There has been considerable discussion recently about whether the government should introduce a property tax on high value properties. The government, finding it difficult to reduce the public-sector deficit and yet determined to do so, is looking for additional measures to reduce government expenditure or raise tax revenue.
But would it favour a mansion tax as a means of raising additional revenue?
The imposition of such a tax is favoured by both Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party. It is strongly opposed, however, by Conservatives. But just what would such a tax look like and what are the arguments for and against it?
One alternative would be to impose a one-off tax on property valued over a certain amount, such as £2 million. Alternatively it could be levied only for as long as the government is seeking to make substantial inroads into the deficit.
Another would be to add one or more bands to council tax. At present, council tax in England is levied in 8 bands according to the value of a person’s property. The highest band is for property valued over £320,000 in 1991 prices, with the amount of tax due for each band varying from local authority to local authority. (Average UK house prices in 2012 are 135% higher than in 1991.) In Scotland the bands are lower with the top band being for property valued over £212,000 in 1991 prices. In Wales, there is an additional band for property valued over £424,000, but properties are valued in 2003 prices, not 1991 prices.
With low top bands for council tax, people in mansions end up paying the same as people in much more modest property. It would be relatively easy to add additional bands, with the top band applying only to property worth, say, over £1 million or more.
The arguments in favour of a mansion tax are that it is progressive, relatively easy to collect, hard to evade and with minimal disincentive effects. The arguments against are that it would make the tax system ‘too progressive’, would not necessarily be related to an individual’s ability to pay and could have substantial disincentive effects.
The progressiveness of the UK tax system is illustrated in the chart, which looks at the proportion of income paid in direct, indirect and all taxes by quintile groups of households – that is, households grouped into five equal sized groups ranked from lowest to highest gross income. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The following articles look at the debate as it has raged over the past few weeks. Try to unpick the genuine arguments from the political rhetoric!
Clegg Says U.K. Could Apply Mansion Tax ‘in Five Seconds’ Bloomberg, Robert Hutton (25/9/12)
Two thirds back mansion tax on £1m homes Metro, Tariq Tahir (8/10/12)
Mansion tax would ‘tackle inequality’ This is Tamworth (27/9/12)
Council tax: the easy way to make mansion-dwellers pay Guardian, Simon Jenkins (25/9/12)
Rich must pay fair share in tax BBC Andrew Marr Show, Nick Clegg (23/9/12)
We will get mansion tax on £2 million homes through next budget, promise Lib Dems The Telegraph, Rowena Mason (25/9/12)
Trying to tax the wealthy not worth the price The Scotsman, George Kerevan (31/8/12)
Tax on wealth is true to Tory principles Financial Times, Janan Ganesh (24/9/12)
How would Clegg’s emergency wealth tax work? Guardian, Hilary Osborne (29/8/12)
Labour considers mansion tax on wealthy Financial Times, George Parke (5/9/12)
Conservative conference: Cameron rules out ‘mansion tax’ BBC News (7/10/12)
Don’t make wealth tax a habit Financial Times, Howard Davies (29/8/12)
George Osborne blocks mansion tax, but insists wealthy will pay more The Telegraph, Robert Winnett (8/10/12)
Why George Osborne had to kill the mansion tax The Spectator, Matthew Sinclair (7/10/12)
David Cameron rules out mansion tax and plans further welfare cuts Guardian, Hélène Mulholland (7/10/12)
Viewpoint: Would a wealth tax work? BBC News, Mike Walker (29/8/12)
For all the claims made about wealth taxes, it’s not correct to say the rich are paying their fair share Independent, Jonathan Portes (2/10/12)
House price data links Economics Network
The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, 2010/2011 ONS (26/6/12) (see especially Tables 2 and 3 and Table 26 for historical data)
- Explain the distinction between direct and indirect taxes, and between progressive and regressive taxes. For what reasons do the poor pay a higher proportion of their income in indirect taxes than the rich?
- What forms can a tax on wealth take?
- How progressive are taxes in the UK (see the ONS site in the Data section above)?
- Assess the arguments in favour of a mansion tax.
- Assess the arguments against a mansion tax.
- What type of wealth tax would be hardest to evade?
- What are the likely income and substitution effects of a wealth tax?
The UK has always been an attractive place for investment, as foreign companies look to cities such as London for stable investment opportunities. This provides not only jobs and output, but also tax revenue for the government. However, one drawback is the lost tax revenue through tax avoidance schemes and big businesses say that if the UK is to remain competitive it needs to look at cutting taxes and bureaucracy.
In recent months, we have seen cases of individuals being prosecuted for tax evasion and more recently in the USA, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard have been criticized by the Senate for allegedly moving an estimated £13bn to offshore accounts. (Microsoft and HP deny any wrong-doing). It is cases like this that provide an argument for governments to cut business rates and avoid losing business and jobs to other tax havens. Lord Fink, who is a Director of Firms located in a variety of tax havens said:
’I don’t see why the UK should not compete for jobs that at present are going to the Cayman Islands’
Tax havens are obviously attractive to firms, as they provide a means of retaining more of a firm’s earnings and hence their profits. By offering a much lower rate of tax than countries such as the UK, they help to ease the tax burden on wealthy individuals and investors in hedge funds, along with many others.
The question is, do these lower tax rates discourage investment into the UK and thus would a relaxation of Revenue Customs’ rules mean an increase in inward investment and the other positive things that this would bring? Or would a decrease in tax rates for wealthy investors send the wrong message?
In a time of austerity, tax cuts for the rich are never going to be a popular policy – at least not amongst the ‘non-rich’ – in truth, the majority of the population. Furthermore, many simply see tax havens as morally wrong – or as George Osborne put it ‘morally repugnant’. The use of them provides the better off with a means of paying less to the taxman, whilst the worse off continue to pay their share.
The controversy surrounding tax havens is perhaps even more of an issue given the size of the public-sector deficit. With tax havens being used by those who should be paying the most, tax revenues are lower than would be the case without tax evasion and avoidance. Is this adding to the burden of basic rate tax payers?
This doesn’t help the gap between government expenditure and revenue, which has contributed to the largest amount of UK public-sector borrowing in August 2012 since records began. Net borrowing reached £14.4bn, as things like corporation tax receipts fell and benefit payments rose. Money that should go in to the government’s coffers is undoubtedly making its way into tax havens, but does that also mean that jobs are making their way out of the country? If tax rates in the UK were cut, cities such as London may become even more attractive places to invest, which could potentially create a much needed boost for the economy. But, at what cost? The following articles consider the controversy of tax havens.
Microsoft and HP rapped by US Senate over tax havens BBC News (20/9/12)
Morally repugnant tax avoiders can rest easy under David Cameron Guardian, Tanya Gold (21/9/12)
Britain could prevent the use of tax havens by ending ‘archaic’ business rules Telegraph, Rowena Mason (21/9/12)
UK public-sector borrowing hits record high of £14.4bn BBC News (21/9/12)
The top Tory who wants to make Britain a tax haven for millionaires Guardian, Martin Williams and Rajeev Syal (20/9/12)
Make UK a tax haven to attract investment from millionaires, urges Tory treasurer Mail Online, Daniel Martin (21/9/12)
Microsoft saved billions using Irish tax havens Irish Times, Genevieve Carbery (21/9/12)
Microsoft, HP skirted taxes via offshore units: U.S. Senate Panel Reuters, Kim Dixon (21/9/12)
Danny Alexander says tax avoidance ‘adds 2p in every £1 to basic tax rate’ Independent, Oliver Wright (24/6/12)
- What are the key features of tax havens?
- Briefly explain the arguments in favour of tax havens and those against. Think about them from all points of view.
- Explain the way in which a cut in UK tax rates could create jobs and how the multiplier effect may provide a boost for the UK economy.
- If tax rates were cut, how might this affect an individual’s decision to work? What about an individual’s decision to invest? Use indifference analysis to help explain your answer.
- How does tax avoidance and evasion affect public sector borrowing? Is there any way a cut in tax rates on foreign investment could improve the government’s finances?
- Do you think there is any truth in the argument that the UK is losing out to other countries because of its higher tax rates? Is a reduction in tax rates necessary to help us compete?
Let’s face it – no-one likes paying tax! After all, to see your monthly pay decline by £1000 through taxation and national insurance has got to hurt. Yet, taxation and national insurance contributions are essential sources of government revenue to finance benefits and public and merit goods.
However, with so much attention given to the UK’s ‘culture of dependency’, many people are increasingly angry with having to pay so much in taxation to see it being spent by the government on individuals who in some cases choose not to work and at the same time seeing other rich people paying so little in taxation. The increase in the top rate of tax received a lot of coverage. Although it did make the tax system more progressive, there were many concerns that it would lead to lower growth, a lack of innovation and enterprise and increased tax evasion and avoidance, as the super-rich were being hit with phenomenal tax bills. The post on the 50p income tax available here is worth looking at again to think about the effect that taxes have on incentives.
The issue of tax avoidance is by no means new, but with a large budget deficit in the UK, tax avoidance by the super-rich has become something that everyone has an opinion on. The average household has seen its income squeezed more and more, as the government continues its efforts to cut the deficit. The fact that the super rich are avoiding sometimes millions in taxation, while the average household struggles to pay even the basic rate of tax, creates a rather contentious issue. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, has said that the basic rate of tax could be cut by 2p in the pound if tax avoidance came to an end. He commented to the BBC’s Sunday Politics Programme that:
‘We have to make sure that everybody, especially the rich and famous, are paying their fair share of tax…These sorts of schemes that save wealthy people potentially tens of millions of pounds in tax, they are paid for by everybody else… If we could narrow the tax gap in this country by a quarter we could reduce income tax for every basic rate payer by 2p in the pound.’
This would clearly have some very positive effects on some of the poorest people living in the UK.
There is a variety of tax avoidance schemes available and the one receiving the most attention at present is the Jersey-based K2 scheme, which Jimmy Carr and others are thought to be using. The Public Accounts Committee will be reporting on the problem of using private companies to pay salaries, as a means of avoiding income tax and national insurance contributions.
If tax avoidance could be stopped, or at least reduced, then not only could basic rate tax payers benefit, but it might go some way to cutting the budget deficit, giving the government more flexibility in stimulating the economy. According to HMRC, tax avoidance and evasion cost the economy some £42 billion – enough to pay off one-third of Britain’s budget deficit.
The following articles consider the problem of tax avoidance and then try answering the questions on the issue of taxation.
Five-point plan to curb tax cheating by big firms and super-rich Guardian (27/6/12)
Stop tax dodgers or there will be ‘riots on the streets’, warns top lawyer designing new anti-avoidance rules Mail Online, Julian Gavaghan (26/6/12)
Danny Alexander describes aggressive tax avoidance as ‘morally repugnant’ Guardian, Patrick Wintour (24/6/12)
Basic tax ‘could be cut by 2p’ if avoidance ended BBC News(24/6/12)
Danny Alexander says tax avoidance ‘adds 2p in every £1 to basic tax rate’ Independent, Oliver Wright (24/6/12)
Make tax returns public, urges peer The Press Association (28/6/12)
Tax officials reveal scale of probe Financial Times, Jim Pickard (27/6/12)
- What are the key principles of a good tax system?
- Explain how taxation affects the incentive to work?
- What is the difference between tax evasion and tax avoidance?
- Using indifference analysis, illustrate the effect of a cut in the basic rate of income tax. How does it affect the decision to work more or less? You should consider the income and substitution effects in your answer and which rate of tax (if any) an individual is paying.
- Why is tax avoidance of such concern at the moment? Think about the current state of the economy.
- What are taxes and national insurance contributions used to pay for?
- To what extent do you think tax avoidance is a natural consequence of any tax system?
Recently there have been calls from business leaders and Conservative politicians to scrap the UK’s 50% income tax rate, which is paid on taxable incomes over £150,000. The 50% income tax rate is thus paid by top earners, who comprise around just 1% of taxpayers.
And yet the government receives about 30% of income tax revenue from this 1% – and this was before the introduction of the 50% rate in April 2010. (In fact, with the marginal national insurance rate of 2%, top earners are paying an effective marginal rate of 52%.)
One argument used by those who favour reducing the 50% rate is that the rich would pay more income tax, not less. There are four reasons given for this. The first is that people would be encouraged to work harder and/or seek promotion if they knew they would keep more of any rise in income. The second is that fewer rich people would be encouraged to leave the country or to relocate their businesses abroad. The third is that more people would be encouraged to work in or set up businesses in the UK. The fourth is that there would be less temptation to evade taxes by not declaring all income earned or to find clever ways of avoiding tax.
These arguments were put forward in the 1980s by Art Laffer, an adviser to President Reagan. His famous ‘Laffer curve’ (see Economics (8th edition) Box 10.3 or Economics (7th edition) Box 10.4) illustrated that tax revenues are maximised at a particular tax rate. The idea behind the Laffer curve is very simple. At a tax rate of 0%, tax revenue will be zero – but so too at a rate of 100%, since no-one would work if they had to pay all their income in taxes. As the tax rate rises from 0%, so tax revenue would rise. And so too, as the tax rate falls from 100%, the tax rate would rise. It follows that there will be some tax rate between 0% and 100% that maximises tax revenue.
Those arguing that a cut in the top rate of income tax would increase tax revenue are arguing that the 50% rate is beyond the peak of the Laffer curve. But this is an empirical issue. In other words, to assess the argument you would need to look at the evidence as, theoretically, the peak of the Laffer curve could be below or above 50%. Indeed, some argue that the peak is more likely to be at around 75%.
The following podcasts and articles consider the arguments. As you will see, the authors are not all agreed! Consider carefully their arguments and try to identify any flaws in their analysis.
On 27 June 2012, Arthur Laffer appeared on the BBC Today Programme to discuss the Laffer curve and its implications for UK income tax policy. You can hear it from the link below
Should the 50p tax rate be ditched? BBC Today Programme, John Redwood and Paul Johnson (3/3/12)
Arthur Laffer: Tax rate should ‘provide for growth’ BBC Today Programme (27/6/12)
Where’s the High Point on the Laffer Curve? And Where Are We? Business Insider, Angry bear Blog (3/3/12)
Tax cuts: we can have our cake and eat it The Telegraph, Ruth Porter (22/2/12)
‘Scrap the 50p tax rate’ say 500 UK entrepreneurs Management Today, Rebecca Burn-Callander (1/3/12)
The Laffer Curve Appears in the UK Forbes, Tim Worstall (22/2/12)
Memo to 50p tax trashers: Laffer Curve peaks at over 75 per cent Left Foot Forward, Alex Hern (1/3/12)
- Explain how a cut in income tax could lead to an increase in tax revenue.
- Distinguish between the income effect and the substitution effect of a tax cut. Which would have to be bigger if a tax cut were to increase tax revenue?
- If, in a given year, the top rate of tax were raised and tax revenue fell, would this prove that the economy was now past the peak of the Laffer curve?
- What would cause the Laffer curve to shift/change shape? To what extent could the government affect the shape of the Laffer curve?
- If the government retains the 50% top tax rate, what can it do to increase the revenue earned from people paying the top rate?
- What other objectives might the government have for having a high marginal income tax rate on top earners?
- Investigate the marginal income tax and national insurance (social protection) rates in other countries. How progressive are UK income taxes compared with those in other countries?
There is a huge hole in public finances that needs to be filled and protestors are arguing that part of the deficit can be financed by companies that manage to avoid or indeed evade taxation. Sunday 30th January was marked by many as the day of action against this alleged tax avoidance by companies who choose to register in so-called tax havens. These countries offer much lower tax rates and hence provide an attractive environment for companies and savers.
However, protests by the campaign group Uncut have been targeting companies such as Boots, Vodafone and Top Shop, accusing them of depriving the UK economy of billions of pounds of tax revenue, which could be used to plug the hole in Britain’s finances and put the economy on the road to recovery. While these concerns have been around for a long time, they have been brought to the forefront by the government’s spending cuts in areas such as higher education, public sector pensions and the planned closures of libraries. There are numerous strikes planned by workers facing job losses, pay cuts and pension cuts. However, George Osborne has said:
“I regard these people as the forces of stagnation, when we are trying to get the British economy competitive again, moving forward again.”
With more and more spending cuts expected and households being squeezed could this tax avoidance really fill the gap? It is not known how much tax revenue is lost through tax avoidance and evasion, but HM Revenue and Customs estimated that the size of the tax gap could lie somewhere between £3.7 billion and £13 billion. The Commons Public Accounts Committee estimated a gap of £8.5 billion and the TUC at around £12 billion. A pretty wide divergence on estimates I grant you, but an indication of the sheer volume and value of tax avoidance that takes place. Clamping down on this may not plug the hole, but it would certainly help!
Analysis: UK Uncut- The true costs of tax avoidance Ethical Corporation 2009 (28/1/11)
Tax protestors stage Boots sit-in The Press Association (30/1/11)
Weekend of protests planned over tax cuts Guardian, Matthew Taylor and Jessica Shepherd (28/1/11)
Unions are “forces of stagnation”, says Osborne BBC News (28/1/11)
Day of action against tax avoiders The Press Association (28/1/11)
Firms’ secret tax avoidance schemes cost UK billions Guardian, Tax Gap Reporting Team (2/2/09)
- Why is the UK running such a large budget deficit?
- What is the point of tax avoidance?
- What are the arguments for companies such as Boots registering in other countries? Are these reasons ever in the interests of consumers?
- How are companies able to reduce their tax burdens by registering in countries like Switzerland?
- Why does George Osborne argue that trade unions and strike action are the ‘forces of stagnation’?
- What are the costs of striking to (a) workers, (b) consumers, (c) firms and (d) the economy?
- Would clamping down on tax avoidance be of benefit to the UK economy in the short and long run?