Since 2019, UK personal taxes (income tax and national insurance) have been increasing as a proportion of incomes and total tax revenues have been increasing as a proportion of GDP. However, in his Autumn Statement of 22 November, the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, announced a 2 percentage point cut in the national insurance rate for employees from 12% to 10%. The government hailed this as a significant tax cut. But, despite this, taxes are set to continue increasing. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), from 2019/20 to 2028/29, taxes will have increased by 4.5 per cent of GDP (see chart below), raising an extra £44.6 billion per year by 2028/29. One third of this is the result of ‘fiscal drag’ from the freezing of tax thresholds.
According to the OBR
Fiscal drag is the process by which faster growth in earnings than in income tax thresholds results in more people being subject to income tax and more of their income being subject to higher tax rates, both of which raise the average tax rate on total incomes.
Income tax thresholds have been unchanged for the past three years and the current plan is that they will remain frozen until at least 2027/28. This is illustrated in the following table.
If there were no inflation, fiscal drag would still apply if real incomes rose. In other words, people would be paying a higher average rate of tax. Part of the reason is that some people on low incomes would be dragged into paying tax for the first time and more people would be paying taxes at higher rates. Even in the case of people whose income rise did not pull them into a higher tax bracket (i.e. they were paying the same marginal rate of tax), they would still be paying a higher average rate of tax as the personal allowance would account for a smaller proportion of their income.
Inflation compounds this effect. Tax bands are in nominal not real terms. Assume that real incomes stay the same and that tax bands are frozen. Nominal incomes will rise by the rate of inflation and thus fiscal drag will occur: the real value of the personal allowance will fall and a higher proportion of incomes will be paid at higher rates. Since 2021, some 2.2 million workers, who previously paid no income taxes as their incomes were below the personal allowance, are now paying tax on some of their wages at the 20% rate. A further 1.6 million workers have moved to the higher tax bracket with a marginal rate of 40%.
The net effect is that, although national insurance rates have been cut by 2 percentage points, the tax burden will continue rising. The OBR estimates that by 2027/28, tax revenues will be 37.4% of GDP; they were 33.1% in 2019/20. This is illustrated in the chart (click here for a PowerPoint).
Much of this rise will be the result of fiscal drag. According to the OBR, fiscal drag from freezing personal allowances, even after the cut in national insurance rates, will raise an extra £42.9 billion per year by 2027/28. This would be equivalent of the amount raised by a rise in national insurance rates of 10 percentage points. By comparison, the total cost to the government of the furlough scheme during the pandemic was £70 billion. For further analysis by the OBR of the magnitude of fiscal drag, see Box 3.1 (p 69) in the November 2023 edition of its Economic and fiscal outlook.
Support measures during the pandemic and its aftermath and subsidies for energy bills have led to a rise in government debt. This has put a burden on public finances, compounded by sluggish growth and higher interest rates increasing the cost of servicing government debt. This leaves the government (and future governments) in a dilemma. It must either allow fiscal drag to take place by not raising allowances or even raise tax rates, cut government expenditure or increase borrowing; or it must try to stimulate economic growth to provide a larger tax base; or it must do some combination of all of these. These are not easy choices. Higher economic growth would be the best solution for the government, but it is difficult for governments to achieve. Spending on infrastructure, which would support growth, is planned to be cut in an attempt to reduce borrowing. According to the OBR, under current government plans, public-sector net investment is set to decline from 2.6% of GDP in 2023/24 to 1.8% by 2028/29.
The government is attempting to achieve growth by market-orientated supply-side measures, such as making permanent the current 100% corporation tax allowance for investment. Other measures include streamlining the planning system for commercial projects, a business rates support package for small businesses and targeted government support for specific sectors, such as digital technology. Critics argue that this will not be sufficient to offset the decline in public investment and renew crumbling infrastructure.
To support public finances, the government is using a combination of higher taxation, largely through fiscal drag, and cuts in government expenditure (from 44.8% of GDP in 2023/24 to a planned 42.7% by 2028/29). If the government succeeds in doing this, the OBR forecasts that public-sector net borrowing will fall from 4.5% of GDP in 2023/24 to 1.1% by 2028/29. But higher taxes and squeezed public expenditure will make many people feel worse off, especially those that rely on public services.
- Fiscal drag
- Fiscal drag
Sky News Politics Hub on X, Sophy Ridge (22/11/23)
Sky News Politics Hub on X, Beth Rigby (22/11/23)
- Autumn Statement 2023 response
- Autumn Statement: Jeremy Hunt cuts National Insurance but tax burden still rises
- The hidden tax rise in the Autumn Statement
- How is National Insurance changing and what is income tax?
- UK income tax: how fiscal drag leads to people falling into higher rates
- Will I be pulled into a higher tax band? How ‘fiscal drag’ affects your pay
- Fiscal drag could cost high earners £4,000 by 2027
- Why the UK government’s tax cuts still leave workers worse off
- National insurance cuts swamped by stealth tax rise, says fiscal watchdog
- Frozen income tax bands eat into benefits of NI cut, say experts
- Jeremy Hunt’s fiscal fudge
IFS, Stuart Adam, Bee Boileau, Isaac Delestre, Carl Emmerson, Paul Johnson, Robert Joyce, Martin Mikloš, Helen Miller, David Phillips, Sam Ray-Chaudhuri, Isabel Stockton Tom Waters, Tom Wernham and Ben Zaranko (22/11/23)
BBC News, Brian Wheeler (23/11/23)
BBC News, Michael Race (23/11/23)
BBC News (23/11/23)
The Guardian, Antonio Voce and Ashley Kirk (22/11/23)
i News, Alex Dakers (23/11/23)
MoneyWeek, Marc Shoffman (16/11/23)
CNBC, Elliot Smith (23/11/23)
Financial Times, Emma Agyemang (22/11/23)
FT Adviser, Tara O’Connor (23/11/23)
Financial Times editorial (22/11/23)
Report and data from the OBR
- Economic and fiscal outlook
- Public finances databank – November 2023 (Excel file)
Office for Budget Responsibility, November 2023
Office for Budget Responsibility (22/11/23)
- Would fiscal drag occur with frozen nominal tax bands if there were zero real growth in incomes? Explain.
- Examine the arguments for continuing to borrow to fund a Budget deficit over a number of years.
- When interest rates rise, how much does this affect the cost of servicing public-sector debt? Why is the effect likely to be greater in the long run than in the short run?
- If the government decides that it wishes to increase tax revenues as a proportion of GDP (for example, to fund increased government expenditure on infrastructure and socially desirable projects and benefits), examine the arguments for increasing personal allowances and tax bands in line with inflation but raising the rates of income tax in order to raise sufficient revenue?
- Distinguish between market-orientated and interventionist supply-side policies? Why do political parties differ in their approaches to supply-side policy?