What COVID-19 means for the future of tax

This article features in the May 2021 edition of TAXline, ICAEW Tax Faculty’s monthly magazine. One article is freely available each month.

With the pandemic increasing pressure on public finances, could this prompt overdue discussions on tax reform? ICAEW’s Head of Tax Frank Haskew and independent adviser Martin Wheatcroft reflect on recent announcements and challenges facing the Chancellor.

With the UK’s deficit set to increase to £2.5tn by 2023, the fact that tax revenues do not cover public spending is starker than ever. However, the problem of balancing the books far predates COVID-19

An aging population coupled with funding and tax administrative decisions made many decades ago have meant that the gap has been slowly but inexorably widening. Frank Haskew, Head of Tax at ICAEW, says: “Since the turn of the century, we have been running deficits almost every year. The fact is that we’re not raising enough tax meet to our day-to-day spending commitments.”

Martin Wheatcroft, an independent adviser and author on public finances who works closely with ICAEW, explains: “People are living longer which is a good thing, but it has a financial impact. For example, the NHS spends an average of £80 a month on 18-year-olds, while for 80-year-olds that cost is more than £500. The perennial issue is that we don’t have a clear long-term strategy for how the government, or any government, plans to deal with that.”

To balance the books, the primary strategy of governments has been to grow the economy and have a moderate level of inflation to inflate away debt. However, financial crises and recessions have meant that in the past decade growth has been a lot weaker than expected. George Osborne, for example, was forced to leave the Exchequer without fulfilling his pledge of eliminating the deficit due to the underperformance of the economy. “When you combine the demographic pressures with slower economic growth then it’s a difficult situation,” says Wheatcroft.

Paying for coronavirus

Into this strained situation enters a global pandemic and its huge financial repercussions. Alongside the severe and prolonged impact on economic activity, stimulus and support packages are expected to add between £0.5tn–£1tn onto UK debt in the next few years. 

Ahead of the Budget in March, the expectation was that the Chancellor would be looking for ways to raise revenues to help cover the costs of COVID. However, the measures announced will not do so – in the short term at least.

“It’s fair to say that there was no serious attempt to tackle a growing fiscal deficit in the Red Book,” says Haskew. “The 2019 manifesto pledge that there would be no rise in VATincome tax or national insurance means that the Chancellor is prevented from the most obvious, and quick, ways in which to raise revenues.”

The flagship measure for revenue raising in the Budget was the increase to corporation tax rates. However, as the change will not come into effect until 2023, this will not provide a quick cash injection. Haskew also argues that the fiscal impact may not be significant. “The potential corporation tax revenues over the forecast period are pretty much balanced by the cost of the super deduction. In overall terms any difference is probably loose change,” he says.

Wheatcroft believes the measure gives an indication of the government’s medium-term plans. “One of the more positive things you can do in the medium term to get your public finances under control is encourage stronger economic growth. By taking action on corporation tax the government wants to try and at least stabilise the situation.” 

Reallocating spending

Evidence for where the Chancellor is securing finance in the short term can be seen in the integrated defence review published on 16 March, which confirmed that the size of the army would be further reduced by 2025. “Since the 1950s the UK has cut defence spend from 10% of GDP down to 2%. Reallocating that finance to healthcare that has helped successive governments avoid increasing taxes,” explains Wheatcroft. “However, with defence spend now just above the NATO minimum, there’s no further capacity and taxes are going to have to go up at some point.” 

Haskew agrees: “The measures announced so far are just nibbling at the edges of the problem. The UK has a strategic question as to whether it tackles the deficit and if so how. Since the start of the pandemic there’s been suggestions from some commentators that capital gains tax and inheritance tax might rise, and other have proposed wealth taxes, but we saw none of those suggestions in the Budget. It shows just how hard it is to raise taxes.”

The need for change

There are a number of areas of the UK tax system that have been ripe for reform for many years, including the differences between the taxation of the employed and self-employed. “We’ve had a position of significant difference between these two types of taxpayer for 20 years and more. Successive governments, of every political hue, have identified it as a concern but never successfully addressed it,” says Haskew. 

He cites Philip Hammond’s attempt to make relatively modest changes to national insurance contributions for the self-employed in 2017, which were reversed within a week. 

Wheatcroft, meanwhile, points to the perennial thorny issue of business rates and the interim review published as part of HM Treasury’s Tax Day announcements on 23 March. “Everybody was in total agreement that it’s a bad tax and needs reform, but they were also very unhappy about the main alternative option,” he says. “There’s definitely an inertia bias when it comes to changing taxes because it is so difficult. It’s much easier to stay with the current ones, simply because they already exist and they are collecting revenue, however imperfectly.”

Haskew agrees: “These cases highlight that a lot of the structural problems in the tax system have become so ingrained that trying to change them is almost impossible.”

Catalyst for reform

Decisions on how to balance the books have been getting increasingly difficult year on year, but could the dramatic impact of the pandemic provide the impetus for the government to set out a long-term vision of how to tackle the deficit and for Rishi Sunak to make some brave choices?

“From a public support point of view, this past Budget was politically the best possible time to raise taxes, with everyone understanding the financial impact of the interventions that the government has had to take,” says Wheatcroft. “However, from an economic perspective it would be the worst time. At the moment the government wants to do everything possible to encourage a strong economic recovery. This is probably why the government took the opportunity to pre-announce raising corporation tax rates now, rather in three years’ time immediately prior to a general election.”

Wheatcroft suggests that the Chancellor has potentially another 12 months of political goodwill in which to implement changes and suggests that Tax Day is a good indication of travel. “The very fact of having a Tax Day announcing the consultations and setting out a 10-year strategy, which it did last year, is a positive sign of longer-term thinking,” he says.

Haskew believes that now is the time to start having a national conversation about the future of tax and cites a Treasury Committee report, Tax after coronavirus, published on 1 March as a step in the right direction. “It’s a really interesting report because there was a consensus among the cross-party members about proposals to try and address some of these issues,” he says. 

“The deficit and tax reform are more than political issue, so reaching a consensus was really encouraging,” he says. “We have this growing problem as a nation, so what are we going to do about it? These things need to be debated, to see whether we can reach some consensus about the best way of raising tax without harming productivity.”

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

March fiscal deficit hits £28bn as departments rush to spend capital budgets

The UK reported a £28.0bn fiscal deficit in March 2021, bringing the total shortfall for 2020-21 to £303.1bn. The last month of the financial year saw net investment of £10.3bn, up from a monthly average of £4.0bn over the previous eleven months.

The latest public sector finances released on Friday 23 April reported a deficit of £28.0bn for March 2021, as COVID-related spending continued to weigh on the public finances. This brought the cumulative deficit for the financial year to £303.1bn, £246.0bn more than the £57.1bn reported for the same period last year.

The combination of receipts down 5%, expenditure up 27% and net investment up 25% has resulted in a deficit for the twelve months to March 2021 that is more than five times as much as the budgeted deficit of £55bn for the whole of the 2020-21 financial year set in the Spring Budget in March, despite interest charges being lower by 25%.

The deficit is smaller than the £354.6bn forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) in March as the economy has been less damaged than was feared, despite the extended lockdown during the final quarter of the financial year. However, some of this difference relates to spending that has been deferred into the following financial year, while the provisional numbers also exclude £27bn of bad debts on COVID-related lending that were included in the OBR forecast.

Falls in VAT, corporation tax and income tax receipts and the waiver of business rates were the principal driver of lower tax revenues over the last twelve months, while large-scale fiscal interventions have resulted in much higher levels of expenditure. 

Net investment is greater than last year (mostly as planned), while the interest expense line has benefited from ultra-low interest rates. March 2021 saw a return to the traditional end-of-financial-year rush to get capital budgets spent, with net investment spending of £10.3bn in March contrasting with an average of £4.0bn over the previous eleven months.

Public sector net debt increased to £2,141.7bn or 97.7% of GDP, an increase of £344.0bn from the start of the financial year. This reflected £40.9bn of additional borrowing over and above the deficit, much of which has been used to fund coronavirus loans to businesses and tax deferral measures. Although net debt was reported as exceeding 100% of GDP at various points during the financial year, slightly improved GDP numbers have kept the ratio below that point.

The cash outflow (the ‘public sector net cash requirement’) for the month was £16.4bn, increasing the cumulative total cash outflow for 2020-21 to £339.0bn. This is a significant increase over the cumulative net cash outflow of £17.2bn reported for 2019-20.

Caution is needed with respect to the numbers published by the ONS, which are expected to be repeatedly revised as estimates are refined and gaps in the underlying data are filled.

The ONS made a number of revisions to prior month and prior year fiscal numbers to reflect revisions to estimates and changes in methodology. These had the effect of reducing the reported fiscal deficit in the first eleven months from £278.8bn to £275.1bn and the reported deficit for 2019-20 from £57.7bn to £57.1bn.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

Biggest peacetime deficit caps extraordinary year for UK public finances

Huge economic shock combined with unprecedented fiscal interventions results in a provisional fiscal deficit of £303bn or 14.5% of GDP for the year ended 31 March 2021.

The Office for National Statistics today published its first estimate of fiscal history, reporting a provisional fiscal deficit of £303bn or 14.5% of GDP for 2020-21 and a £344bn increase in public sector net debt from £1.8bn to £2.14tn at 31 March 2021, breaking peacetime records for the public finances. This compares with an official forecast for the deficit of £55bn presented by the Chancellor just prior to the start of the financial year last March, admittedly together with the first in a series of mini-fiscal announcements that saw spending soar to tackle the pandemic at the same time as tax revenues collapsed.

The damage is less than had been feared at some points during the past year, with the provisional deficit coming in below the £355bn estimated by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) at the time of the Spring Budget 2021 last month and substantially below their forecast of £394bn in November 2020 at the time of the Spending Review. While some of this is down to better economic performance as lockdowns have been less harmful than anticipated, there has been an offsetting increase in the forecast deficit for the 2021-22 financial year starting this month to £234bn compared with the pre-pandemic projection of £67bn. The provisional deficit of £303bn also excludes somewhere in the region of £27bn for bad debts on covid-related lending that will need to be accounted for at some point.

The deficit is only part of the story, as the government has borrowed significant amounts to finance tax deferrals and lending to business to help them survive. As a consequence, public sector net debt has increased by more than the deficit, with an increase of £344bn to a provisional £2,142bn or 97.7% of GDP at 31 March 2021. Debt is expected to rise over the next couple of years to in excess of £2.5tn.

While the numbers for both the deficit and debt are likely to be revised up or down over the next few months, the big picture won’t change – debt as a proportion of GDP has increased from 35% in March 2008 before the financial crisis to around 80% of GDP a couple of years ago before climbing to in the region of 100% of GDP today. These numbers don’t include other significant liabilities in the government balance sheet such as public sector employee pension obligations, nor do they include future financial commitments such as for welfare benefits. Despite that they still provide an indication of just how significantly the UK’s fiscal position has changed over a period of less than a decade and a half.

Fortunately, interest rates have been coming down even faster than debt has been going up, enabling the Government to reduce its interest bill over the course of the year. However, higher leverage comes with a greater exposure to movements in interest rates going forward, a concern for the Chancellor in mapping out his plans for the next few years.

While the Spring Budget last month provided some indications on how the Chancellor aims to stabilise the public finances through a combination of higher investment spending, short-term economic stimulus and a corporation tax rise, there is as yet no indication of his longer-term fiscal strategy to address the unsustainability of the public finances identified by the OBR before the pandemic.

While the government has been taking steps to set the foundations for better management of the public finances, for example through the National Infrastructure Strategy released last year, the soon to be launched National Data Strategy and actions coming out of HM Treasury’s recent Balance Sheet Review, there is no clear plan for how the government intends to fund pensions, health and social care over the next quarter of a century. These costs will continue to grow as many more people live longer in retirement and the working age population shrinks, just at a time that huge investments are needed to achieve net zero and pressures on public spending are unlikely to disappear. At the same time the government needs to work out how it can ensure the public finances are more resilient and better prepared for future crises – from whatever corner they may come.

Alison Ring, ICAEW Public Sector Director, said: “Today’s numbers cap a dramatic year for the UK’s public finances, and show this is the biggest deficit since the end of World War Two. However, the damage is less than had been feared, with the shortfall lower than the OBR had forecast.

Ultra-low borrowing costs have provided the government with the room it needed to provide unprecedented spending to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, protect jobs and prevent the economy from crashing, as well as the opportunity to invest for growth in the coming years.

However, even as the economy starts to recover, the legacy of higher debt and a greater exposure to changes in interest rates will be with us for years, if not decades to come. The public finances were already on an unsustainable path before the pandemic, and the government will need a long-term strategy for rebuilding them.”

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Canada Budget 2021

Canada Budget 2021

2020-21 Forecast outturn
C$635 (£363bn)

Budget shortfall C$339bn + Taxes and other income C$296bn
Covid-19 C$252bn + Federal spending C$363bn

2021-22 Federal budget
C$498bn (£285bn)

Budget shortfall C$143bn + Taxes and other income C$355bn
Covid-19 C$76bn + Federal spending C$422bn

Monday 19 April 2021 saw Chrystia Freeland, the Canadian deputy prime minister and minister of finance, release her country’s 725-page Budget 2021, setting out the Government of Canada’s plan to “finish the fight against COVID-19 and ensure a robust economic recovery that brings all Canadians along”.

As the #icaewchartoftheweek illustrates, the forecast outturn for the fiscal year ended 31 March 2021 involved spending by the federal government of C$635bn (equivalent to £363bn at an exchange rate of C$1,75:£1), resulting in a budget shortfall of C$339bn after taking taxes and other income of C$296bn into account. Spending comprised C$363bn on ‘normal’ federal government activities – operational spending, welfare payments and transfers to provinces and territories and C$272bn on exceptional measures in response to covid-19.

COVID-19 spending is much lower in 2021-22 at C$76bn, even as other spending increases to C$422bn as the federal government seeks to generate economic growth following the pandemic – total spending of C$498bn (£285bn). Assuming taxes and other income recovers to C$355bn as expected, the budget shortfall should reduce to C$143bn – still much higher than the C$29bn seen before the pandemic in 2019-20.

The federal finances were in a fairly strong position coming into the pandemic compared with many other countries, with debt at 31 March 2020 of C$813bn (31% of GDP) rising to C$1,176bn (49% of GDP) at 31 March 2021 and a forecast C$1,334bn (51% of GDP) at 31 March 2022. This provides Canada with some room for manoeuvre as it navigates its way after the pandemic. 

Fortunately for Canadians, one side-effect of the US government’s stimulus package is that it is expected to not only drive growth in the US economy, but in its Canadian neighbour too.

More (much more) information is available in the Canada Budget 2021.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: personal tax bands

This week’s chart examines the complexity in the tax system and potential options for reform by looking at the number of tax bands for salaried employees across the UK.

Chart showing personal tax bands from £150,000 (45% UK income tax +1% Scottish income tax + 2% Employee national insurance) down to £0.

See text for more details.

The new tax year saw the introduction of an additional tax band to the UK system of personal taxation, bringing the total number to nine tax bands in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and twelve in Scotland.

The #icaewchartoftheweek continues on the theme of complexity in the tax system and potential options for tax reform by looking at the number of tax bands for salaried employees, with up to nine tax bands in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and up to twelve in Scotland.

Although the advertised personal tax allowance of £12,570 a year suggests that individuals only start to pay tax above that point, in practice ‘taxation’ in its wider sense can start from as little as £0, which is when some of those claiming universal credit start to have their benefits withdrawn at a rate of 63p in the pound. The threshold is £0 for those without dependent children, £3,516 for those on housing benefit and with dependent children or limited capability to work, or £6,180 for those with dependent children or limited capability to work who are not on housing benefit. The rate of withdrawal is even higher for those receiving council tax benefit, with an additional 20% or more levied on incomes above a certain level until it is fully clawed back – the details vary by council.

Tax in its more formal sense starts at £9,568 when employee national insurance of 12% starts to be levied. Although ‘constitutionally’ different in how the money collected is used and its role in entitlement to the state pension, in substance it operates as an income tax in all but name.

Income tax itself starts to be levied on earnings above £12,570 at a basic rate of 20%, adding to national insurance to give a marginal tax rate of 32% for those not on universal credit and 74.8% for those who are.

For those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland this tax band goes from £12,570 up to £50,000 but in Scotland, there are intermediate tax bands, with a lower rate of income tax of 19% between £12,570 and £14,667, 20% between £14,667 and £25,926, 21% between £25,926 and £43,662, and 41% above £43,662 when the higher rate of Scottish income tax kicks in.

The new tax band this year arises because the government failed to increase the £50,000 threshold at which child benefit is withdrawn from the higher-earning parent to align with the increase in the higher rate tax threshold to £50,270. This means the insertion of a new tax band between £50,000 and £50,270 as the government starts to withdraw entitlement to ‘universal’ child benefit of £21.15 a week for the eldest child and £14.00 a week for remaining children by collecting an additional tax of 11% for the eldest child and 7.3% for the second and each of any subsequent children.

Above £50,270, the higher rate of income tax of 40% starts to be levied in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but the marginal rate of national insurance reduces to 2% meaning that this is a 10% increase from 32% to 42% in the combined marginal rate – at least assuming you don’t have children! This rate also applies to those with children from £60,000 up until £100,000 when the marginal rate jumps to 62% (63% in Scotland) as the personal income tax allowance is gradually withdrawn. The marginal rate reverts to 42% (43%) from £125,140 before increasing to 47% (48%) for those on the 45% top rate of income tax above £150,000.

While devolution has led to some of the complexity, this probably hasn’t been helped by the perennial tendency of governments to find ever more complicated approaches to extract additional money from taxpayers without touching the headline rates of tax – for example through the ‘withdrawal’ of the personal tax allowance, which in substance operates as an additional 20% tax payable by those earning between £100,000 and £125,140.

The consequence of this tinkering with the tax systems means there are now nine different tax bands in England, Wales and Northern Ireland with marginal tax rates of 0%, 12%, 32%, 32% + 11% (or more) for higher-earning parents, 42% + 11% (or more) for higher-earning parents, 42%, 62%, 42% and 47%. In Scotland there are twelve: 0%, 12%, 31%, 32%, 33%, 53%, 53% + 11% (or more) for higher earning parents, 43% + 11% (or more) for higher earnings parents, 43%, 63%, 43% and 48%. 

Such a complex system invites the question of how it might be reformed, with the possibility of increasing the national insurance threshold to align with the income tax personal allowance being actively discussed in recent years to eliminate one of the bands. However, this now seems less likely than it once did since the pandemic caused such damage to the public finances. Other ideas have included aligning the 40% higher rate and 45% top rate of income tax (either up or down depending on political preference) or ‘folding’ in the personal tax allowance withdrawal into the tax system as part of the higher or top tax rates in conjunction with a reform to tax thresholds.

However, another option would be to add even more complexity, a real possibility now the Welsh government has obtained devolved powers to adjust its income tax rates and thresholds like Scotland, albeit powers that have thankfully not been used so far.

Either way, the nirvana that some tax reformers aspire to of a single flat rate of income tax applying to all earnings seems more remote than ever. One can but dream!

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: personal taxation by legal form

ICAEW’s chart this week compares the differences in the tax payable depending on legal form – an area ripe for reform in theory, but much more difficult in practice.

Chart showing tax payable on £80,000 of business earnings:

Employee - income tax: 20.0%, employee NI 6.6%, employer NI 10.7% - take home pay 62.7%.

Self-employed - income tax: 24.3%, employee NI 5.5% - take home pay 70.2%.

Company owner - income tax 9.9%, corporation tax 16.9% - take home pay 73.2%.

Comments by the Chancellor last year suggested he might tackle one of the thorniest challenges in the UK tax system – the differences in tax paid by individuals depending on the legal form through which they conduct their business activities. However, as the controversy over IR35 has demonstrated, a significant amount of political capital is likely to be needed if changes are to be made.

The #icaewchartoftheweek provides an illustrative example of just how significant the differences can be, with £80,000 in business earnings attracting an effective tax rate of 37.3% if paid to an employee on a salary of £71,460, 29.8% if paid to an individual who is self-employed or in a partnership, or 26.8% if earned through a company and distributed as dividends. 

(It is important to note that this is a theoretical illustrative example for a single person with no other earnings and not paying any pension contributions, with the company owner in the example paying a salary equivalent to the secondary threshold for national insurance before paying the rest as dividends. Actual amounts of tax paid will of course depend on both business and individual circumstances, which can vary significantly.)

The last decade or so has seen a significant increase in the numbers of people becoming self-employed or conducting business through their own companies, and the tax authorities have been concerned about the loss in tax that has followed. One way they have sought to tackle this is by removing the tax benefits of being self-employed or operating through a company from some people, which is the approach adopted by IR35. Coming into force this month, IR35 in effect creates a new legal status of ‘deemed employee’ for tax purposes, reclassifying individuals back into the scope of employment taxes. This has proved highly controversial, accompanied as it is by extensive compliance requirements and general unhappiness by those determined to be subject to it.

Another potential approach would be to change the taxes and tax rates applying to three different forms – either by reducing the taxes on employees or by increasing them on the self-employed or those operating through companies. The former seems unlikely given the state of the public finances, but the challenge in increasing rates can be extremely politically difficult, as former Chancellor Philip Hammond found a few years ago when he proposed a relatively modest increase in the amount of national insurance to be paid by the self-employed.

Whether current Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak will take forward a suggestion he made last year when he announced the self-employed income support scheme last year that taxes on the self-employed might rise is yet to be seen. However, what is likely is that this and future Chancellors will continue to look at this particular aspect of the tax system and wonder how they might collect a little more from the ranks of the self-employed and company owners. 

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Metropolitan France

This week’s chart examines how France inserted a layer of regional administration between the national government in Paris and the 96 departments in mainland France and Corsica.

Map of Metropolitan France divided into 12 mainland regions and Corsica, subdivided into departments.

Île de France 12.3m people
Auverne-Rhône-Alps 8.1m
Hauts-de-France 6.0m
Occitanie 6.0m
Nouvelle-Aquitaine 6.0m
Grand Est 5.5
Provence-Alpes-Côte D'Azur 5.1m
Pays le la Loire 3.8m
Brittany 3.4m
Normandy 3.3m
Burgundy-Franché-Comte 2.8m
Centre-Val de Loire 2.6m
Corsica 0.3m

France’s regional tier of government was created in 1982 with 22 regions in Metropolitan France (ie mainland France and Corsica) and has generally seen to be a success. However, it was concluded that there were too many regions, resulting in a consolidation in 2015 into the current 13 regions, as illustrated by the #icaewchartoftheweek.  

The regions range in size from the 12.3m population eight-department Île de France that includes Paris, to the 2.6m six-department Centre – Val de Loire region in mainland France and the 0.3m two-department Corsica region. This excludes the five overseas one-department regions of Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Réunion, Martinique and Mayotte. 

Regional councils in mainland France and the assembly in Corsica can raise taxes and control substantial budgets, in particular over education and infrastructure investment, as well as having some regulatory powers (but not statutory law-making powers). Elections are on a proportional representation system, with regional presidents chosen by the elected councillors or assembly members.

The establishment of the regions has been part of a process of devolving power from the central government, moving away from the highly centralised control exercised since the French Revolution, which saw the establishment of departments, broadly equivalent to county councils in England. Although each of the 96 departments in Metropolitan France has an elected departmental council and president, many responsibilities for local administration (such as policing) still sit with departmental prefects and subprefects that are appointed by the central government. The lowest tier of local government comprises 36,552 communes, each with an elected council and mayor, with the exception of central Paris, Lyon and Marseille that are further divided into municipal arrondissements.

The comprehensive reforms adopted in France for regional government contrast with the patchwork approach in England, where regional authorities in the form of metropolitan councils were abolished in 1986, only to see a regional tier return in 2000 with the creation of the Greater London Authority. This has been followed over the last decade by the establishment of 10 regional combined authorities, comprising Greater Manchester (2011), Liverpool City Region (2014), Sheffield City Region (2014), North East (2014), West Yorkshire (2014), Tees Valley (2016), West Midlands (2016), West of England (2017), Cambridgeshire & Peterborough (2017) and North of Tyne (2018).

The stop-start approach in England has involved a process of negotiation between central and local government on whether to establish regional combined authorities in particular areas, with a number of proposals across the country under consideration. However, even if they are approved, this will still leave many parts of the country without a regional tier of government. The elections in May in England will therefore see elections for regional authorities only in some areas (including the first-ever elected mayor of West Yorkshire), for between one and three different tiers of local government, and for police & crime commissioners outside of Greater London and Greater Manchester. A rather complex picture!

Back in France, the regional elections scheduled for March have had to be postponed. Instead, a new set of regional administrations across the entirety of Metropolitan France are expected to be elected in June 2021.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Tax Day

26 March 2021: ICAEW’s chart this week is in honour of Tax Day, the newest fiscal event in the government calendar where reforms of the tax system under consideration are opened up to consultation.

Chart showing components of tax receipts of £732bn in 2021-22 and changes to the £928bn projected in 2025-26.

Numbers for chart elements included in the text below.

The #icaewchartoftheweek starts with the Spring Budget forecast tax receipts of £732bn for the coming financial year from 1 April 2021 and how these are expected to increase to £928bn in 2025-26 through a combination of economic growth, inflation and higher receipts principally from corporation tax, income tax, VAT and business rates. 

The chart illustrates how the ‘big three’: income tax (£198bn in 2021-22), VAT (£151bn) and national insurance (£147bn) together comprise 67.8% of the total tax take, with corporation tax (£40bn), council tax (£40bn), fuel duties (£26bn), business rates (£24bn), alcohol & tobacco duties (£22bn), stamp duty (£12bn) generating a further 22.4%. The next 5 taxes – environmental levies (£10bn), capital gains tax (£9bn), insurance premium tax (£7bn), vehicle excise duties (£7bn) and inheritance tax (£6bn) – generate 5.3%, while all other taxes (£33bn) comprise the balance of 4.5%.

With the Chancellor constrained by a commitment not to raise the main rates of income tax, VAT and national insurance, the principal focus of both the Spring Budget and Tax Day has been on improving the tax take from existing taxes, for example by looking at tax reliefs and tackling tax avoidance, and on raising more money from smaller taxes.

This is reflected in the Office for Budget Responsibility projections for tax receipts that accompanied the Spring Budget, which indicate that receipts from most taxes are expected to rise broadly in line with economic growth (generating £80bn in higher tax receipts) and inflation (£46bn) between 2021-22 and 2056-26. This reflects anticipated economic recovery from the pandemic as well as a boost from stimulus measures announced by the Chancellor in addition to existing plans to increase public investment.

The biggest incremental change is an expected increase in corporation tax receipts of £38bn over and above economic growth and inflation. Some of this rise is recovery to a more normal level, as businesses will be able to reduce their tax bills in the coming year by offsetting losses incurred during the pandemic and using the temporary ‘super deduction’ of 130% of qualifying capital expenditure, but the principal driver is an increase in the corporation tax rate on larger businesses from 19% to 25% in 2023.

The next highest increases are from income tax (+£16bn) and VAT (+£9bn) where a combination of fiscal drag from freezing tax allowances (income tax) and registration thresholds (VAT) will bring more transactions into the scope of both taxes and hence generate more revenue. Both taxes are also the focus of efforts to make taxes easier to pay and to tackle tax avoidance as addressed in several of the Tax Day consultations. 

The other significant increase is in business rates (+£7bn), although this mostly reflects pandemic related reliefs in the coming financial year that are not expected to continue into subsequent financial years. In practice, there are some questions as to whether this increase will be deliverable, with the Tax Day consultation on business rates suggesting that levels are too high and a reduction could help bricks and mortar businesses survive against online competition and so ‘save the high street’. The dilemma for the Chancellor is that if he were to cut business rates as some hope, then what tax lever he would need to pull to make up for that lost revenue?

Much of the focus of this first Tax Day has been on the efficiency and effectiveness of the tax system and how it can be made to work better. Perhaps future Tax Days will tackle some of the bigger questions surrounding the role of taxation in the long-term sustainability and resilience of the public finances – and whether some bigger tax levers might need to be pulled at some point in the future?

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

Fiscal deficit on course to exceed £300bn in 2020-21

The UK reported a £19.1bn fiscal deficit in February 2021, bringing the total shortfall over eleven months to £278.8bn. Public sector net debt is up by £333.0bn at £2.13tn.

The latest public sector finances released on Friday 19 March reported a deficit of £19.1bn for February 2021, as COVID-related spending continued to weigh on the public finances. This brought the cumulative deficit for the first eleven months of the financial year to £278.8bn, £228.2bn more than the £50.6bn reported for the same period last year.

The reported deficit for the eleven months excludes £27.2bn in potential business loan write-offs that the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has included in its forecast deficit of £354.6bn for the full financial year.

Falls in VAT, corporation tax and income tax receipts and the waiver of business rates were the principal driver of lower tax revenues over the last eleven months, while large-scale fiscal interventions have resulted in much higher levels of expenditure. Net investment is greater than last year (mostly as planned), while the interest line has benefited from ultra-low interest rates.

Public sector net debt increased to £2,131.2bn or 97.5% of GDP, an increase of £333.0bn from the start of the financial year and £347.2bn higher than in February 2020. This reflects £54.2bn of additional borrowing over and above the deficit, much of which has been used to fund coronavirus loans to businesses and tax deferral measures.

The cash outflow (the ‘public sector net cash requirement’) for the month was £11.4bn, increasing the cumulative total cash outflow this financial year to £322.3bn. This is a significant swing from the cumulative net cash inflow of £10.9bn reported for the equivalent eleven-month period in 2019-20.

The combination of receipts down 5%, expenditure up 27% and net investment up 21% has resulted in a deficit for the eleven months to February 2021 that is around five times as much as the budgeted deficit of £55bn for the whole of the 2020-21 financial year set in the Spring Budget in March, despite interest charges being lower by 27%.

Alison Ring, ICAEW Public Sector Director said: “Today’s numbers are in line with expectations, with the deficit for the past 11 months reaching £278.8bn. This means we are on track for public sector net borrowing to exceed £300bn for the full year once a potential £27bn in bad debts that have not yet been recorded are factored in.

“Our eyes are now focused on what possible tax measures, in addition to the planned corporation tax rise, the government might use to start rebuilding the public finances.”

Table: public sector finances month ended 28 February 2021. Analyses deficit of £19.1bn for month and variances from same month last year.

Click on link at the end of the post to ICAEW article for a readable version of the table.
Table: public sector finances 11 months ended 28 February 2021. Analyses deficit of £278.8bn and change in net debt of £333.03bn and variances from same period last year, together with net debt of £2,131.2bn or 97.5% of GDP.

Click on link at the end of the post to ICAEW article for a readable version of the table.
Table: month by month analysis of receipts, expenditure, interest, net investment and the fiscal deficit for the 11 months to 28 February 2021.
 
Click on link at the end of the post to ICAEW article for a readable version of the table.
Table: month by month analysis of receipts, expenditure, interest, net investment and the fiscal deficit for the prior year.
 
Click on link at the end of the post to ICAEW article for a readable version of the table.

Caution is needed with respect to the numbers published by the ONS, which are expected to be repeatedly revised as estimates are refined and gaps in the underlying data are filled.

The ONS made a number of revisions to prior month and prior year fiscal numbers to reflect revisions to estimates and changes in methodology. These had the effect of reducing the reported fiscal deficit in the first ten months from £270.6bn to £259.7bn and increasing the reported deficit for 2019-20 from £57.1bn to £57.7bn.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: global military spending

19 March 2021: The UK’s Integrated Review is the inspiration for this week’s chart, illustrating the 20 countries around the world that spend the most on their militaries.

Chart showing global military spending in 2019 led by USA (£526bn) and China (£200bn) followed by 18 other countries - see text below the chart for details.

The UK Government launched its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy on 16 March 2021, setting out a vision for the UK’s place in the world following its departure from the European Union and in the context of increasing international tensions and emerging security threats.

At the core of the Integrated Review is security and defence, and ICAEW’s chart of the week illustrates one aspect of that by looking at military spending around the world. 

The chart shows spending by the top 20 countries, which together comprise in the order of £1.2tn of estimated total military spending of around £1.4tn to £1.5tn globally in 2019 – an almost textbook example of the 80:20 rule in action.

More than a third of the total spend is incurred by just one country – the USA – which spent in the order of £526bn in 2019 converted at current exchange rates. The next biggest were China and India at £200bn and £50bn respectively, although differences in purchasing power mean that they can afford many more soldiers, sailors and aircrew for the same amount of money. This is followed by Saudi Arabia (£45bn), Russia (£41bn), France (£38bn), the UK (£38bn), Germany (£38bn), Japan (£34bn), South Korea (£33bn), Australia (£21bn), Italy (£20bn), Canada (£17bn), Israel (£16bn), Brazil (£14bn), Spain (£13bn), Turkey (£11bn), the Netherlands (£9bn), Iran (£9bn) and Poland (£9bn).

Exchange rates affect the relative orders of many countries in the list, for example between Russia, France, the UK and Germany which can move up or down according to movements in their currencies, while there are a number of caveats over the estimates used given the different structures of armed forces around the world and a lack of transparency in what is included or excluded in defence budgets in many cases.

In addition, the use of in-year military spending does not necessarily translate directly into military strength. Military capabilities built up over many years or in some cases (such as the UK) over many centuries need to be taken into account, as do differing levels of technological development and spending on intelligence services, counter-terrorism and other aspects of security. Despite these various caveats, estimated military spending still provides a useful proxy in understanding the global security landscape and in particular highlights the UK’s position as a major second-tier military power – in the top 10 countries around the world.

Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy sets out some ambitious objectives for security and defence, which it summarises as follows: “Our diplomatic service, armed forces and security and intelligence agencies will be the most innovative and effective for their size in the world, able to keep our citizens safe at home and support our allies and partners globally. They will be characterised by agility, speed of action and digital integration – with a greater emphasis on engaging, training and assisting others. We will remain a nuclear-armed power with global reach and integrated military capabilities across all five operational domains. We will have a dynamic space programme and will be one of the world’s leading democratic cyber powers. Our diplomacy will be underwritten by the credibility of our deterrent and our ability to project power.”

The estimates of military spending used in the chart were taken from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)’s Military Expenditure Database, updated to current exchange rates.

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.