Politicians from Labour and the Liberal Democrats joined forces with trade unions to argue for a retention of the 50p top rate of income tax after 20 leading economists called for it to be scrapped “as soon as possible” in a letter to the FT.
Alistair Darling, the chancellor who introduced the rate in 2009, and Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president, said on Wednesday that lowering the top rate of tax would be unfair while the economy was still in difficulty.
Mr Darling said: “This has got to stay in place until we get out of the crisis. It would be grossly unfair to remove it. In the long run you have got to keep your tax rates internationally competitive which means something like the two rates we used to have. To remove it today would be grossly unfair. If they do not pay their taxes then it is poorer people who are going to pay.”
He was supported by Mr Farron, who said scrapping the 50p rate would be “phenomenally immoral and send an appalling message to the overwhelming majority of hard-working people in this country”.
Ed Balls, Labour shadow chancellor, also weighed in: “If we really are all in this together then the right priority to boost the stalled economy now should be temporarily reversing the VAT rise, which is costing families with children around £450 a year. This temporary tax cut would help to kick-start the recovery and give a much needed boost to millions of people regardless of their income.
“If the chancellor really wants to know how effective the top rate of tax is he should immediately ask the Office for Budget Responsibility, not just HMRC, to produce a report genuinely independent of government.”
Their warnings came after the Trades Union Congress also took issue with the suggestion of an immediate tax cut for top earners.
Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress called the economists’ opinion “monstrously unfair”, adding: “At a time when cuts are biting hard and ordinary people are suffering the biggest squeeze on their living standards in years, the last thing we need is a handout to the wealthiest in our society.”
But DeAnne Julius, the former member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee and one of the signatories of the letter, defended her position to the BBC, saying many hedge funds had already moved to Switzerland and that, if marginal rates were raised on a small number of highly mobile people, “You end up not collecting the tax that you’d hoped to.”
“Only by returning to an internationally competitive tax regime will Britain enjoy long-term sustainable economic growth,” the economists say in their letter.
The signatories include many figures not usually associated with conservative causes, such as Bob Rowthorn of Cambridge University, and two former members of the Bank of England’s policy committee, Ms Julius and Sushil Wadhwani.
George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer, is already facing pressure from the Tory right and CBI employers’ organisation to scrap the “temporary” top tax rate.
The Treasury believed that the 50p rate, introduced by the former Labour government in April 2010 on annual taxable incomes above £150,000, would eventually raise £2.7bn a year. Combined with restrictions on income tax relief for pension contributions and the abolition of the income tax personal allowance for people with annual incomes above £100,000, last year’s tax increases on the rich were designed to raise £7bn per annum.
The economists dispute these estimates, arguing the 50p rate “punishes” wealth and entrepreneurship. “It is often portrayed as a justified tax on the rich, but the economic damage it causes means that it is against the interests even of ordinary workers who don’t pay it,” they write.
Last month Mr Osborne said “there’s not much point in having taxes that are economically inefficient”. He added that the rate was uncompetitive internationally and targeted wealthy people who were already paying taxes on their capital gains.
Government officials, however, have suggested that the top rate is unlikely to be scrapped until 2013 at the earliest, when a pay freeze affecting millions of public sector workers is due to be lifted.
Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat leader, will insist the 50p top rate can only be scrapped if other measures, such as a property or “mansion” tax, are introduced to ensure the wealthy pay their “fair share” towards cutting the deficit. The Lib Dems will also insist that the 50p rate’s abolition is accompanied by accelerated moves to raise the annual tax threshold to £10,000.
Other leading economists are more sceptical. Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies and not a signatory of the letter, said it was much too early to give up on the 50p rate: “The Treasury has been taking a punt on whether [the 50p rate] will raise money. It is taking a risk, but it is not a stupid punt.”