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
Sky News Politics Hub on X, Sophy Ridge (22/11/23)
- Fiscal drag
Sky News Politics Hub on X, Beth Rigby (22/11/23)
- Autumn Statement 2023 response
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)
- Autumn Statement: Jeremy Hunt cuts National Insurance but tax burden still rises
BBC News, Brian Wheeler (23/11/23)
- The hidden tax rise in the Autumn Statement
BBC News, Michael Race (23/11/23)
- How is National Insurance changing and what is income tax?
BBC News (23/11/23)
- UK income tax: how fiscal drag leads to people falling into higher rates
The Guardian, Antonio Voce and Ashley Kirk (22/11/23)
- Will I be pulled into a higher tax band? How ‘fiscal drag’ affects your pay
i News, Alex Dakers (23/11/23)
- Fiscal drag could cost high earners £4,000 by 2027
MoneyWeek, Marc Shoffman (16/11/23)
- Why the UK government’s tax cuts still leave workers worse off
CNBC, Elliot Smith (23/11/23)
- National insurance cuts swamped by stealth tax rise, says fiscal watchdog
Financial Times, Emma Agyemang (22/11/23)
- Frozen income tax bands eat into benefits of NI cut, say experts
FT Adviser, Tara O’Connor (23/11/23)
- Jeremy Hunt’s fiscal fudge
Financial Times editorial (22/11/23)
Report and data from the OBR
- 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?
The Autumn Statement was announced by Jeremy Hunt in Parliament on Thursday 17th November. This was Hunt’s first big speech since becoming Chancellor or the Exchequer a few weeks ago. He revealed to the House of Commons that there will be tax rises and spending cuts worth billions of pounds, aimed at mending the nation’s finances. It is hoped that the new plans will restore market confidence shaken by his predecessor’s mini-Budget. He claimed that the mixture of tax rises and spending cuts would be distributed fairly.
What is the Autumn statement?
The March Budget is the government’s main financial plan, where it decides how much money people will be taxed and where that money will be spent. The Autumn Statement is like a second Budget. This is an update half a year later on how things are going. However, that doesn’t mean it is not as important. This year’s Autumn Statement is especially important given the number of changes in government in recent months. The Statement unfortunately comes at a time when the cost of living is rising at its fastest rate for 41 years, meaning that it is going to be a tough winter for many people.
It was expected that the Statement was not going to be one to celebrate, given that the UK is now believed to be in a recession. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecasts that the UK economy will shrink by 1.4% next year. However, Hunt said that his focus was on stability and ensuring a shallower downturn. The Chancellor outlined his ‘plan for stability’ by announcing deep spending cuts and tax rises in the autumn statement. He said that half of his £55bn plan would come from tax rises, and the rest from spending cuts.
The Chancellor plans to tackle rising prices and restore the UK’s credibility with international markets. He said that it will be a balanced path to stability, with the need to tackle inflation to bring down the cost of living while also supporting the economy on a path to sustainable growth. It will mean further concerns for many, but the Chancellor argued that the most vulnerable in society are being protected. He stated that despite difficult decisions being made, the plan was fair.
What was announced?
The government’s overall strategy appears to assume that, by tightening fiscal policy, monetary policy will not have to tighten as much. The hopeful consequence of which is that interest rates will be lower than they otherwise would have been. This means interest-rate sensitive parts of the economy, the housing sector in particular, are more protected than it would have been.
The following are some of the key measures announced:
- Tax thresholds will be frozen until April 2028, meaning millions will pay more tax as their nominal incomes rise.
- Spending on public services in England will rise more slowly than planned – with some departments facing cuts after the next election.
- The state pensions triple lock will be kept, meaning pensioners will see a 10.1% rise in weekly payments.
- The household energy price cap per unit of gas and electricity has been extended for one year beyond April but made less generous, with typical bills then being £3000 a year instead of £2500.
- There will be additional cost-of-living payments for the ‘most vulnerable’, with £900 for those on benefits, and £300 for pensioners.
- The top 45% additional rate of income tax will be paid on earnings over £125 140 instead of £150 000.
- The UK minimum wage (or ‘National Living Wage’ as the government calls it) for people over 23 will increase from £9.50 to £10.42 per hour.
- The windfall tax on oil and gas firms will increase from 25% to 35%, raising £55bn over the period from now until 2028.
The public finances
A key feature of the Autumn Statement was the Chancellor’s attempt to tackle the deteriorating public finances and to reduce the public-sector deficit and debt. The following three charts are based on data from the OBR (see data links below). They all show data for financial years beginning in the year shown. They all include OBR forecasts up to 2025/26, with the forecasts being based on the measures announced in the Autumn Statement.
Figure 1 shows public-sector current expenditure and receipts and the balance between them, giving the current deficit (or surplus), shown by the green bars. Current expenditure excludes capital expenditure on things such as hospitals, schools and roads. Since 1973, there has been a current deficit in most years. However, the deficit of 11.5% of GDP in 2020/21 was exceptional given government support measures for households and business during the pandemic. The deficit fell to 3.3% in 2021/22, but is forecast to grow to 4.6% in 2022/23 thanks to government subsidies to energy suppliers to allow energy prices to be capped. (Click here for a PowerPoint of this chart.)
Figure 2 shows public-sector expenditure (current plus capital) from 1950. You can see the spike after the financial crisis of 2007–8 when the government introduced various measures to support the banking system. You can also see the bigger spike in 2020/21 when pandemic support measures saw government expenditure rise to a record 53.0% of GDP. It has risen again this financial year to a predicted to 47.3% of GDP from 44.7% last financial year. It is forecast to fall only slightly, to 47.2%, in 2023/24, before then falling more substantially as the tax rises and spending cuts announced in the Autumn Statement start to take effect. (Click here for a PowerPoint of this chart.)
Figure 3 shows public-sector debt since 1975. COVID support measures, capping energy prices and a slow growing or falling GDP have contributed to a rise in debt as a proportion of GDP since 2020/21. Debt is forecast to peak in 2023/24 at a record 106.7% of GDP. During the 20 years from 1988/89 to 2007/8 it averaged just 30.9% of GDP. After the financial crisis of 2007–8 it rose to 81.6% by 2014/15 and then averaged 82.2% between 2014/15 and 2019/20. (Click here for a PowerPoint of this chart.)
The government has been keen to stress that Mr Hunt’s statement does not amount to a return to the austerity policies of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, in office between 2010 and 2015. However, Labour Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, said Mr Hunt’s Autumn Statement was an ‘invoice for the economic carnage’ the Conservative government had created. There have also been some comments raised by economists questioning the need for spending cuts and tax rises on this scale, with some saying that the decisions being made are political.
Paul Johnson, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies has commented on the plans, stating that the British people ‘just got a lot poorer’ after a series of ‘economic own goals’ that have made a recovery much harder than it might have been. He went on to say that the government was ‘reaping the costs of a long-term failure to grow the economy’, along with an ageing population and high levels of historic borrowing.
Disapproval also came from Conservative MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who criticised the government’s tax increases. He raised concerns about the government’s plans to increase taxation when the economy is entering a recession. He said, ’You would normally expect there to be some fiscal support for an economy in recession.’
High inflation and rising interest rates will lead to consumers spending less, tipping the UK’s economy into a recession, which the OBR expects to last for just over a year. Its forecasts show that the economy will grow by 4.2% this year but will shrink by 1.4% in 2023, before growth slowly picks up again. GDP should then rise by 1.3% in 2024, 2.6% in 2025 and 2.7% in 2026.
The OBR predicts that there will be 3.2 million more people paying income tax between 2021/22 and 2027/28 as a result of the new tax policy and many more paying higher taxes as a proportion of their income. This is because they will be dragged into higher tax bands as thresholds and allowances on income tax, national insurance and inheritance tax have been frozen until 2028. Government documents said these decisions on personal taxes would raise an additional £3.5bn by 2028 – the consequence of ‘fiscal drag’ pulling more Britons into higher tax brackets. The OBR expects that there will be an extra 2.6 million paying tax at the higher, 40% rate. This is going to put more pressure on households who are already feeling the impact of inflation on their disposable income.
However, this pressure on incomes is set to continue, with real incomes falling by the largest amount since records began in 1956. Real household incomes are forecast to fall by 7% in the next few years, which even after the support from the government, is the equivalent of £1700 per year on average. And the number unemployed is expected to rise by more than 500 000. Senior research economist at the IFS, Xiaowei Xu, described the UK as heading for another lost decade of income growth.
There may be some good news for inflation, with suggestions that it has now peaked. The OBR forecasts that the inflation rate will drop to 7.4% next year. This is still a concern, however, given that the target set for inflation is 2%. Despite the inflation rate potentially peaking, the impact on households has not. The fall in the inflation rate does not mean that prices in the shops will be going down. It just means that they will be going up more slowly than now. The OBR expects that prices will not start to fall (inflation becoming negative) until late 2024.
The overall tone of the government’s announcements was no surprise and policies were largely expected by the markets, hence their muted response. However, this did not make them any less economically painful. There are major concerns for households over what they now face over the next few years, something that the government has not denied.
It has been suggested that this situation, however, has been made worse by historic choices, including cutting state capital spending, cuts in the budget for vocational education, Brexit and Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-Budget. It is evident that Britons have a tough time ahead in the next year or so. The UK has already had one lost decade of flatlining living standards since the global financial crisis and is now heading for another one with the cost of living crisis.
- Autumn Statement 2022: Key points at-a-glance
BBC News (17/11/22)
- Autumn statement 2022: key points at a glance
The Guardian, Richard Partington and Aubrey Allegretti (17/11/22)
- Next two years will be ‘challenging’, says Chancellor Jeremy Hunt – as disposable incomes head for biggest fall on record
Sky News, Sophie Morris (18/11/22)
- What the Autumn Statement means for you and the cost of living
BBC News, Kevin Peachey (17/11/22)
- Autumn Statement: Jeremy Hunt warns of challenges as living standards plunge
BBC News, Kate Whannel (17/11/22)
- Autumn Statement: BBC experts on six things you need to know
BBC News (17/11/22)
- Autumn statement 2022: experts react
The Conversation (17/11/22)
- Autumn Statement Special: Top of the Charts
Resolution Foundation, Torsten Bell (18/11/22)
- Jeremy Hunt’s autumn statement is a poisoned chalice for whoever wins the next election
The Conversation, Steve Schifferes (18/11/22)
- UK households face largest fall in living standards in six decades
Financial Times, Delphine Strauss (17/11/22)
- How the autumn statement brought back the ‘squeezed middle’
The Guardian, Larry Elliott (18/11/22)
- The British people ‘just got a lot poorer’, says IFS thinktank
The Guardian, Anna Isaac (18/11/22)
- Autumn Statement: Hunt has picked pockets of entire country, Labour says
BBC News, Joshua Nevett (17/11/22)
- UK government announces budget; country faces largest fall in living standards since records began
CNBC, Elliot Smith (17/11/22)
- The first step to Britain’s economic recovery is to start telling the truth
The Observer, Will Hutton (20/11/22)
- Autumn Statement 2022 response
Institute for Fiscal Studies, Stuart Adam, Carl Emmerson, Paul Johnson, Robert Joyce, Heidi Karjalainen, Peter Levell, Isabel Stockton, Tom Waters, Thomas Wernham, Xiaowei Xu and Ben Zaranko (17/11/22)
- Help today, squeeze tomorrow: Putting the 2022 Autumn Statement in context
Resolution Foundation, Torsten Bell, Mike Brewer, Molly Broome, Nye Cominetti, Adam Corlett, Emily Fry, Sophie Hale, Karl Handscomb, Jack Leslie, Jonathan Marshall, Charlie McCurdy, Krishan Shah, James Smith,
Gregory Thwaites & Lalitha Try (18/11/22)
- What do you understand by the term ‘fiscal drag’?
- Provide a critique of the Autumn Statement from the left.
- Provide a critique of the Autumn Statement from the right.
- What are the concerns about raising taxation during a recession?
- Define the term ‘windfall tax’. What are the advantages and disadvantages of imposing/increasing windfall taxes on energy producers in the current situation?
What will be the effect of raising tax allowances – the threshold at which people start paying income tax? The Coalition government in the UK has a policy of raising the threshold to £10,000 by 2015/16. As a step on this road, the present plan is to raise the threshold from £7475 in 2011/12 to £8105 in 2012/13. The Liberal Democrats, however, are urging the Chancellor to raise allowances more quickly.
The government maintains that raising the personal allowance is progressive – that it will give relatively more help to the poor. New research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, however, casts doubt on this claim. The IFS demonstrates that the benefits will be unevenly distributed, with the greatest benefits going to middle-income families where more than one person works but where no-one earns the higher tax rate. The poorest people – those earning below the threshold – will gain nothing at all.
Read the following articles and the IFS report and establish just who would benefit by a rise in the tax threshold and whether or not the move could be described at ‘progressive’.
Tax move ‘benefits better-off’ Independent, Joe Churcher (9/3/12)
Raising tax threshold would benefit rich more than poor, says IFS MyFinances.co.uk (11/3/12)
Rise in income tax threshold would help the rich Financial Times, Vanessa Houlder (9/3/12)
Budget 2012: raising the personal tax allowance threshold isn’t fair Guardian blog, Heather Stewart (9/3/12)
A £10,000 personal allowance: who would benefit, and would it boost the economy? IFS, James Browne (March 2012)
- Define the term ‘progressive tax’.
- For what reasons might raising the personal tax allowance (a) be progressive; (b) not be progressive?
- How does eliminating child benefit for any families where either parent earns the higher tax rate affect the progressiveness of raising income tax thresholds?
- What additional measures could be taken to ensure that raising tax thresholds was progressive across the whole income range and for all households?