbon tax, it does have a number of different taxes that have an impact on the environment. Some of these have stated environmental objectives (e.g. the Climate Change Levy) while the main rationale for others is to raise revenue (fuel duty).
The tax rates are typically set on the output or consumption of the good rather than on emissions. For example, the Climate Change Levy applies to businesses’ use of electricity, gas and coal rather than the emissions the energy generates. Fuel duty depends on the amount of petrol consumed rather than the emissions the burning of that fuel generates. Clearly, emissions will tend to rise in proportion to the consumption/production of the good, but the relationship will not be precise.
The structure of VAT also influences emissions. The standard rate of VAT in the UK is 20 per cent. However, a lower level is applied to some goods/services that produce significant emissions. For example, the rate on household consumption of gas is 5 per cent while commercial passenger flights are zero rated. These lower tax rates are an implicit subsidy for the people who consume these goods/services. It makes them cheaper relative to the price of other goods.
Impact of the policies
Researchers from the Institute for Fiscal Studies have recently tried to analyse the impact of this complex range of policies on the price of carbon. The results indicate wide variations depending on the activity that causes the emissions.
One of the most significant differences is between gas and electricity. For example, non-energy-intensive businesses pay a price of £229.10 per tonne of CO2e from electricity generation but only £30.50 per tonne from burning gas. The response to the incentives this creates is unsurprising. One of the biggest contributing factors to the fall in territorial emissions in the UK has come from the decarbonisation of electricity supply: i.e. the switch away from coal-fired generation.
The impact of government policy on UK households creates quite perverse incentives. Because of the lower rates of VAT, families receive an implicit subsidy of £24 per tonne CO2e when they use gas to heat their homes. When they use electricity, the source of energy that generates less emissions, they face a positive price of £137 per tonne of CO2e. Once again, the response to these incentives is unsurprising. Household emissions only fell by a relatively small amount between 1990 and 2018 because of the continued use of gas for heating and cooking.
Unsurprisingly many commentators have referred to carbon pricing in the UK as a confusing mess and have called for a unified rate across all activities to minimise the costs to the economy. Another important issue is the level at which a new unified rate is set. Some research by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy suggests that the figure would have to be set between £122 and £36 per tonne of CO2e in order for the UK to reach its target of net zero emissions by 2050.
A higher unified rate would also create another problem – the distributional impact. Poorer households spend a much greater share of their income on electricity, heating and food and so would be disproportionately affected by the policy. For the policy to be politically acceptable, the government will need to find an effective way to compensate these groups.
- Outline the difference between territorial and consumption emissions.
- Using the concepts of rivalry and excludability, explain why GHGs and the climate change they cause are an example of market failure.
- Discuss the main differences between cap-and trade schemes and carbon emission taxes.
- Explain why a unified carbon price would minimise the costs to the economy of reducing the level of GHG emissions.
- Discuss some of the potential limitations of introducing carbon pricing and explain why some countries are considering the implementation of a Carbon Border Adjustment mechanism.
Increases in the cost of living over the past few years have put many families under financial pressure. One of the main factors that has been hurting households is the price of petrol and diesel. Road fuel duty was due to be increased last August, but the Chancellor delayed it in June. However, a planned 3p rise in duty by the Coalition, which has faced rebellion from numerous MPs may now be delayed further, following a hint from the Treasury.
The government has said that it will do everything it can to support struggling families with the cost of living and this has led many to conclude that in the Autumn Statement, the Chancellor will delay the planned 3p rise. Labour was defeated in its efforts to force a delay of the proposed 3p duty rise, as Tory bankbenchers were given this hint that the Treasury would decide to delay the increase anyway. The Economic Secretary to the Treasury said that fuel duty is part of the government’s strategy to help cut the cost of living. He commented that fuel duty was 20% lower in real terms compared to March 2000, when it was at its peak.
If we had continued with the policies of the previous government, quite simply prices would be higher, fuel would be 10p more expensive per litre. I know some will call for a further freeze in fuel duty today. I can assure them this government understands the financial pressures hard-working families are facing. Subject to the constraints of the public finances, this government is determined to help families with the cost of living.
A key economic question to consider is why is fuel one of the products that is frequently taxed? When a tax is imposed on a product, its price will rise and as the law of demand tells us, this will cause people to purchase less of it. But, what is so special about petrol? Why do people continue to purchase petrol even when its price rises? The following articles consider the concerns surrounding the 3p fuel duty rise.
Treasury to defer planned increase in fuel duty The Guardian, Nicholas Watt (13/11/12)
Asda chief Andy Clarke urges scrapping fuel duty rise BBC News (15/11/12)
Fuel Duty: Labour to force vote to delay 3p rise The Guardian, Helene Mulholland (12/11/12)
Fuel duty delay called for by Which? BBC News (11/11/12)
Fuel Duty: Government may still axe increase Sky News (13/11/12)
Chancellor heads off fuel duty rebellion Financial Times, George Parker (12/11/12)
Osborne pressed to shelve fuel duty rise Financial Times, George Parker (8/11/12)
Planned 3p petrol increase could be abandonedThe Telegraph, Christopher Hope (11/11/12)
- Why is petrol a good that is taxed so heavily?
- Illustrate the impact of a tax on petrol using a demand and supply diagram. Explain what happens to the equilibrium price and quantity.
- Which factors will make the change in price and quantity relatively larger or smaller? Think about how elasticity is relevant here.
- What other factors have contributed towards the increased cost of living over the past few years?
- Which factors in particular would make a January rise in fuel duty especially painful for many families?
- What are the arguments both for and against delaying the 3p rise in duty?
- According to the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, fuel duty is 20% lower in real terms. What does this actually mean?
The Office for Budget Responsibility has said that the UK Treasury will face a shortfall of £13bn in motoring taxes within a decade. Although car usage continues to rise putting increasing pressure on the road infrastructure, the greener and more fuel efficient cars being produced are driving down the tax revenues generated from motoring.
A report by the IFS has put forward the case for replacing the existing system of taxes on cars and fuel by a new road charging system. If no such change occurs, the IFS has forecast that with more electric cars and hence lower revenues raised from fuel and vehicle excise duties, the shortfall facing the Treasury would require an increase in fuel duty of some 50%. Instead of this, the solution could be to charge individuals for every mile of road they use, with the ‘price’ varying depending on the degree of congestion. For example, at peak times the price would be higher, where as for those in the countryside where roads are traditionally much quieter, charges would be lower. The IFS said:
‘Such a move would generate substantial economic efficiency gains from reduced congestion, reduce the tax levied on the majority of miles driven, leave many (particularly rural) motorists better off, and provide a stable long-term footing for motoring taxes without necessarily raising net additional revenue from drivers.’
Government policy across the world has been increasingly focused on climate change, with targets for emissions reductions being somewhat ambitious. However, many car manufactures who were told to reduce emissions significantly are on the way to meeting these targets and this success is a key factor contributing towards this new road ‘crisis’ that could soon be facing the government. The following articles consider the possibility of a road charging scheme.
The road ahead for motoring taxes? Institute of Fiscal Studies (link to full report at the bottom of the page) (May 2012)
Compelling case for UK road charging, IFS study says BBC News (15/5/12)
Fears tax shortfall may lead to road tolls Sky News (15/5/12)
Who’s going to pay to update Britain’s infrastructure? Guardian Business Blog (15/5/12)
Motoring taxes: a future headache for the Chancellor Channel 4 News (15/5/12)
For whom the toll bills – less traffic hurts M6 toll road owner Guardian, Ian Griffiths and Dan Milmo (14/5/12)
Charge motorists per mile, says IFS Independent, Nigel Morris (15/5/12)
Green cars to drive down tax receipts Financial Times, Mark Odell and John Reed (15/5/12)
- Illustrate the effect of a tax being imposed on petrol. What happens to the equilibrium price and quantity?
- Despite fuel duty pushing up the price of petrol, why has there been such a small decline in the quantity of petrol individuals use?
- Evaluate the case for and against a road charging scheme.
- Why are tax revenues from motoring expected to decline over the next decade?
- Climate change has become an increasingly important focus of government policy. To what extent is the current road ‘crisis’ a positive sign that policies to tackle climate change are working?
- If a road charging scheme went ahead and prices were varied depending on traffic, time etc, what name would you give to this strategy?
- Why would it be possible to charge a higher price at peak times and a lower price for cars using country roads?
- Is there an argument for privatising the road network? Is it even possible?
Petrol prices have been a bone of contention for some time. With household incomes remaining low and the cost of living rising, the fact that average petrol prices have reached their highest level of more than 1.37p per litre on average will undoubtedly put growing pressure on the approaching budget.
There have already been calls for the Chancellor to reduce fuel duty and with this latest data, the pressure will only mount. The problem is, if fuel duty does fall, so will tax revenues and as one of the Coalition’s key objectives has been to cut the budget deficit, this could pose further problems. Even the calls to cut VAT on fuel will also put a dent in the budget deficit.
Although everyone is undoubtedly feeling the effects of these higher prices, the key thing with petrol is its elasticity of demand. Whether the price of petrol was 0.90p or 1.37p per litre, I continue to buy the same amount. Therefore, for me, the price elasticity of demand for petrol is highly inelastic – at least between those prices. After all, if the price increase above say £3 per litre, I might think twice about driving to work!
So what has been driving this increase in prices? Petrol prices are hugely dependent on the cost of oil and on the demand for any product that uses fuel. With growing demand from countries like India and China, as they continue to develop and grow very quickly; the continuing concerns with Iran’s nuclear programme and the political problems in the Middle East, oil prices have been forced up. The future trend in prices will depend on many factors, not least whether or not there is any change in fuel duty in the 2012 budget and whether something like a regulator is introduced to monitor increases in fuel prices. This is definitely an area to pay close attention to in the coming months.
Petrol prices reach record high Independent, Peter Woodman (3/3/12)
Petrol prices hit record high with further rises expected Guardian, Hilary Osborne (2/3/12)
Appeak to regulate petrol prices This is South Wales (3/3/12)
Plea to slash duty as fuel costs soar to record high Scotsman, Alastair Dalton (3/3/12)
Petrol prices hit record high The Telegraph, David Millward (2/3/12)
Diesel prices predicted to reach 150p as petrol hits new record Guardian, Terry Macalister and Hilary Osborne (2/3/12)
- Which are the factors on the demand side that have pushed up the price of oil and hence petrol and diesel?
- What are the supply-side factors that are causing the rising price of fuel?
- Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate the effects you have explained in the first two questions.
- In the blog, I mention that my price elasticity of demand is relatively inelastic between 2 given prices. What does this suggest about the shape of my demand curve for petrol? How does this shape affect prices following any change in demand or supply?
- Why is petrol a relatively price inelastic product?
- There have been calls for the government to cut VAT or reduce fuel duty. What are the arguments for and against these policies?
- How effective do you think a petrol price regulator would be?