The current political storm over the British government’s proposed scaling back of tax credits is not showing politics at its best. On one side a cynical Conservative government is pushing through changes will make the poor poorer and reduce social mobility. On the other we have opposition grandstanding that has no interest in suggesting alternatives. I despair.
First of all, what is the fuss about? Tax credits were introduced by the Labour government in 2003. They are a way of providing means tested benefits to those already in work, but on low incomes, and especially those with children. They are designed to taper off as income grows, so that claimants will always benefit from any increase in earned income. They are copied from a US idea, but they have been Britannicised so that they can operate within the country’s system of taxation at source, PAYE. In America claims are made at the end of the tax year when tax returns are filed; the UK use a monthly system.
Originally the problem with tax credits was the operation of the monthly calculations. Inevitably the information they used was often out of date, and so many claimants were faced with clawback claims, for which they were not prepared. We hear much less of this these days. Nowadays the problem is the cost. Claims about this vary, but it was always expensive, and, with low paid jobs multiplying, it has grown sharply. And yet they are well targeted to those most in need, especially families. They do not penalise work, so many means-tested benefits do, while costing much less than universal benefits.
During the coalition years of 2010 to 2015 the government trimmed back tax credits, in particular they tapered off the withdrawal more sharply. Previously incomes up to around £40,000 (from memory – this figure may well be incorrect) could claim something, but this has been reduced. Now the government proposes to reduce tax credits even more harshly, and especially for larger families. It estimates that the savings will be between £4bn and £5bn. That will cause real hardship for many families that include working people. In fact, the very “hard-working families” that we got so sick of hearing about from politicians at this May’s election. The cuts will also be a setback for attempts to give children from poor families a better start, and so reduce inequality.
For all that there is a certain honesty about the plan from the Conservative Chancellor George Osborne. The government’s financial deficit is running at about 5%, far higher than it should at this stage in the economic cycle. During the election the Conservatives made it very clear that they wanted to balance the budget. They also made it clear that they would do so by making cuts to benefits. They were very coy about where these cuts would fall, and even suggested that child tax credits might not be affected – but there really is no other way to make their plans work. This is what politicians do in a democracy: vaguely promise “tough” measures before an election; implement them soon after, and hope the fuss has blown over by the time the next election comes around. A lot of publicity has been attracted by a Conservative voter saying that she felt very let down – but I’m afraid that’s political naivety. If the issue was that important to her, she should have voted for somebody else.
The government are honest, by the standards we have to apply to politicians (no truly honest politician would get elected), but misguided. But a lot of the opposition is a nonsense. It amounts to no more than a collective yelp of pain, and wishes for the government to “reconsider” without offering any kind of escape route. This is particularly annoying from Conservative MPs. They offer no alternative. The various mitigations proposed, such as raising the minimum wage, or tax thresholds, are badly targeted and won’t help much. Tax credits are the most efficient way of doing what they do. Any change is going to make things worse. There is no clever wheeze that will make the problem go away.
The opposition parties: Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems are at least a little more honest than the Tory moaners. Labour initially got itself into a tangle, but soon put that right. I personally dislike the way these parties (and especially Labour) treat the status quo as a sacred thing to be “defended”, and any change that makes people worse off as tantamount to robbery. It’s still somebody else’s money. If systems of benefits, or public services, aren’t doing what they are supposed to, they should be changed, even it makes some people worse off. Still, that’s what politicians do. And in this case I think they are right. There is so much evidence that poverty in early life ruins chances later, which is why benefits focusing on families are a good idea. The system could be improved, no doubt, but not in a way that makes it any less expensive.
But these parties still should be clearer on what they think the government should do instead. All three of those parties have said they want the fiscal deficit reduced. They make an exception for capital spending – but tax credits is patently not that. Neither are they advocating cuts anywhere else (with exception of nuclear weapons systems, in some cases, but they usually want to increase spending on conventional forces instead).
Neither is it realistic to appeal to economic growth. This is not something that can be turned on and off like a tap by politicians. If it was the Conservatives would have that tap in the “on ” position already. Keynesian stimulus, which may have been relevant in 2010-2012, does not apply at this point in the economic cycle.
The only way to convincingly square the circle is to raise taxes. Of course the far left think they have the answer here: to crack down on tax avoidance and evasion, and to reform corporate taxes. Closer examination reveals these ideas to be chimerical. That still leaves the idea of taxing the rich harder. But the rich are slippery. There are still some things that can be done: taxing land, in particular, and tightening inheritance tax, rather than loosening it, as the Conservatives are doing. I wouldn’t bet on these ideas yielding much new money quickly though.
To have real credibility in “defending” tax credits, the NHS, local government spending, the police, or any other aspect of expenditure, politicians will not carry conviction unless they are prepared to raise one or more of the big three taxes: Income Tax, National Insurance, or VAT. Alas on this all parties are silent.
But such is the importance of tax credits to me, that I would indeed support the raising of one of the big three to keep them in being at current levels. I just wish the governments’ critics would say so too, and so start some real debate about the country’s fiscal priorities.