The most wealthy need to pay more tax: here’s what the UK can learn from the rest of the world
John Craven, Executive Officer at System 2
UK 2040 Options recently analysed the current state of wealth and income inequality in the UK. The experts they engaged with were clear that taxation is a key factor that is ripe for reform.
In the twelve years I spent working in financial markets, wealth management and tax consulting all over the world, I gained valuable insight into how businesses and rich individuals respond to the incentives that tax systems around the world offer them. More recently, as a teacher, a charity CEO and the Director of the Social Mobility Commission, I’ve seen firsthand the impact that high levels of inequality have on society.
This blog draws on these experiences and explores some realistic options for policymakers to reduce inequality, which have been tried and tested in other countries.
It’s not inevitable: a reflection on the international context
The IFS sets out how poor tax design in the UK is a major challenge. Certainly, if we were able to redesign the tax system from scratch, it could reduce inequality and damaging distortions, while improving productivity and economic growth. But in reality, we know that political constraints mean that reform is often slow and incremental, and it can take time for new ideas to gain acceptance.
Whenever a new tax is proposed, or the reform of an existing one is recommended, those who are adversely affected lobby hard to maintain the status quo. Practical proposals, sensible reforms or attempts at simplification (such as the “Pasty Tax”) are often dismissed as impossible to implement, unfair when considered in isolation, or likely to result in damage to the economy. The result is tax inertia. Instead of optimising policy to minimise distortions, improve incentives and raise productivity, policymakers make fewer changes, instead using devices such as fiscal drag to increase revenue.
The resulting set of income and wealth taxes in each country throws up some surprising differences. What some consider to be radical policies in the UK are uncontroversial elsewhere. For example, unlike the UK, Australia (where I am currently based) has no inheritance tax and the state pension is means-tested.
How ultra-high-net-worth individuals avoid tax
As a director at a global wealth management firm, that included a Swiss private bank, I oversaw complex investments for wealthy clients, spending much of my time in cities such as Dubai, Geneva, London, Monaco and Paris. I often met ultra high-net-worth clients, with at least $25-50 million in net assets. I listened as advisers explained how they could avoid tax.
Most sought to minimise their tax liabilities where it was clearly legal and involved limited disruption to their lifestyle. If it was legally or reputationally risky, or hard – such as requiring a move abroad – they were more likely to decide to stay and pay the sticker price taxes. Some were happy paying local taxes on income and capital “in full” since the country had enabled them to generate that wealth. A few, particularly those with fewer ties to the country, sought to pay as little as possible, even when that involved taking risks or moving to a tax haven.
One British man I met in Monaco had sold his UK business and was there for five years to avoid paying millions of pounds of UK taxes on his gain. He could still visit the UK but only for a limited number of days each year. When I first went to his apartment, he would stand on his balcony overlooking the harbour, and tell me how lucky he was. The third time we met he told me how much he missed his family and couldn’t wait until he could move back to spend more time with his grandchildren. I’m sure that if the rule had been ten years not five, or he was allowed back in the UK for even fewer days, he would never have left England and paid his taxes there. The set of choices we gave him incentivised him to avoid paying tax here.
To the extent international law permits, we can start by changing that.
But we must go much further than simply tightening up rules on the number of days that small numbers of wealthy UK citizens who become non-resident can spend in the UK without triggering tax implications. Understanding how other countries have introduced similar taxes can help us overcome the inevitable resistance that the threat of a new tax brings.
Seven practical ideas for policymakers to reduce inequality
1) Increase the Stamp Duty Land Tax surcharge for non-UK-residents purchasing UK residential property from 2% to 15%
International ownership of housing can increase inequality. It can reduce the supply of housing available for locals, increase rents and house prices and make it harder for young British people to own their own home. Hamptons estimated that in 2023, 24% of homes sold in Greater London went to international buyers, rising to 45% of those in prime Central London.
Other developed countries have taken much bigger steps than the UK to deter foreign ownership, or at least to raise greater taxes from it. At one extreme, Canada has banned foreign purchasers altogether, until at least 2027. The situation is similar in New Zealand, with some exceptions for temporary ownership of newly built housing. To buy in Switzerland, foreigners need a permit, only 1,500 of which are issued each year through cantons. Singapore recently doubled the additional stamp duty paid by foreigners buying residential property to as much as 60%. In Australia, foreign buyers will soon be hit by extra fees and taxes totalling 14%-17%.
In comparison, the UK charges foreign buyers a mere 2% supplement, with few restrictions on owning property in the UK. Increasing the rate to 15% could deter overseas buyers, freeing up property for local buyers, while bringing in revenue from the most determined. Halving the rate for new-build flats could prevent the risk of this policy reducing the housing supply.
2) Increase the higher rates of Stamp Duty Land Tax for those purchasing additional existing homes from 3% to 6%
It is not just overseas buyers that compete for property with first-time buyers. Local residents also acquire second homes and investment properties. Singapore citizens and permanent residents buying their second or subsequent properties pay a 20%-35% supplement. In comparison, the UK charges those buying additional properties only 3% more. Doubling this to 6% for existing properties would bring in much-needed revenue. Exempting new-build flats could prevent the risk that this could reduce supply.
3) Create a new Annual Property Tax on market-based hypothetical rental income, charged to owners of all homes, except UK resident owner-occupiers
One way to ensure properties are more likely to be rented is to tax vacant properties as though they are let. Many countries take this approach. Property owners in Switzerland must pay income tax on a property’s perceived rental value, deducting mortgage interest payments and maintenance costs, in addition to taxes on the value of property and wealth. Singapore applies a tax on property ownership, whether the property is occupied by the owner, rented out or left vacant. A tax rate of 12%-36% for non-owner-occupiers is charged on the estimated gross rent of the property with owner-occupiers charged less. In the UK, council tax is the closest to a property tax, with properties put into one of eight bands based on values in 1991. The IFS recently set out how council tax is highly regressive with respect to property values and leads to increasingly arbitrary tax bills.
While some councils are doubling the council tax on second homes and empty dwellings, a more consistent approach nationally would be to create a new Annual Property Tax on a market-based hypothetical rental income. This could be charged to owners of all homes at marginal income tax rates, except UK resident owner-occupiers – so would be paid by owners of second homes, rental properties and vacant properties. Those that are rented out would pay tax on the actual rental income achieved if higher and could deduct relevant costs. If not rented for at least six months of the year, no deductions would be allowed, and a flat 45% tax rate on the hypothetical value would be applied.
4) Prevent individuals with assets in ISAs above £100,000 at the beginning of a tax year from investing in a new ISA that year
Most developed countries offer tax incentives to save for retirement, but very few are as generous as the UK in offering easy access savings accounts sheltered from tax. ISAs allow UK taxpayers to invest £20,000 each year without paying any income or capital gains tax on profits. Those with lower incomes and wealth typically have lower total savings and do not benefit from this significant tax break.
At the same time, the more affluent have accumulated significant savings, returns from which are permanently sheltered from tax. Over 4,000 people have ISA savings that exceed £1 million. It would be considered unconventional and unfair to make ISA savings above a given threshold taxable again. Preventing people with ISA savings above £100,000 at the beginning of the tax year from opening a new ISA that year would mean they would need to pay income and capital gains tax on investment returns from the savings they are no longer able to put into the ISA.
5) Create a new Retirement Savings Allowance tax charge on pension assets above £500,000 at age 70
A common definition of a pension is that it provides those who are retired with a regular income, not that it is a savings vehicle or investment account. Indeed, until it was abolished in 2011, pensioners had to use their (defined contribution) pension savings to buy an annuity, which provided a fixed income for life. Yet, for many wealthy investors whose pension savings exceed the £1,073,100 Lifetime Allowance, their pension is not used to generate an income on retirement but is part of their inheritance tax planning strategy and used as a store of wealth. As such, the upcoming abolition of the Lifetime Allowance is an unnecessary reduction in tax for some of the most wealthy in the country.
The Lifetime Allowance was introduced in 2006, capping the amount of pension savings that can be built up without incurring a tax charge, typically of 25% (it was reduced to 0% this tax year). The limit was repeatedly decreased in real terms but is now due to be abolished altogether in April 2024. The changes reduce the potential tax liability of those with pension savings exceeding the limit when they retire and hence increase inequality. Meanwhile, Australia is raising pension taxes, not abolishing them, introducing a new 30% tax on pension balances above AUD$3 million (roughly equal to £1.56 million) from July 2025.
There would be challenges in reinstating the Lifetime Allowance, so instead, a new Retirement Savings Allowance (RSA) could be introduced set at £500,000, but only applied on savings, not annuities (providing a fixed income) that have been purchased or defined benefit pensions. The vast majority of people are unaffected, and those who use their pensions as intended — to generate an income rather than to store wealth or avoid inheritance tax – don’t lose out. To maximise the impact, while giving people time to buy an annuity at a time that suits them, this RSA test could be applied to all with at least a year’s notice at age 70 or later.
With pensions, there is always a lot of detail to work through, so I don’t pretend this comes close to covering it!
6) Create a new 1% wealth tax charged on net assets above £2 million
In 2020, the Wealth Tax Commission published a report setting out how a one-off wealth tax could be designed as an exceptional response to the fiscal costs of the Covid-19 pandemic. It set out how a 1% tax on individual assets above £2 million could raise £80 billion over five years. It added that a more permanent “annual wealth tax would only be justified in addition to these reforms if the aim was specifically to reduce inequality by redistributing wealth”.
There are additional challenges with an annual wealth tax, including measuring hard-to-value assets, and fears that it would drive away mobile wealthy individuals, damaging the economy. Countries such as Switzerland have shown these can be overcome. All Swiss cantons impose a wealth tax on net assets, even for low levels of wealth. For example, for net assets above 82,200 francs, Geneva has a rate of 0.149%, with marginal rates rising as wealth increases, and exceeding 1% in some cantons. It generates as much as 3.8% of total taxes in Switzerland.
7) Create a new British Citizen Tax, mirroring the wealth tax, payable by all wealthy British citizens living overseas
One issue with a Wealth Tax is it could incentivise wealthy British citizens to move overseas to avoid it, which would reduce the tax raised. In the US, citizens are fully subject to US tax on their worldwide income and gains, no matter where they live, unless they renounce citizenship. Issues such as the administrative burden it creates for those of more modest means, and double taxation of income, means that some specialists say it would be unwise for the UK to replicate it. Instead of taxing income and capital gains, a wealth tax payable by those British citizens living overseas with net assets above £2 million could overcome many of the problems, if it could be designed in compliance with international rules. Those with assets below that would need to make a simple annual declaration listing valuable assets and provide copies of local tax returns to HMRC. Wealthy UK citizens living permanently abroad would need to renounce citizenship if they wanted to avoid the tax.
Some of the revenue from these new taxes could be used to reduce other taxes, both to reduce inequality further and to improve the efficiency of the system. Personal allowances could be increased to improve incentives to work and raise post-tax incomes of lower earners. Incentives for higher earners could be improved by reversing the removal of child benefits and the personal allowance from higher earners that currently creates very high marginal tax rates of 62% or more. Finally, a permanent halving of all basic levels of stamp duty would increase transactions, improving the geographic mobility of workers and removing the incentive to move as infrequently as possible.
Mythbusting: reform is not impossible
I acknowledge that some of the above is necessarily a simplification of a complex system. I don’t underestimate the challenge involved in creating an environment that allows for major change.
But I hope that at least by showing how other countries use similar taxes, it destroys the myth that these taxes are impossible to implement in the UK. And that this brings forward the day we might move to a fairer tax system that reduces inequality.
John Craven is Executive Officer at System 2, a charity set up by The Behavioural Insights Team and Nesta. It aims to solve complex social problems by bringing together behavioural science, systems thinking and insights from deep collaboration with those with lived experience, to co-design, test and scale practical solutions.
He is also an Honorary Fellow in Educational Equity at the University of Birmingham. Formerly he was a Director of Global Wealth Management, Bank of America, and was the former Director of the Social Mobility Commission in the UK.
How local authorities are using data to solve problems like homelessness
With enough investment and ambition, local councils can use data to help solve some of society’s most intractable problems.
By Rachel Carter and Lucy Makinson
The devolution agenda is likely here to stay. Local councils are closer to their communities and are often better-placed than central government to grapple with their most complex challenges.
To better understand the data challenges faced by local government, and to surface the opportunities that exist through devolution, Nesta’s UK 2040 Options hosted a panel event in late November 2023. Chaired by Nesta’s James Plunkett, panel members were Stephen Aldridge (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities), Cate McLaurin (Public Digital), Gavin Freeguard (freelance consultant and host of the Data Bites event series), Wajid Shafiq (Xantura), and Natalia Merritt (Maidstone Borough Council).
This is what we learnt.
Preventing homelessness through harnessing the power of locally held data
Data is both a strength and a weakness when it comes to local delivery. Everything, from the provision of social care for vulnerable children to collection of council tax, produces a huge quantity of data. This data could have huge benefits for councils; helping them better understand their citizens’ needs and behaviours, targeting services more effectively, stopping what isn’t working, and allocating resources to where they have the biggest impact. But in practice, it can be challenging for councils to use this data effectively. It can sit in siloes, and local authorities can lack the capability, time, or investment to draw out what the data means and to utilise it as effectively as possible to improve public service outcomes.
But it quickly became clear that effective use of data by a local council can be transformative. Natalia Merritt spoke about Maidstone Borough Council’s partnership with Xantura to create Oneview: a multi-agency identification system that enables Maidstone to understand which households may be imminently at risk of homelessness. It uses data and predictive analytics to understand the risk factors that contribute to homelessness and alerts the council to households that are at risk, who can then receive targeted early intervention and support. An initial assessment of the programme found that it is accurate in identifying imminent homelessness in 84% of cases.
Often, councils only become aware of an issue when people tell them they have become homeless, which is too late for any preventative intervention and increases reliance on expensive temporary accommodation. Maidstone can only prevent homelessness for a third of the people who walk through their door. However, the preventative approach facilitated by Oneview – of targeted early intervention and support – has already paid dividends. Of the first cohort flagged through the system, only 2% became homeless after early intervention action was taken. This preventive approach has resulted in huge cost and time savings for the council.
Laying the foundations for policy success: it’s about more than just data
Maidstone was able to execute its vision of preventing homelessness in the borough through two key enabling factors. Firstly, it had senior leadership with an ambitious but clear vision of what it wanted to achieve, who gave permission and encouragement to tackle this problem head on. Secondly, it had an initial investment that enabled it to establish Oneview.
Our panel members highlighted the factors they saw as critical to creating an enabling environment for local authorities to use data effectively.
- Focus on the use cases, not the data. As one expert put it, “if you want to have a conversation about data, don’t talk about the data”. Data infrastructure and capabilities might be important, but they are not the end goal. Showing people what they can do, and the outcomes they can achieve, through the use of data is far more effective for creating buy-in. This is particularly important for busy frontline staff.
- Senior leadership needs to be on board. We heard that when senior leaders ask the right questions – like in the Maidstone example – they can create a permission space that enhances and accelerates innovation.
- Starting small can pay off in the long run. Getting a small grant, kicking off a programme and working with a first cohort can enable you to test and see if a programme will work. That pilot can then be used to test, evaluate and adapt.
- It’s about more than the data itself. All experts agreed that impact doesn’t just come about with better data, or even improved data capability at the local level. They called for a continued focus on robust policy evaluation, evidence and insight, including tracking impact over time, to deeply understand what works and reallocate resources at pace to what works best.
Large structural challenges can hamper councils’ ability to use data
Panel members were conscious that local councils are currently operating in a challenging context. And while data use can drive some very visible and positive change, the barriers to reaching this for much of local government were repeatedly raised. To harness the potentials at the local level, any next government will need to grapple with several challenges.
- The lack of investment in councils. This is preventing councils’ ability to fix legacy systems – many of which make it very difficult to bring data together around a household, or a citizen.
- The variation in performance between service providers. Even allowing for differences in local costs and the characteristics of the population served, this remains a problem. Reducing this variation by raising the performance of those lagging behind could have valuable impacts on outcomes achieved. And, our experts told us, the newly established Office for Local Government could have an important role in supporting this.
- A monopoly on services. Some panel members spoke about the need for reform in the market for local authority systems and processes. Currently dominated by three of four big suppliers, it is often difficult to get data in or out of these systems, hindering the ability to effectively use the data.
- Barriers exist that prevent data sharing and enhance legal concerns. A lack of legal gateways for accessing and linking administrative data across central and local government, and even within local government itself, was repeatedly raised as a challenge. There is work underway in this space. ONS for example is developing an integrated data service, which – if it works – could overcome the need to put in place legal gateways. At the same time, legislation has often not caught up with technological advancement in this area and is often out of date.
- A lack of “patient capital”. Most interventions are not going to turn problems around quickly – we know that many interventions take time to bed in and to come up with findings, whether they are positive or negative. “Patient capital”, or long-term investment, means that public services can invest in working out what’s working and what’s not, over multiple partners and through different terms.
A way forward?
Maidstone showed us that with investment and ambition, local councils can use data to build the evidence base and draw out invaluable insight, forging a path to solve some of society’s most intractable problems.
But while effective use of data can help, it is only as good as the ability or capacity to do something useful with it out in the real world. And while many local authorities are well placed to gather and use the data they hold to solve problems, there remain significant hurdles to them doing so. This is the case whether it’s about solving homelessness in Maidstone, grappling with methodological challenges to get to grips with what works, or using data to better target services to improve the first years of a child’s life.
At Nesta, our aim is to innovate for social good. And in doing so, we want to give local decision-makers and policymakers the right tools to drive positive change. Nesta’s fairer start mission is working at the local level to explore methods to eliminate the school readiness gap. As part of this, it is hosting an event to help local authorities come together and share ideas on how data can improve services for children and families. Visit the event page to learn more.
A new ‘Neighbourhoods Unit’ could shift the dial for UK inequality
Matt Leach, Local Trust
Global challenges will provide a backdrop to many of the big decisions that will face us through the 2020s and 2030s – most notably regional conflict, growing climate instability and faltering economic growth. But the UK faces equally pressing questions at a local level.
Quality of life, design and delivery of public services, the shape and limits of the state and how all of this links to issues of identity and connection are critical to how we experience our lives, collectively and individually.
Brought together under the themes of “power and place”, they were the subject of a fascinating workshop hosted by UK 2040 Options and chaired by Demos’ director Polly Curtis, and a subsequent report.
With politics increasingly polarised and both nation and the wider global community facing an endless succession of intractable challenges, attempts to build consensus on the key issues facing us and cross political lines in a search for solutions are both rare and valuable. The UK 2040 Options project falls into the category of initiatives that are both incredibly timely and hugely important.
Seeking to explore two important areas of policy thinking – how we are governed and people’s experiences of life at a neighbourhood level – the workshop examined the case for devolution of power and its limits. It also looked at the growing evidence base highlighting the need for new policy initiatives focused on rebuilding community institutions at a hyperlocal level.
As was noted at the workshop, one of the biggest challenges in developing policy in this space is the extent to which debates around what is often labelled “community power” conflate a number of very different strands of thinking.
On the one hand, there is a very developed debate around issues of devolution, seeking to shake out the best place for state-focused decision-making to sit. This tends to focus on tussles between Whitehall and local government, with the primary argument often being that this would establish conditions for better (or more balanced) economic growth. Alongside this runs a debate over the form of local government, and in particular, the benefits of mayors and combined authorities as both more effective and more accountable models of local governance.
A separate debate focuses on the extent to which local authorities should involve local people in service design and decision-making. Advocates either claim this as a good in itself, or point to ways in which this can improve delivery. Much of this builds on the excellent work of organisations like New Local and its Community Paradigm model.
A final strand of thinking has, until recently, been less well-represented in national policy debates, but is arguably more important to the everyday experiences of people. This is the need to address challenges and inequality at a neighbourhood level, highlighting that these are often as profound as regional differences in outcome.
Drawing on extensive evidence from evaluations of the hugely successful New Deal for Communities programme, and more recent initiatives such as Local Trust’s own Big Local programme, this line of thinking focuses on the need to rebuild and strengthen local community organisations and institutions as a means of driving better outcomes.
One of the primary drivers of outcomes at a local level, even after accounting for relative levels of deprivation, is the strength of neighbourhood-level social fabric, as we have seen in reports such as Demos’ Preventative State. And that – often – the challenges faced by the state are driven by the need to address the social costs arising from the breakdown of these social structures.
The rise of the ‘social communitarians’?
To help make sense of all of this at the workshop, Demos proposed the existence of three broad policy “tribes” seeking to define the policy landscape in this space. The federalists, focused almost exclusively on issues of devolution of power; the mayoralists, largely focused on the transfer of power to individually accountable local leaders at a city level; and the communitarians, largely focused on building/rebuilding grassroots-level civic institutions and perhaps more agnostic about constitutional reform.
This classification of different approaches feels helpful, not least as a means of ensuring that crucial parts of the policy jigsaw are not lost as a result of shared terminology inadvertently concealing very different policy priorities. But there may be value in seeking to distinguish between two distinct strands of thinking within the communitarian camp.
There are those who see community power within the context of further devolution of power from the state – we can call these ‘democratic communitarians’, who in many ways simply reflect a logical extension of the agendas of federalists and mayoralists. There are also the ‘social communitarians’, who would argue that equal priority should be given to building or rebuilding social and civic institutions at a local level as a good in itself.
While the federalist, mayoralist and democratic communitarian camps have been well-represented in recent policy debates, we have seen little focus on neighbourhood-level policy in recent years. Since the Social Exclusion Unit’s report on a national strategy for neighbourhood renewal 25 years ago, we have had little in the way of new initiatives or engagement with neighbourhood-level, community-focused policy interventions since.
With an election likely in 2024, there seems little time left for either party to initiate new debates or come forward with major new initiatives focused on delivering neighbourhood-level change. But the establishment, post-election, of a new Neighbourhoods Unit, which could build on the example of the Social Exclusion Unit and focus on collating evidence and developing policy on rebuilding the social fabric of local communities, would be a major step forward in addressing a significant gap in our policy landscape. Is it time for a return of the social communitarians?
Poor tax design is a major challenge; reform offers major opportunities
Helen Miller, Institute for Fiscal Studies
Pick a tax, any tax.
That tax almost certainly needs serious reform. It is probably creating large and unjustified distortions to how much people work, how much businesses invest, or to choices people and businesses make over how to allocate their time and resources. All those things make us less productive and leave us poorer. There’s a good chance the tax is also creating unfairness by giving different tax rates to very similar people.
Did you pick income tax or national insurance contributions? These are our biggest revenue raisers. Together, they bring in almost half of UK tax revenue. There are plenty of issues here, not least why we have two taxes on income in the first place.
But the one that troubles me most is the tax penalty on employment. Employment income is taxed at higher rates than income people get from investments or from running their own business. It’s also taxed at higher rates than capital gains. This set up, often described as lower rates for the self-employed, but is not justified by differences in government benefits or employment rights and is not a well targeted way to boost entrepreneurship. Having different tax rates on different types of income adds a lot of complexity and is unfair in the sense that similar people can face drastically different tax bills depending on how they get their income.
If you picked VAT you might think you’ve picked a straightforward tax. It’s been described as “unquestionably the most successful fiscal innovation of the last half-century” and “perhaps the most economically efficient way in which countries can raise significant tax revenues”. It has certainly been popular with governments. It raises almost a fifth of UK tax revenue, double what it did when introduced 50 years ago. But the UK’s VAT is plagued with zero-rates and exemptions. These are expensive, representing £100 billion in foregone revenue annually, and create a huge compliance burden.
Millions of valuable hours are spent applying and disputing these rules. And the rules don’t even make sense! A gingerbread man is zero rated for VAT as long as the chocolate decoration is ‘no more than a couple of dots for eyes’ – add a smile, and you’ll also need to add 20% VAT. Chocolate Nesquik – no VAT. Strawberry Nesquik – 20% VAT. And these are relatively straightforward examples. What madness is this? And what do we get in return? Zero-rating for goods such as food helps lower income households but in an extremely poorly targeted way. Equivalent support could be provided at much lower cost through the benefits system.
If you’ve picked a tax on housing, you’ve hit on a very troublesome part of the tax system. Council tax in England is based on property values from over 30 years ago. As such, the tax we pay bears increasingly little relation to the actual value of the property we live in. Council tax is also regressive. Not all parts of a progressive tax system need to be progressive; it’s the overall effect that matters. But it’s hard to justify lower tax rates for people living in more expensive homes. Council tax should be reformed.
In contrast, stamp duty should simply be scrapped. It imposes a heavier tax charge on properties that change hands more often. There is no good reason to do this. It gums up the housing market meaning people find it harder to move to where the jobs are, young families struggle to trade up, and older people hold onto bigger properties than they need, because it costs so much to move.
The list goes on. Inheritance tax is easily avoided by the healthy, wealthy and well advised. Corporation tax discourages some profitable investments while subsidising some unprofitable ones. A jumble of environmental levies creates inconsistent incentives to reduce emissions, making it more expensive than necessary to reach net zero.
Most of these problems have been around for decades. People who had my job before I was born were writing about them. Depressingly, it’s likely my successors will say the same thing. But it’s not inevitable.
As the general election starts to come into focus, and political parties prepare for their autumn conferences, there will no doubt be debate about the overall level of taxation. UK tax revenues are historically high. Spending pressures will grow, most notably because an aging population will increase the cost of providing healthcare, social care and state pensions. Without tax rises or a major pick-up in growth, UK public service and benefits provision will either have to be scaled back or it will deteriorate. The level of tax needs serious debate.
But our living standards will be shaped not only by how much tax revenue is raised (and what it is spent on) but also by how it is raised. Taxes could be simpler, fairer and less damaging to our productivity. And if there is one thing that will make our choices over tax and spend easier, it’s productivity. Caring for an aging population, reaching net zero, improving public services or even cutting taxes, would all be easier if we were richer.
Missing that opportunity seems to me to be almost as silly as a tax that applies to marshmallows, unless they are intended to be roasted and eaten from a stick. There’s no shortage of choice on where to start reforming. Pick any tax.
Public opinion and taxation: the surprising reality
Why your assumptions about tax may be wrong
By Ben Szreter and Alexandra Burns
Who wants to pay more tax? Probably more people than you think.
If you were paying attention to the Conservative leadership campaign that played out last summer, you’d have noticed that tax – or rather tax cuts – were the hot topic. It wasn’t the first time that the promise of tax cuts formed a core component of a political campaign and it won’t be the last – both main Westminster parties are already starting to float different forms ahead of the next general election.
Tax is critical: for governing because it affects the balance sheet available for spending on public services, for politics because where the taxes fall indicates differing ideology, and for the public because it affects individuals very directly.
That’s why, working with the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), we are taking a closer look at the tax landscape as part of our UK 2040 Options work. Today, with the IFS, we have jointly published a set of fundamental facts, and we are developing more work together for release next year.
Large demands for public spending are being created by a combination of demographic pressures, high inflation, rising debt costs, sluggish economic growth and weakened public services. The choice for politicians is difficult – there are no easy cuts to make. The major tool for tax increases has been freezing tax thresholds, stealthily bringing in substantial revenue. But if the economy continues to struggle, rather than tax cuts, the government will be forced to consider increasing taxes in a more visible way. The concern for all parties will be whether the public are prepared to pay more.
But what do the public think about taxes? We’ve used survey data, both existing and new, to try to answer three questions. Firstly, what does existing data tell us about how people in Britain feel about the amount of tax they pay, and how has that changed over time? Secondly, how much does the framing of the question asked about tax matter? And finally, how accurate are the public about what others think about tax? According to our findings, the answers are likely to surprise you.
How do people feel about taxes in the UK overall?
The prominence of tax in the political debate doesn’t seem to match the level of importance the public assigns it. For example, the Ipsos Issues Index in August 2023 shows that only 4% of the public identify tax as one of the most important issues facing Britain today. The highest level this figure has ever reached is 14% and that was in March 1979, a year before our current prime minister was born.
What does the public feel about the level of tax we pay? If you were to consult the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey for an answer to this question, the answer is that a majority of the British public are in favour of higher taxation, with 52% of survey respondents saying so in 2021. They’ve been reporting on this for decades, and while the “raise taxes” and “keep them the same” options have both vied for the top spot over the years, “reduce taxes” has never come close, staying in the single digits.
This is publicly available information from a nationally representative survey so you might wonder why politicians would be so focussed on tax cuts in this context. One hypothesis could be that different kinds of voters have different views on this issue and therefore those wanting to appeal to a certain group focus on it for this reason.
We also asked this question to people in battleground constituencies in our recent polling for UK 2040 Options. Asking the same question as the BSA, we found broadly similar results. Respondents were divided between those who want to keep tax at current levels (38%) and those who want to raise taxes (36%). Just 12% expressed a preference for lower taxes. Even among people who previously voted Conservative and thus who may traditionally support a smaller state, we found just 15% in battleground constituencies want to cut taxes and spend less.
So, at this level at least, that hypothesis doesn’t seem to hold out. What else could it be?
The answer is in part that these survey headlines mask an important detail – the question asked directly links tax to spend.
Framing makes a difference
The specific question asked in the BSA survey is:
“Suppose the government had to choose between these three options. Which do you think it should choose?
- Reduce taxes and spend less on health, education and social benefits
- Keep taxes and spending on these services at the same level as now
- Increase taxes and spend more on health, education and social benefits.”
The way this question is framed draws a direct link between taxes and spending on “health, education and social benefits” — topics that we know the public care about. What happens if we remove that framing?
We ran a further piece of polling, this time with just over 3,000 people across England. For around 2,000 of them we asked the same question that BSA uses (see left column of the table below). For the other 1,000 we changed the response options to link tax to spend more generally (right column):
With the standard question used in the BSA, the answers from our new polling were close to the other surveys: 35% say they want increased taxes, 41% say they want taxes kept the same and 15% want taxes reduced. But the new framing made a big difference. There was a 15 percentage point drop in those saying taxes should increase, a six percentage point drop in those saying taxes should stay the same and a 22 percentage point rise in those wanting taxes to reduce.
These differences are pretty stark. Framing matters.
Some would argue that the BSA framing is a crucial reflection of reality, being clear that tax cuts mean having less to spend on key public services. But others would say that the impact of tax cuts for the public is dependent on other economic or fiscal choices, that where public spending cuts fall is a matter of priorities, and therefore the framing is too leading.
Our findings do not tell us what’s right or wrong, or give us the entire picture. They do not tell us whether people’s attitudes on tax are a strong predictor of their actual voting behaviour, or what happens to opinion when the rubber hits the road on the campaign trail and tax is made a totemic issue.
Indeed, support for increased tax in a general sense may not always translate into an increased willingness for individuals to pay more tax themselves. But it does show us that framing matters when talking about taxes with the public, and political parties will want to be mindful of it, whichever argument they’re trying to make.
Are our instincts about what others think about tax right?
Pluralistic ignorance, a social phenomenon where people as individuals misjudge the public mood, can be striking. For example, in Saudi Arabia recent research showed that most men personally thought that women should be allowed to work outside the home, but when asked how other men think, the majority (incorrectly) expected other men to be much less accepting of this.
Could this kind of incorrect assumption be at work when it comes to our views about tax? In short, yes.
We asked the same 3,000 people to imagine 100 average adults in the country and guess their collective appetite for tax rises, status quo taxes or tax cuts.
In both of the question styles (with and without the specific spending framing), people consistently thought that others were more likely to want tax cuts than is true. They also thought that people were less likely to want tax increases than they actually were.
On average across all respondents people thought that others were 13 percentage points more likely to want tax cuts than they actually are (39% vs. 26%), eight percentage points less likely to want taxes to stay the same than they actually were (34% vs. 42%) and four percentage points less likely to want tax increases than they actually were.
If looking at this across the whole electorate (using the 2019 general election registered voters of 47.5 million as a baseline) this means that people on average think around 18.6 million voters want tax cuts when actually only around 12.4 million do; an average overestimation of more than six million people.
Death and taxes
“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes” – a phrase most closely associated with Benjamin Franklin. But while taxes (and indeed death) remain a certainty, it seems the perceptions of them are highly influenced by the precise question asked, and our understanding of attitudes towards tax certainly isn’t certain.
This has implications for the way that policymakers of all political stripes should seek to understand and interpret the public view on tax, and also how they then apply that to decision making and communication.
Britain’s productivity problem is a crime mystery with multiple culprits
Giles Wilkes on growth and productivity
By Giles Wilkes, senior fellow at Institute for Government and specialist partner at Flint Global
The topic of growth tends to attract a certain kind of obsessive. The great economist Bob Lucas said that once you start thinking about it, it is hard to think about anything else. The consequences of making the right or wrong decisions on growth are staggering to contemplate. Arguably, Britain is suffering some of these consequences right now.
A couple of weeks ago, Nesta gathered a dozen or so of the growth-obsessed to debate stagnation in the UK economy. The gathering came on the heels of a ‘Delphi’ exercise intended to collate the views of many more such experts and kick off the discussion. The ultimate point of this: to feed into Nesta’s UK 2040 Options project that will generate policy options to spur growth.
There’s a well-worn joke about a camel being a horse designed by a committee. It is meant to be a dig at committees – though I have always thought it rather mean about camels – and the idea of decision by consensus. Of course, sometimes this is justified. I have particularly excruciating memories of Whitehall roundtables convened to puzzle through solutions to an impending no deal Brexit. Gathering generalists in a room to deliver ceremonial five-minute speeches is no way to plan the future of the country. I cannot recall much ever being decided on the back of such meetings, and it is probably just as well.
Thankfully, Nesta’s gathering of productivity professionals could not have been more different. There were experts on skills, regional growth, macroeconomic policy, investment, politics, technology, energy, tax and more. Such heterogeneity is vital. Britain’s productivity problem is a crime mystery with multiple culprits. The worst trap to fall into is impatience, which can lead to an urge to use ‘one simple trick’ to solve something as longstanding, multifaceted and intractable as the UK’s productivity problem, like it is some clickbait article about losing weight.
There is a fine line to tread between due acknowledgement of the scale of the problem and trying to eat an indigestible everything-burger of economic ailments, and I think our roundtable managed to tread it. Certain strong themes emerged. Lagging investment, and the structural reasons for this, was one of them. It is hard to find anyone who really thinks the country’s centralised-yet-fragmented political structure is good for investment. Too much is hoarded to an overburdened, under-resourced and politically-diverted Westminster, and the only power to have been thoroughly devolved – planning – is one that holds up growth. Local communities are disengaged and consequently obstructive.
This is a problem that will take an act of political courage to break out of the loop. People are used to blaming central government for the state of their neighbourhood. Never being given full responsibility, local actors never gain the skills to take on the powers they need. Central government, in turn, evaluates devolution as a risky idea, given the lack of local capacity. Some future government needs to go ahead anyway, take the risk that money will be spent badly, and stay the course. Waiting for the perfect moment means nothing happening.
It would have been odd if the problem of inconsistent policymaking was not brought up. What passes for industrial strategy in the UK has been started, stopped and started again too many times to count. Once-a-generation strategies appear every year or two. Institutions to support a more consistent policy framework are missing, or are scrapped soon after coming into existence. Policy uncertainty also shows itself through a lack of long-term budgets, and a consequent inability of local authorities, businesses or government departments to plan ahead or even gain the skills to.
The last theme I would like to emphasise is the closest I will ever come to the ‘one simple trick’ delusion. Economic growth is a scale game. The more exposure there is to customers, ideas, competition and capital, the better the economy will be. You can see this at the level of the business, which is an inherently geared creation, always trying to generate more sales out of the same fixed cost base, and the same applies to the whole economy. Scale is what motivates investment, and scale is what justifies government intervention. There was definitely a lot of frustration that the UK government, when it does act, does so in such a tentative way, as if every footstep it takes needs to be piloted first. The problems are not going to be solved with subscale ideas that fail to be followed through.
Once again, in my view if there is an answer it has to come from the politicians. When they set out a policy goal – be it to build a series of giga factories, become a world-leader in quantum technology, or install five million heat-pumps – they need to become much more demanding about the “how” of the policy, not just the press release on the day of its announcement. Too often the government machine reacts to ambition with concern about the risks; with pilot schemes, consultations and so forth. The politicians need to demand to know what will actually happen, and then stay on the case to make sure it is delivered. Officials will be nervous, because they are blamed when things go wrong, which means the politicians being clear that they, not their staff, are to be held responsible.
Far more was debated than can be summarised in a short post like this; had I enough words, I would love to relate more what was said about tax, energy, skills and the labour market. We barely touched upon the immediate choices facing the next government, whatever it may be: its fiscal pressures, the relationship with Europe, and how to push greater devolution. At the end I was relieved we had been set a 15+ year timescale to think about, rather than the more typical “give me five good ideas for a speech next Thursday” schedule that is regrettably normal in politics. But as the UK 2040 Options programme proceeds, I expect the sense of urgency to increase and the focus to narrow. There’s an election next year and the need for genuinely good ideas has never been greater.
What does the public expect government to be able to solve by 2040?
Our polling reveals insights into perceptions of government challenges and responsibilities
By Ben Szreter, Senior Policy Manager at UK 2040 Options
What do the public perceive as the most formidable challenges for the government to tackle by 2040? Our recent polling in battleground constituencies affords us some insight, looking not only at which issues the public think are most important for the future, but also the long-term challenges they think government is responsible for, and will most struggle to address.
The results of the polling encapsulate not only a snapshot of current societal anxieties and aspirations, but also a forward-looking expectation of the government’s role in society over coming years. It’s a reflection of the collective mindset when it comes to what government is capable of, and should be held responsible for, in the UK.
The easiest and hardest issues to solve by 2040
In our polling of 4,000 people in battleground Westminster constituencies, we asked: “Which of these issues do you think will be easiest and hardest for the government to solve by 2040?”
The issues that those in battleground constituencies believed would be the most difficult for the government to resolve by 2040 were:
Reducing carbon emissions to levels that combat the effects of climate change
Reducing inequality and poverty across society
Managing the numbers of both legal and illegal migration to the UK.
These views were fairly consistent across different ages and genders, with some slight differences such as people over 65 believing managing migration would be harder to solve (33% compared to an average of 22% for people under 65).
On the other end of the spectrum, the issues perceived as easiest to solve by 2040 were:
Ensuring the NHS is fully funded and staffed (note: this was also the fourth highest on the list of the most difficult)
Reducing inflation and the high cost of living
Ensuring energy prices are affordable for ordinary people.
Again, there was a lot of consistency across age and genders, though those under 35 tended to think reducing the cost of living would be easier, compared to older age groups.
In areas where the public view challenges as harder for the government to solve, there may well be more willingness to consider a variety of options for solving the problems.
This could create the space for fostering deeper public engagement and a conversation about the choices we face. By developing a variety of options, we can encourage a collective and considered approach to tackling society’s most pressing challenges. This necessitates a more transparent, flexible approach to problem-solving and policy-making including the need for collaboration between government, businesses, NGOs and individuals in solving these immense challenges.
What is government completely responsible for?
We also explored the views of the public in these battleground constituencies on the UK government’s level of responsibility for issues. A clear majority believe the government is ‘completely responsible’ for three key areas. These are: accountability and trust in government (73%), ensuring the NHS and the education system are fully funded (70% and 61% respectively), and wide-ranging socioeconomic concerns such as managing migration (63%) and reducing inflation (59%).
People (in these battleground constituencies at least) hold the government in Westminster responsible for a wide variety of issues, from public services to energy prices. There seems to be a fairly maximalist view of the role of the state in the UK. If the government is viewed as responsible for many of these things, then developing workable options for dealing with these issues will be viewed as an important part of developing a vision for the country.
It’s worth noting that those who said that they intend to vote Labour held the government more responsible for issues than those who said that they intended to vote Conservative. This was by an average of 10 percentage points per issue and was true for all issues except for managing migration and promoting respect for British values. For these issues, Conservative-intending voters held government more responsible than Labour-intending voters by a small margin.
Complex tapestry of expectations
The charts above illustrate a complex tapestry of expectations and realities, in which some issues are seen as more solvable than others, and the government’s perceived role varies from being the primary actor to part of a wider societal response.
The role of government is multifaceted and complex, with challenges that range from those within its direct control to those that are largely beyond its influence. For example, while it would be unreasonable to expect the UK government to single-handedly resolve the war in Ukraine, it seems more plausible to anticipate the UK government addressing the NHS backlog.
As we look towards the horizon of 2040 in the UK 2040 Options project, these insights offer a roadmap for navigating the complex terrain of public expectations and government responsibilities. They underscore the need for a government that is not only proactive in addressing the issues within its control but also innovative and collaborative when it comes to tackling those that seem insurmountable.
The public perception of the UK government’s capabilities and limitations serves as both a challenge and an opportunity – a challenge for the next government to meet high expectations, and an opportunity to engage the public in an honest dialogue to find solutions to the toughest problems.
Can we rely on public opinion to guide us to a better future?
From inflation to immigration: public concerns and beyond
By Ben Szreter, Senior Policy Manager at UK 2040 Options
What issue does the government most urgently need to address? It’s a question that has no correct answer – but one that’s been put to the public again and again over the years.
Public concern has evolved over the decades, shifting from unemployment to public services to the economy to the EU. In this blog, we map these changing priorities and explore their implications for what the government should focus on.
The aim of UK 2040 Options is to bring fresh angles and insights about how we shape the the UK’s future by exploring the choices that the country faces over the next two decades. And the first question to ask is: what should the government prioritise?
Public perception is a dynamic landscape
Over the past four decades, the public’s perception of what the most important issues are has changed significantly. The chart below shows data from the monthly Ipsos Issues Index for the 12 months preceding each election since 1974 (see notes on the methodology below).
For elections in the 1970s, inflation gripped the nation’s attention, followed by unemployment in the 1980s and public services – in the form of education and healthcare – in the 1990s and early 2000s. More recently, economic issues, immigration and the EU have taken the spotlight. As we can see, these public concerns are not fixed: some fade away, as unemployment seems to have done, while others resurface – sometimes due to external factors and sometimes as a direct result of political strategies.
So what are the most important issues in the public mind right now? The chart below shows the most important issues for the public in the 12 months to May 2023.
It’s evident that the public’s concerns change over time and that they are both influenced by and influence the political choices of the day. But what do levels of public concern about these issues have to do with governmental priorities?
The other factors involved in governing effectively
While public opinion plays a significant role in shaping policy decisions, it is, of course, not the sole factor to consider. There are many more issues to consider beyond immediate public concerns. At a recent UK 2040 Options event, project sponsor Lord Gus O’Donnell argued that an effective government would prioritise issues of deep importance such as climate change regardless of how highly rated it is at any point in time as an issue of concern by the public.
A part of the conclusion of the Options for a New Britain work of 2009 (a precursor to our current UK 2040 Options project) was that there are various categories of government priority that go beyond those in the public consciousness but that must be addressed in order to effectively improve lives. As well as the issues focused on by the public, there will be a mix of political projects (think reducing inequality or reducing the size of the state), external imperatives such as climate change or geopolitical factors and more administrative concerns that must be addressed for effective delivery, such as public sector performance or devolution. Of course, there will be overlap between these categories too.
Public opinion will clearly be one of the major factors determining the debate we have about policy choices over the next year – but it won’t be the only one.
Our charts above offer an insight into the landscape of public concerns now and before elections over the last 50 years. As part of the UK 2040 Options project, we will be studying public concern, but also considering the intricate web of other challenges the next Government will need to consider in order to deliver effective government for the people of the UK. We can then aim to provide an assessment of the major decisions that the next government must consider and the options they could pursue in order to improve people’s lives.
Notes on the Ipsos Issues Index
- The Ipsos monthly issues index asks: “What would you say is the most important issue facing Britain today?” and “What do you see as other important issues facing Britain today?”
- The responses are unprompted and the data used in the graph is the percentage of respondents specifying the relevant issue across either of the two questions. This means that the total percentage of all issues is above 100% as individuals can choose multiple issues.
- The monthly sample size is around 1,000 every month and includes England, Scotland and Wales.
Charting the path to a better 2040
How UK 2040 Options will tackle the biggest challenges facing the country
By Alexandra Burns, Director of UK 2040 Options
In a world that sometimes feels like it’s in a state of permacrisis, it can be difficult to look up from the now. But in order to chart a path ahead, we must lift our heads from the immediate and look forward.
That is why we’re launching UK 2040 Options next month. We’ll be combining the need to look to the future with the reality of policy, governing and ultimately tackling the big challenges the country faces – mapping out the big choices and then testing and interrogating the ideas that surface.
The vast majority of those making policy are driven each day by wanting to make things ‘better’. Tony Blair said at his final Prime Ministers’ Questions that “whilst politics is on occasion a place of low skullduggery, it is more often the place for the pursuit of noble causes.”
I spent ten years working in Government with a range of politicians, on topics like health, education and online safety. And, while there has been more talk of skullduggery in recent times, I still believe that underneath it all, the aim for most – whichever party you represent, however you vote – remains those noble causes, that appetite to make things better.
Starting a healthy, constructive debate about the country’s future
But what does better mean? Who do we most want things to be better for? How do we achieve better? In my experience, the level of disagreement grows the further down that list of questions you go, and the number of options you have multiplies.
Take childcare policy, for example: an area on which everyone agrees we must do better. But there are choices to be made about the main objective. One version aims to enable or incentivise work; another way would eliminate the inequality in access to high-quality early years education. Both are ‘better’, but they can lead you to different policy answers. There are examples like this in most policy areas.
We want to look at that next level of what ‘better’ means. And over the next year, there will be no shortage of proposals, opinions and recommendations. UK 2040 Options will be different for a few reasons.
The options that will shape 2040
Firstly, we are going to stay focussed on the future. A child born today will become an adult in the early 2040s. There are some things we can predict with relative confidence about that period – the global population will be around nine billion and the number of people in the UK aged over 85 will have almost doubled compared to in 2020. What will the defining challenges be between now and then? And, crucially, what steps do we need to take now to affect them?
We want to lift our heads up from the acute challenges we are feeling right now and look across a set of defining issues: economic growth, net zero, health, education and wealth and income inequality.
We’ll also be assessing some enabling areas: technology, tax, power and place. Across all of these themes, we’ll ask: where are these areas heading as it stands? What can we change? And what can we learn by looking at them together, in the round?
Secondly, we won’t be advocating just a single point of view. We want to create a space where a range of people from established experts to emerging voices, academics to policymakers, can debate the options. We won’t represent a single worldview either – we will draw on solutions from across the political spectrum.
And thirdly, we won’t only state ideas, we will test and interrogate them. We will look at where there is consensus or divergence using Delphi-style exercises and workshops, and where there are gaps that need filling in with evidence or ideas. We’ll then work together to improve those ideas by red-teaming them, conducting pre-mortems, challenging ourselves and each other to take them to the next level.
In the coming months, we’ll host private workshops and public events. Nothing is off the table, but we will be honest about the trade-offs (there always are some) because we want a transparent debate. We’ll share our thoughts and findings with you as we go.
How to play your part
That’s our plan as it stands, but we’ll be iterating as we go – and we’ll need your ideas.