Tax

Jim Pickard

This is one of those subjects which seems rather dry until the consequences are spelled out in your monthly pay cheque.

Yet the implication of an official document published on Thursday is jaw-dropping.  That is: that many state workers could see their pension contributions more than double in the future.

Lord Hutton’s interim report into public sector pensions has already recommended that pension contributions by state workers should rise in April 2012 by 3 per centage points from their current level (typically between 3 and 11 per cent of pay depending on the job). This is to remedy an imbalance between employee/employer contributions. But will the increase stop there?

With riots outside and conflict in the Commons yesterday was a fantastic day to bury dull but important news. And the Treasury did indeed release its consultation paperon the discount rate used to set unfunded public service pension contributions“. Read more

Here’s another example of the OBR shrugging its shoulders at coalition policy.

The Office of Budget Responsibility reviews the Lib Dem-backed crackdown on tax avoidance and concludes that it will have no impact on compliance ratesRead more

Here is a fine example of the dangers of politicians writing seemingly innocuous op-eds for newspapers.

Ahead of a trip to Dublin in 2006, George Osborne used an article in The Times to pay homage to the Irish boom. The opening paragraph about Ireland’s “shining example” to economic policymakers is a classic:

A generation ago, the very idea that a British politician would go to Ireland to see how to run an economy would have been laughable. The Irish Republic was seen as Britain’s poor and troubled country cousin, a rural backwater on the edge of Europe. Today things are different. Ireland stands as a shining example of the art of the possible in long-term economic policymaking, and that is why I am in Dublin: to listen and to learn.

The conclusion is almost as cringeworthy:

The new global economy poses real long-term challenges to Britain, but also real opportunities for us to prosper and succeed.  In Ireland they understand this.

They have freed their markets, developed the skills of their workforce, encouraged enterprise and innovation and created a dynamic economy. They have much to teach us, if only we are willing to learn.

To be fair to Osborne, many of his arguments are still valid even after the crash.

A well educated workforce, top notch R&D investment, and competitive tax rates to encourage investment are all as important now as they were during the boom years.

But there is not a word of caution about potential imbalanaces in the economy. No mention of the racy property market, reckless lending, or his views on the dangers to Ireland from having joined the Euro. Read more

Jim Pickard

I am trying to take my eyes off the Mail’s scoop on Tony Blair giving a £50,000 lecture to toilet roll and disinfectant manufacturers – and instead concentrate on the big issue of the day. That is, Iain Duncan Smith’s plan to make the workless do manual labour in return for their dole money.

It throws up plenty of questions. Namely: Read more

Jim Pickard

Phil Woolas has just lost an historic court case in which he was accused of making false claims before the general election. There will now be a re-election for his seat, which he won in May with a majority of just 103 votes.

The case was the first of its kind for a century.

As the FT reported last month:

Phil Woolas was re-elected by a slim majority in Oldham east and Saddleworth, beating the Liberal Democrat candidate Elwyn Watkins. Mr Watkins claims Mr Woolas made false statements about him in an attempt to influence the result.

The court heard that Mr Woolas’s campaign team aimed to “galvanise the white Sun vote” against Mr Watkins, claiming Mr Watkins had tried to “woo” and “pander” to Muslim fanatics and militants, the court was told.

Now the Labour MP has lost the case it will set a curious precedent for British elections, where mud-slinging is widespread and many candidates are thrifty with the actualité.

Without wanting to trivialise a no doubt serious case, where does Woolas’s defeat leave Britain’s political parties in future elections? Will their leaders have to muzzle all candidates for fear of twisting the truth?

Take this general election, where the Lib Dems made a fervent promise to protect tuition fees and prevent them from rising higher. It was a promise worth its weight in hot air. Should some of their MPs face fresh elections? Read more

Jim Pickard

The letter published today by the Treasury – from BAE Systems to David Cameron – is a bombshell that explains in stark outline why ministers pressed ahead with an order for two aircraft carriers despite fiscal constraints.

Alex revealed a month ago that the contract was written in such a way that cancelling one of the ships would still leave taxpayers with a similar bill to proceeding with both. Read more

Jim Pickard

For some inexplicable reason there were titters at the morning lobby press briefing when the prime minister’s spokesman said that a new technology city near the Olympic Park would “rival Silicon Valley (pictured)”.

David Cameron will say later today that:

“Right now, Silicon Valley is the leading place in the world for high-tech growth and innovation but there’s no reason why it has to be predominant.”

It is true that the government has done well by luring Google, Facebook, Intel and McKinsey to set up outposts at the new tech park by the River Lea. (Although BT politely declined, according to Guido). And there is nothing wrong with having ambitions, a la Field of Dreams (‘build it and they will come‘).

But Stratford (pictured) still has some way to go before it catches up with Silicon Valley, the Californian hub of American high-tech enterprise, which is home to the following 100-and-something companies (courtesy of Wikipedia).

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Jim Pickard

New Labour was very fond of appointing business figures to ceremonial jobs as a way to convince the world that they understood enterprise.

It was also a cunning device to create diversionary “good news” when events were not going to plan. The trend reached its surreal peak when Gordon Brown appointed Alan Sugar as Lord Sugar and made him enterprise tsar – on the day that the beleaguered Labour prime minister was almost toppled by an uprising of his own ministers.

In the post-CSR environment, David Cameron and his team are determined to foster a climate of upbeat events and news stories to shift the focus off the deepest cuts for a generation. This may explain why the prime minister was planning to unveil a new wave of “trade ambassadors” next week to co-incide with a trip to the Far East. This news management has alas been spoiled this evening by FT columnist Mark Kleinman (also business editor of Sky) who reveals on his blog* that Richard Lambert, the outgoing director-general of the CBI, is one of them. Read more

Jim Pickard

If you have not yet read Too Big to Fail, by Andrew Ross Sorkin, buy it now. The book – an account of the downfall of Bear Sterns and Lehman Brothers – explains the credit crunch in a clear way and reads like a thriller. It’s the best business book since Liar’s Poker or Barbarians at the Gate.

I’m reading it at the moment and it is a stark account of how unfettered casino capitalism nearly brought the financial system to its knees. It’s also a reminder of why politicians are so keen to rebalance the UK economy away from the City of London and towards regional industries.

Vince Cable was the most outspoken when – in his conference speech – he decried City workers as “spivs and gamblers“. Other ministers have followed suit in more moderate language.

The only problems with this admirable desire is that a] The City still accounts for a huge proportion of UK GDP (and jobs and tax take), b] Labour spent a decade trying and failing to revive industry, with manufacturing declining faster than it did under the previous Tory administration and c] There is little or no money left to subsidise ailing or fledgling industries in the regions.

It is a circle which will be very difficult to square. Read more

Jim Pickard

When George Oborne addressed the cabinet this morning his message was the usual one about trying to make the cuts as fair as possible and to “fall on the broadest shoulders”. The chancellor admitted that this was an “anxious time for some in the public sector” who could now lose their jobs.

Lord Adonis meanwhile claims in this morning’s FT that “Whitehall is stunned and morale risks plummeting” as the cuts reality dawns. This chimes with what I’m told by several civil servants who read this blog.

Many departments are already going through a redundancy process – instigated in June – even before the new £83bn wave of cuts which will see an estimated half a million public sector jobs go.

I am told of one leaving party for BIS staff, held in a local pub, which attracted three or four hundred attendees. The atmosphere was utterly morose. Meanwhile some civil servants are receiving letters giving them only a week to decide whether or not they want to leave. As for those who are quitting, there are rumours that they may not be paid their redundancy payments until the end of November – a six week gap. “It feels really chaotic,” one tells me. Yet this is only a foretaste of the cuts to come. Read more

Jim Pickard

FT sketchwriter Matthew Engel and I discussed over breakfast the best way for David Miliband to bow out; which now seems 99 per cent likely. Does he do a speech? A written statement? Some kind of pooled TV interview?

The former carries the risk of him overshadowing Ed once again. The second option may not be sufficient to satisfy the media hunger. So we are presuming the third option some time this afternoon – no doubt near the 5pm deadline by which time MPs have to say whether they are running for the shadow cabinet. Read more

Jim Pickard

It was only yesterday that a senior tabloid political commentator was telling me how he couldn’t wait for Ed Miliband to win the Labour leadership election. “David would be a disappointment from our point of view,” he said.

His argument was as follows: Not only would Mili-E be easy to caricature as “Red Ed”, slave to the unions and champion of unreconstructed lefty-ism. It would also be a human story of the less experienced younger brother committing fratricide against Britain’s level-headed former foreign secretary. And lastly he would – the theory went – not necessarily have the majority support of his own MPs.

(Kevin Maguire at the Mirror has also made the latter point on his blog). Read more

Vince Cable has been on typically candid form on the conference fringe.
His latest pronouncement is on the purpose of the 50p top rate of income tax:

“I would be very surprised if the higher rate of tax does raise much revenue. It is there largely to show that pain is being shared.” Read more

Jim Pickard

It was worth listening to Today this morning if only to hear Lord Ashdown under siege over the issue of Sir Philip Green and his tax status. The Lib Dem peer was asked about how the government could seriously talk about battling tax avoidance given the recent hiring of the retail tycoon as an efficiency czar: As the interviewer asked:

“If this government was really serious about tax avoidance it would not have employed, would it, Sir Philip Green, who is also accused of avoiding taxes, perfectly legally…but there he is, advising the government on waste. If the Lib Dems really had power in this government he wouldn’t be there would he?”

Ashdown said he would not criticise the appointment. He then rattled off a list of the many changes achieved by the coalition (pupil premium, tax breaks for low-income families, etc). It was as if he didn’t want to discuss the tycoon at all.

But the Lib Dems do seem to be facing both ways on the issue of tax at the moment. Yesterday Danny Alexander announced a new £900m to spend on tackling the issue. But how does this square with hiring Sir Philip? Read more

Jim Pickard

Having not attended yesterday’s Konigswinter conference I didn’t pick up the entire speech from Vince Cable, business secretary – other than his controversial comments about immigration.

But Labour sources have pointed me towards Vince’s thinly-guarded warning about where growth will come from if Britain and all its trading partners are all on an austerity drive.

These comments would be unexciting if they were from an independent economist, FT leader writer or Labour MP. From a coalition cabinet minister they are quite striking.

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Jim Pickard

Vince Cable has laid down the gauntlet against his own coalition government today as he stepped up his criticism of immigration policy.

Vince was talking during a Q&A after a setpiece speech. He said the cap was “doing great damage” and cited a British company that needed 500 specialists – half of which needed to come from outside the EU – but had geen given a quota of just 30. Read more

Jim Pickard

It was only February but this speech by David Cameron seems like ages ago. And it doesn’t sound quite so convincing in the light of the Conservatives selling seats next to MPs at their conference dinner for thousands of pounds.

(Although, as I pointed out earlier, the Tories are not exactly alone).

Decisions made behind closed doors. The Houses of Parliament bypassed and undermined. Money buying influence. Too often just an elite few choosing the people who become MPs for many years. We can’t go on like this…..

I believe that secret corporate lobbying, like the expenses scandal, goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics. It arouses people’s worst fears and suspicions about how our political system works, with money buying power, power fishing for money and a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest.

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Jim Pickard

The Daily Telegraph splashes this morning with news of an “exclusive networking event” for business people at Tory conference. Places start at £500 and each table will be hosted by a Tory MP. Those prepared to spend more – £1,000 a head – can guarantee dining with at least one serving government minister, according to the report.

But as the Tel admits, this is exactly what was done by Labour when it was in government. Except they were more subtle and less explicit about access to politicians.

You would pay for a corporate table and you’d get somebody, usually a Labour MP or minister, sitting with you,” one lobbyist tells me. “You might select or choose someone and then either that person or someone else would turn up on your table. The only difference is that Labour doesn’t have ministers any more and the Tories do.” Read more

Jim Pickard

I’ll provide a link to the relevant bit of the IPSA site in a minute (it’s under the FOI section of this page). But meanwhile here are some extracts of encounters between MPs and staff at the new expenses body. They don’t reflect too well on MPs, to say the least, given that many of the Ipsa staff are young female temps.

(Credit to Simon Walters at the Mail on Sunday for providing much of the flavour in this article two weeks ago…)

Reported incidents of behaviour of MPs towards IPSA staff:

- “At several times during the session he exclaimed, “This system is a f***ing abortion!”, which I found deeply inappropriate and offensive.”

- “He struck the laptop on the facilitator’s desk and loomed over the facilitator in an intimidating manner.”

- “Walked off on a staff member in the middle of her explanation, branding all the trainers and staff ‘monkey’.” Read more

Jim Pickard

The always self-depracating Alistair Darling* remembers today how he arrived in the Treasury without any inkling of the global crisis about to hit financial markets. I like the quote, not only because he is kind about the FT but also because it’s an insight into just how much of a shock the credit crunch was to many policy-makers.

When I was appointed Chancellor in the summer of 2007, I gave my first interview to the Financial Times – a paper for which I have the highest respect. Read more