In a speech on Friday launching the Conservative Party’s ‘English manifesto’, David Cameron apparently proposed an ‘English rate of income tax’, on which voting in Parliament would be limited to English (or non-Scottish) MPs. (There’s also Telegraph coverage here and BBC News coverage here.) There’s not much detail about this – Cameron’s speech isn’t available on the Conservative Party website, nor is the ‘English’ manifesto. But from what we can tell of it, this proposal raises a lot of questions.
The first question is whether this is a move beyond the Conservatives’ manifesto commitment for a veto for English MPs (or English, Welsh and Northern Ireland) MPs on non-Scottish income tax decisions, after the Smith Commission proposals are enacted. This proposal caused quite a stir when it was first announced, back in December 2014, and raises the hackles of Labour and other parties (and see also here), but it’s not actually new. This may just be a rhetorical shift, using heightened language to get news coverage for an old story, but if so it has been publicised in remarkably insensitive terms: what the Conservatives are proposing is not an ‘English rate of income tax’, but relates to Wales and Northern Ireland as well. This may be an attempt to curry favour with English voters, but England is not the only part of the UK it affects.
The second question is what this proposal relates to: the Scottish rate of income tax which is due to come into effect in April 2016, and on which a decision will need to be taken this autumn, or the Smith Commission proposals? The latter probably won’t come into effect until April 2018 at the earliest, so this will not be something that could be put in place for England very quickly, or would need to be. If the former, it implies very quick action indeed – and it’s hard to see a rationale for excluding Scottish MPs from voting when only the Scotland Act 2012 powers are in effect.
The third question is how to resolve the difficulties an ‘English rate of income tax’ shares with any move toward ‘English votes for English laws’ at Westminster to address the West Lothian question. These can be summarised as
• Serious practical difficulties in identifying ‘English laws’
• Operational problems in limiting those and ensuring only qualified MPs voted on them in divisions
• The potential governability issue, if a UK Government with the support of a majority in Parliament as a whole did not have majority support from English MPs, and could not get its business relating to England through Parliament.
On top of these, it would probably intensify (and not redress or remove) the problem of the connection between decisions about funding for services in England, and the block grants for devolved governments calculated using the Barnett formula. It would risk intensifying those problems because the ‘no detriment’ principle which is adopted for tax devolution is meant to protect each government from the effects of tax decisions taken by the other tier of government. An ‘English-only’ tax decision would risk creating all sorts of spill-overs which would trigger that principle. So this is a recipe for greater complexity, not simplicity or ‘fairness’.
The operational problems of identifying what measures Scottish MPs could vote on and which they could not would be considerable. Collection and enforcement of income tax, even after Smith is implemented, will be for HM Revenue & Customs – so Scottish MPs should be able to vote on all matters relating to that. So would the definition of income, and exceptions, exemptions and reliefs. Also allowances – the personal allowance, married couples’ allowance, and so forth. And as income tax on savings and dividend income is not devolved, decisions about that would also need to include Scottish MPs. No wonder the Smith Commission noted that ‘Income Tax will remain a shared tax and both the UK and Scottish Parliaments will share control of Income Tax. MPs representing constituencies across the whole of the UK will continue to decide the UK’s Budget, including Income Tax’ (paragraph 75). There may be a logic in stopping Scottish MPs voting on the devolved matters, but those are rates, bands and the thresholds between bands – a very significant measure of fiscal devolution, but not the sort of complete devolution that an ‘English rate of income tax’ would imply. Making that actually work, vote by vote, will involve a veritable Parliamentary hokey-cokey. The Smith recommendation not to limit MPs’ voting rights on tax matters will be very much easier to make work.
The fifth question is whether, if this really is about an ‘English’ (or English/Welsh/Northern Ireland) rate of tax, it can actually work at all. It almost certainly can’t. Tax devolution for Scotland (both under the Scotland Act 2012 and the Smith Commission proposals), Wales and Northern Ireland works by making a reduction from the block grant to allow for devolved tax capacity. There are many issues about how that will function in practice, but the principle is a viable one – because there is a distinct and identifiable grant to fund each devolved government. That is not the case for England. Funding for English services is simply funding for UK Government functions that happen to be located in England. To have a separate English rate of income tax means identifying what those services are and having a separate and identifiable pot of funding for them, to which the English rate of income tax flows. That would be a huge upheaval for the administrative machinery of government, which certainly goes beyond the commitment in the Conservatives’ UK manifesto for a veto for English MPs on income tax decisions. It would amount to putting in place a federal fiscal structure for the UK. That certainly hasn’t been discussed by any political party to date.
The sixth question is whether this is meant to apply just to the Scottish proposals for income tax, or more widely. With devolution of stamp duty land tax and landfill tax to Scotland and (in due course) Wales, shouldn’t it logically apply to those too? What about issues regarding the new Northern Ireland rate of corporation tax? What about air passenger duty or the aggregates levy when those are devolved? The fact these are small taxes doesn’t alter the principle that appears to underlie Cameron’s proposal.
So, if this is something new, it may well be unworkable. But it’s probably the case that this is just eye-catching rhetoric to reheat an old promise, which is causing much more heat than light. But who would report an announcement about ‘English, Welsh and Northern Ireland votes on English, Welsh and Northern Ireland income tax rates and thresholds between rates on non-savings non-dividend income’?