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Sunday, 18 September 2011

Liberal Democrat Leaders Say Fair Taxation Is Key To Cutting Deficit

Danny Alexander outlines plans to kickstart economy by ensuring money hoarded by Labour is spent on infrastructure.

Liberal Democrats should fight the next election by aspiring to lift those earning less than £12,500 out of paying income tax, says Danny Alexander.

The Liberal Democrats should fight the next general election by aspiring to lift anyone earning less than £12,500 out of paying income tax, Danny Alexander said.

The chief secretary to the Treasury, a close ally of Nick Clegg, also set out the "next steps in our plan for growth", including a pot of £500m drawn from "unallocated funds" across Whitehall. Later, in an interview with the BBC's Andrew Neil, Alexander said these funds had been taken from savings found across government and did not amount to a stimulus.

Although this money comes from within the "spending plans", he said, the cash will now be disbursed with more urgency to kickstart infrastructure projects currently struggling for credit, with the hope of galvanising private spending.

It is the third indication from the Lib Dems in the past week that they intend to concentrate efforts on accelerating capital projects, which marks a subtle shift in emphasis towards greater public spending, without busting the headline deficit reduction plan.

Clegg made a speech on the subject last week, announcing that Alexander was now in charge of 40 projects across Whitehall, ensuring they are implemented rather than delayed.

They are pressing because they believe that if government funds already allocated can be spent rather than hoarded – which they believe was the case under the last Labour government – modest upfront sums "gear" up to become substantial amounts of fresh capital.

The business secretary, Vince Cable, also evoked the policies of Franklin D Roosevelt in the 1930s when he called for a "New Deal-style stimulus" for capital investment in an interview on Saturday with the Guardian. In his Q&A with Neil on Sunday evening at the party conference, Alexander refused to back Cable's language, but said he preferred to express it as the government "straining every sinew" to get the economy growing more.

As well as further schemes to drive capital investment, and the aspiration of the party going further in its bid to take the low paid out of tax, Alexander also set out measures to increase tax revenues.

He repeated a pledge made in last year's conference speech that there would be a clampdown on tax evasion, with 2,250 HMRC staff working on evasion and avoidance. He said the government was already raising £2bn in this way this year, which he pledged would rise to £7bn annually by the end of the parliament.

In one month's time, an "affluent team" will begin looking at the 350,000 wealthiest taxpayers who each earn more than £2.5m a year, in addition to the 5,000 who are already monitored: "These are the people who pay or should pay the 50p rate of tax," he said in his speech on the first morning of conference.

"My message to the small minority who don't pay what they owe is simple – I agree with the chancellor. We will find you and your money and you will pay your fair share," he said.

He was sanguine about the 50p rate of tax – which Tory colleagues expect will be dismantled if a review winding up in January shows it yields little revenue. Once Alexander had said he believed it was "cloud cuckoo land" the rate would be discarded despite Tory colleagues regarding him to agree he was not ideologically committed to it should it emerge to be unlucrative.

Tories say the debate behind the scenes is turning not on whether the 50p tax rate stays or goes but rather on what amount the replacement levy raises – the sum the previous Labour government intended it to raise when they introduced the tax; or the amount the 50p rate has actually brought in. The question then becomes what tax on the wealthy be brought in its stead.

Alexander said: "Fair taxation of the wealthiest is key to our deficit reduction plan. Of course, if a better way can be found to raise the money from this group, I will be willing to consider it."

Later in his interview with Neil, Alexander talked about ensuring the "tax burden" on the wealthy remained high.

Earlier in the day, Clegg also made it clear the party's negotiations on the 50p rate would not see them martial an ideological commitment to it, but rather they would accept its replacement by some other form of levy on the well-off.

He told the BBC's Andrew Marr programme: "It stays unless we can first make more progress on lowering the tax burden on people on low and middle incomes, and secondly making sure as the chancellor himself has said we can find other ways the wealthiest can pay their fair share."

In Birmingham, Alexander's speech was remarkable for placing an emphasis on how to push ahead with another aspect of the Lib Dem income tax policy, at the other end of the scale.

He told the conference hall: "In the next parliament, I want us to go further; our aspiration should be that someone working full time on the minimum wage should pay no income tax at all. An income tax threshold of £12,500 – think what that would do to work incentives, think what it would mean for basic fairness. Let's put that on the front page of our next manifesto."

The coalition agreement pledges that both parties in government will raise the income tax threshold to £10,000 by the end of the parliament and it is one of the policies the party is proudest of.

The policy has received support on the centre-right of the political spectrum with Tories sympathetic to its aims of cutting tax for the less well paid, but it has been criticised for being poorly targeted; in its original form this was a tax cut enjoyed by all, regardless of income.

The policy also has its Tory critics within the cabinet who fear a policy that removes people from paying tax would sever the relationship between government and the people.

Now the Lib Dems have committed themselves to raising the tax threshold still further, putting on the record an early indication of how they might seek to differentiate themselves from the Conservatives towards the end of the parliament.

Alexander's speech was occasionally heckled by one audience member with a shout of "rubbish" when Alexander criticised the Labour policies of Gordon Brown – a reminder that some delegates in the hall do not agree with the party leadership's decision to back plans to eliminate the structural deficit by the end of the parliament.

The coalition is currently trying hard to devise policies that will stimulate the British economy without busting either of the two targets they hope to hit at the end of the parliament – eliminating the structural deficit by 2014-2015 and bringing down the debt-to-GDP ratio.

While insistent they will not resile from the so-called "plan A" both on and off the record, the new imperative is to find ways of using existing capital spending commitment to encourage the private sector to part with their capital and increase the amount of capital in the economy.

On Friday, the business secretary Vince Cable, published a pamphlet for the CentreForum thinktank in which he suggested that alongside a new round of quantitative easing, he also believed new infrastructure projects were necessary including new roads built as toll roads.

This would have the advantage of encouraging the private sector to embark on a capital investment with a certain revenue stream not coming from the public purse.

Insisting his proposals amounted to a radical Keynesian package – using language and ideology not associated with the Conservative chancellor, George Osborne – Cable said that in the face of a stagnating economy ministers had to "pull all the levers available to government. We are not powerless."

Cable said: "It was four years after the Great Crash that Roosevelt came in and several years before they could do anything. Dams started being built 10 years after the Great Crash. What I have set out is a Keynesian approach to a demand crisis, but operating in a new world in which governments are highly constrained by these very febrile international financial markets. We constantly have to pay attention to them."

Now Alexander will disburse a "Growing Places fund", which he hopes enable the creation of local infrastructure across England.

"£500m to deliver key infrastructure and unlock development and create jobs. Providing a one-off upfront capital investment to kickstart developments that are stalled due to cash flow problems or lack of confidence.

"Putting local areas in the driving seat, enabling local government to invest in the key strategic infrastructure projects that they have identified as priorities and getting people into work."

Alexander said: "As Liberal Democrats, our judgments about what needs to be done should be driven by the liberal economy we want to build – sustainable, balanced, competitive, fair. To get there we must break down the vested interests – the enemies of growth that stand in the way of future prosperity."

"Too many businesses are being held back by congested roads, slow railways, inadequate broadband. Now more than ever, we need to get on with this work."

Hugh Grant: style watch

OK, so Italian politics has its problems, but at least they know how to dress. Hugh Grant, on the other hand, here lends weight to the old style adage that British men can't do casual.

When it comes to rocking a three-piece suit with a pocket square, the Savile Row gent still leads the world, but a certain type of British man still flounders as soon as let off the strictest dress code leash.

The trouble with this outfit is that the messages are mixed: was he trying to look smart but didn't have time to pull himself together and tuck his shirt in, or was he aiming for casual and put a suit jacket on as an afterthought? I suspect he was aiming for the kind of rakish dishevelment that Bill Nighy has made his own. But to pull that off takes effort.

Only the most perfectly fitted jacket looks good rumpled. Lucky for Hugh he's only addressing the Lib Dem conference. He'd never make it at London fashion week.

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