Time for Tax Reform

19 March 2012

By Andrew Sentance, Senior Economic Adviser

The content of the forthcoming Budget has been the subject of intense speculation. Most of the focus has been on short-term measures, with much less discussion of the medium-term tax agenda. Yet setting out a clearer direction for medium-term tax reform is one of the most useful things that the Chancellor could do in his Budget this week.

Why is this so important? There are three reasons. First of all, the Chancellor has limited room for manoeuvre in the short-term – so there is limited to scope for immediate tax giveaways. Second, a major overhaul of the tax system is long overdue. The last Chancellor who had a clear and comprehensive tax reform agenda was Nigel Lawson, who left office over two decades ago. In the meantime, successive Chancellors have made many piecemeal changes to the tax system – adding to complexity and spawning a wide array of tax reliefs and exemptions.

Third, tax reform is one of the levers which a government can use to support longer term growth and improving the climate for business, enterprise and employment. It is part of a broader “supply side” agenda - including lightening business regulation and measures to ensure that the labour market is working effectively – which was effective in supporting growth in the 1980s and 1990s.

So what should the Chancellor do this week? Three broad principles should underpin his tax reform agenda. First, keep tax rates low and limit the extent of tax reliefs – creating a broader tax base. Second, tax income and wealth when people spend it rather than when they earn or invest it. Third, tax and hence discourage activities which create problems for society – such as pollution, smoking and traffic congestion.

The government has already laid out a clear reform agenda for corporate taxation, which aims to cut the corporate tax rate to 23%. But three other areas of taxation also require attention. First, within the personal tax system, there are genuine concerns about the impact of high marginal rates and disincentives both at the top and the bottom of the income spectrum. Taking lower earners out of tax is a government priority. But so also should be ensuring that the UK does not appear to have a penal tax regime for successful entrepreneurs and business managers.

Second, at the heart of the taxation of spending is a VAT system in which a wide range of items is zero-rated. Can it make sense for caviar to be zero-rated for VAT (as a food) while toothpaste and soap carry the full 20% rate? Narrowing zero-rating to more basic items of expenditure could create greater scope for reductions in personal or corporate tax rates, benefiting the economy as a whole.

Third, the application of taxes to address environmental problems is very ad hoc and uneven, with individual sectors bearing a disproportionate burden – notably motorists and air travellers. A more even-handed approach could help both the economy and the environment.

The Chancellor should not rush to set out detailed measures in this Budget – he needs to prepare the ground first. But he can set out the direction of travel by publishing Green Papers (ie consultation papers) on tax reform in the three areas I have highlighted – personal taxation, expenditure taxes and the environment. He could also set out the principles which will underpin reform – lower tax rates on the creation of wealth, a broader revenue base and clearer economic principles to drive the tax agenda. This would be a strong signal that the government supports enterprise and wealth creation, which is much needed.

Contact: Andrew Sentance  |  Tel: +44 (0) 20 7213 2068



Nigel Lawson was indeed the last Chancellor of the Exchequer who had a coherent view of the tax system. His 1988 Budget paved the way for the overall success of the economy until the mid 2000's; the mess we are in today is due primarily to Gordon Brown's failings while Chancellor.

If George Osborne can be as bold as Nigel Lawson, he may be as well remembered.

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