The past few weeks, ahead of a ‘supplementary’ Budget, have been remarkably exciting
Rumours of major tax changes have abounded, while speculation about how planned cuts in welfare of £12 billion are to be achieved have occupied many headlines. Added to this has been a swarm of lobbying, with both left and right calling for increases in the minimum wage in order to reduce the dependence of the low paid on tax credits and housing benefit, and an apparent U-turn by Labour to say that they now accept the principle of targeting a cash surplus in ‘normal circumstances’.
Interestingly, most of this debate is not about the Government’s financial budget for the current year, the main subject of a Budget announcement. Rather it is focused on the Chancellor’s four-year plan to cut expenditure until there is a surplus in cash terms and about how we can improve the tax and welfare system to make it more effective.
This shifting of the debate is welcome. Although many commentators are still debating the minutiae of the tax and welfare system, such as the intricacies of inheritance tax and benefit caps, or the merits of reducing one of the seven different rates of tax on our salaries, there is an increasing acceptance amongst policy makers across the political spectrum that the complexity of the current system is an obstacle to achieving its objectives of raising money in fair way and supporting those in need effectively.
Perhaps even more welcome is the realisation that our public finances need to be managed much better than they have been in the past. Not only does our Government owe £1.5 trillion in debt, but it has £1.3 trillion in unfunded public sector pension obligations on its whole-of-government accounting balance sheet that will need to be paid for by increased taxes or through further cuts in welfare or public services. And that is even before considering how we find the money to pay for the costs of an increasingly long-lived population, with the future cost of the state pension alone estimated to be more than £4 trillion in a recent report by the Centre for Policy Studies.
Piecemeal tinkering with the tax and welfare system is not going to be enough; we need a plan.
Hence what would be most welcome in this Budget would be an announcement of a comprehensive financial review, as called for by the ICAEW. Considering income, expenditure, cash flow and the balance sheet over the long-term, it would lead to the development of a coherent long-term financial strategy setting out how we can achieve sustainable public finances over the next quarter of a century and beyond.
Such a strategy should include a roadmap to radically restructured system of tax and welfare, with a wholesale replacement of the complex array of inconsistent taxes and welfare benefits with a simple and coherent system of fair taxes and welfare support for those in need, reflecting the following characteristics:
- Simple – benefiting government just as much as citizens and businesses through clarity, lower administration costs and more effective targeting of support.
- Sustainable – affordable to both individuals and to the taxpayer over the long-term.
- Integrated – with a consistent set of rules across taxes and welfare benefits that would mitigate the need for anti-avoidance measures or complex welfare enforcement processes.
- Joined up – across government, for example with housing policy.
- Incentivising – making it financial rewarding to work and addressing the poverty trap inherent in the current system that reinforces welfare dependency.
- Funded – increasing the emphasis on savings, so that we are less reliant on the uncertain ability of future generations to fund our old age.
- Helpful – establishing a structure that helps people to do the right thing, such as automatic enrolment in pensions, social care insurance and savings plans.
- Cross-party – sufficient support for core elements of the strategy so that it will survive changes in government over the transition period of ten to twenty years likely to be needed.
- Fair – and perceived to be fair.
That the focus of a Budget announcement has changed from a one-year time horizon into a more substantive debate about the Government’s medium-term fiscal strategy is positive. But we need to go much further if we are to end the piecemeal tinkering of successive governments applying patches to address the problems caused by an overcomplicated system, while at the same time advancing their own policy goals by adding further complexity.
It is time for a coherent long-term strategy. A plan that not only sets out how we can fund our nation in the future, but that also establishes a path to replacing a failed system of tax and welfare.
Martin Wheatcroft is managing director of Pendan.
This article was originally published in Economia.