Category Archives: Northern Ireland

An ‘English rate of income tax’: six questions in search of an answer

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.

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’?

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Improving intergovernmental co-ordination: better intergovernmental relations and better devolution

I’ve a report out today on the procedural aspects of intergovernmental relations.  This was commissioned by the UK Changing Union project through the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University, and can be found on their website here. Today was also the day when the plenary Joint Ministerial Committee met; it agreed, among other things, a full-scale rewrite of the Memorandum of Understanding.  As this post argues, such a rewrite is overdue. 

Intergovernmental relations are key to making devolution work effectively. The Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly all operate in a wider context of governance across the UK, and how their functions overlap with those of the UK Government (and other governments) is vital for all four governments and all UK citizens. The Smith Commission’s recent report pays a good deal of attention to the need to ‘scale up’ intergovernmental co-ordination as part of the package of further devolution.

The UK Government is not very interested in managing intergovernmental relations, however. It put in place an attenuated under-institutionalised set of mechanisms in 1999, and has allowed that to weaken or fall further into disuse since then. The key institution is the Joint Ministerial Committee. Plenary meetings of that ceased altogether between 2002 and 2008; they have been more or less annual since then, but are characterised by grandstanding rather than productive work. The JMC’s ‘Domestic’ format has nearly ceased to function, as so few policy issues concern more than one devolved government. The only established format of the JMC which does meet regularly, and does more or less what it was expected to, is the EU format which helps formulate the UK ‘line’ for major EU Council meetings, though there are problems even there. In reality, most intergovernmental issues are bilateral, but with few exceptions they are dealt with in an ad hoc, casual way, out of sight of public or legislatures, and many important issues slip through the net.

The argument for a more systematic approach to intergovernmental relations is unanswerable. Such conduct is simply not consistent with ensuring that devolved governments are treated fairly, feel they have been treated fairly, and citizens from across the UK can see they have been treated fairly. The UK Government needs to recognise that such procedures are not appropriate for the changed constitutional landscape following the Scottish referendum – if they ever were appropriate at all. But different approaches have been repeatedly urged on the UK Government, through Parliamentary committee such as those in 2002 by the Lords Constitution Committee, in 2009 by the Commons Justice Committee or in 2010 by the Commons Welsh Affairs Committee. No change has resulted despite such repeated urging from across Parliament, and despite the potential advantages for the UK Government – whether better policy co-ordination, an indirect way of achieving its policy goals, or simply symbolically showing the UK’s ability to incorporate its various parts into a single multinational union.

The difficult question is what to do, given where we are now. Is it still appropriate to call for the sort of regular, multilateral meetings that are used in more symmetrical systems? Multi-lateral intergovernmental co-ordination has had little impact because it does not relate to the practical nature of government in a profoundly asymmetric UK where most issues are bilateral not multilateral. The plenary JMC is dominated by high politics driven by party concerns –a theatrical exercise which contributes little to efficient government, though it cannot be regarded as dignified given the degree of masochism it requires from the UK Prime Minister.

The JMC (Domestic) was meant to be a way of dealing with practical policy issues, but it has proved to be of limited and declining value. In practice, lower-level co-ordination relating to specific policy issues is done bilaterally, but it works inconsistently, and out of sight of the public and beyond legislative scrutiny. That makes for bad governance. It also creates a process from which Wales, structurally and regularly, is the loser, lacking the political clout and outside interest that shape how Scotland and Northern Ireland play the game.

So perhaps the way forward would be to stop talking of multilateral ministerial committees, and instead embrace the logic of bilateral relations in more co-ordinated way. The Part 2 report of the Silk Commission suggested a ‘Welsh Intergovernmental Committee to manage this, a recommendation supported by the Welsh Government in its response to Silk. Whether the UK Government would be willing to commit the senior ministerial time this would need is doubtful. A more appropriate way of working, building on existing arrangements and enhancing them, would be for the Secretary of State for Wales or the junior Wales Office Minister to take on an active role here. The Wales Office would take on the task of assessing the impact of UK Government business on devolved Welsh functions, and Welsh policy on non-devolved ones, on the basis of each respecting the other’s role, so that both governments are able to take an overview of the welter of business of each government that affects the other.

The second area that calls for change is how disputes and disagreements between governments are handled. When these are legal in character, they go to the UK Supreme Court, via various ‘leapfrog’ procedures. But when the issue is not whether a government or legislature has the power to act, but whether they behaved properly toward each other when they did, the situation is quite different. Since 2010, there has been an agreed ‘disputes avoidance and resolution mechanism’ in the Memorandum of Understanding, but it has proved to be particularly flawed in both its design and working. It has only met once, to consider the row arising from the way the UK Government stopped devolved governments from receiving consequential payments under the Barnett formula for the regeneration spending on the area around Olympic Park in Stratford, before the 2012 London Olympics. On that occasion, an hour-long meeting was shoe-horned into Francis Maude’s diary at 8.30 in the morning. Maude was involved as a UK Government minister who had not been involved in the matter previously – but putting another UK minister in charge of the process, one bound by collective responsibility to one side of the dispute but not the other, is a potent source of apparent if not actual bias.

Possible bias is only one problem. The other major problem is that the disputes resolution ‘panel’ has no power to do anything other than mediate the dispute – to seek to find an agreement between the UK department and devolved governments involves. If they cannot agree, there will be no resolution, but the absence of any resolution is going to favour the UK department in almost all possible cases. The fact that a ‘do-nothing’ outcome will always advantage the UK Government is a grave problem. And in issues about the working of the Barnett formula, there will be a third: the control the Treasury has over the Statement of Funding Policy. In this case, the Treasury was not merely judge in its own cause, with a jury from its side of the fence, but it wrote the rules as well!

Such an approach fails to meet even the most basic idea of fairness. At the very least, there needs to be an impartial mediator, perhaps a panel not an individual, and the possibility of causing some embarrassment for a recalcitrant government that refuses to give ground – at least by a public finding against it. This will fall some way short of the Smith Commission’s recommendation of ‘well functioning arbitration processes’, but again is more likely to be workable in practice.
Leaving matters to be handled in ad hoc, reactive, unstructured way is no longer an option for the UK Government. The question is how it wants to shape the way forward.

This post also appears on Click on Wales, here, and the ‘Future of Scotland and the UK’ programme blog, here

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‘Constitutional Futures’ workshop at Queen’s University Belfast, 10 October

Along with James Mitchell from Edinburgh and Aileen McHarg from Strathclyde, I’ll be taking part in a workshop on ‘The Direction(s) of Devolution’ in the law school at Queen’s University Belfast on Friday 10 October.  There is more information here, or the flyer can be downloaded here.  Capacity is limited; please email law-enquiries@qub.ac.uk if you’d like to attend.

 

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‘Devo More and Welfare’ in ‘Scotland on Sunday’

The paper Guy Lodge and I have written on Devo More and Welfare as part of the wider Devo More project is published on Tuesday.   There’s extensive coverage of it in today’s Scotland on Sunday to whom we’ve given a preview of the paper, including a news article here and a comment piece by Guy and me here.

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An emerging fiscal debate in Northern Ireland

It has been quite easy to miss from Great Britain, but over the last few months there have been the beginnings of a serious debate about devolution finance in Northern Ireland.  Until now, this debate has been largely absent there, with the (major) exception of the debate about devolving corporation tax.

I’ve argued before that the corporation tax debate has been rather an unreal one, rooted in a serious absence of basic information and misapprehensions about both the benefits and problems of tax devolution (see HERE and HERE).  With the UK Government’s decision in March 2013 to put the issue on hold at least until after the Scottish independence referendum, that debate has at least paused. There still seems to be a belief there, however, that corporation tax devolution is not only viable and practicable but some sort of holy grail for the invigoration of the Northern Ireland economy.  (A separate part of the Northern Ireland debate has led to devolution of air passenger duty for long-haul flights, set at a lower level for 2012-13 and passing APD to Stormont’s control from the start of 2013.  In practice, there’s only one such flight – a daily one from Belfast International to Newark, New Jersey, in the US.)

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Inheritance tax, ‘care caps’ for the elderly, and devolution

Inheritance tax (IHT to its friends) is an odd tax.  It doesn’t raise a lot of money; £2.7 billion in 2010-11 according to HM Revenue and Customs, which sounds like a lot of money but was only 0.65 per cent of total UK tax revenues.  It also has plenty of loopholes.  The most important are the seven-year rule (it doesn’t catch anything given away more than seven years before the death of the donor), an exemption on transfers between spouses, and the nil-rate band which taxes at 0 per cent anything up to a specified threshold, currently £325,000 per individual.  The combination of the seven-year rule and the nil-rate band mean that it’s largely an optional tax, hitting the well- and comfortably-off who are disorganised; indeed, the joke in tax classes is that it’s a charge on those who hate their relations more than the Revenue.

So – if the news that IHT is to bear the burden of increasing resources to pay for the new ‘social care cap’ in England is right (see BBC News here, and Sunday’s Telegraph here) – the upshot is rather confusing.  An additional tax burden will be imposed on residents of all parts of the UK, including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as England – to pay for a benefit only to be experienced in England.  That is anomalous.

There are two ways to resolve this problem.  One is to allocate shares of the extra tax revenues so generated to devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, since social care for the elderly is a devolved function.  That is attractive, and would be the sort of approach sought by Quebec, where the long-standing demand of the provincial government has been to call for an ‘opt out with compensation’ from expansions of the Canadian federal government’s social programmes.  However, that might not be in devolved governments’ best interests – the tax base that supports inheritance tax revenues is driven by property values, and so hugely skewed toward southern England.  (In Scotland, according to GERS, it only generated 0.4 per cent of total tax revenues in 2010-11.  It’s only 0.37 per cent in Wales according to the Silk Commission report, and 0.33 per cent in Northern Ireland, according to the Northern Ireland Net Fiscal Balance Report.)  Getting those extra tax revenues from the tax base in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland would in fact mean a larger share of a smaller cake.  That’s all the worse for Scotland and Northern Ireland given their ageing populations.

The alternative approach would be to let the Barnett formula take the strain, and allocate to devolved governments their consequential share of increased UK Government spending in England.   This is what Barnett is meant to do, after all – allocate consequential shares of spending on ‘comparable’ functions in England to devolved governments.  It appears that the increased IHT revenue will only bear part of the cost of increasing resources for the care cap, so the rest will presumably come from general taxation anyway.  Using Barnett would in fact put rather more funds into the hands of devolved governments, albeit at the expense of English taxpayers, but in a way that accomplishes a form of equity in distributing shares of the cost of the English policy across the UK.

If the latter is the approach to be taken, it should form part of the Department of Health’s formal announcement.  The pre-announcement briefings have suggested a UK-wide tax to fund a purely English policy, which may make electoral sense for the Conservatives but not much constitutional sense (and that’s without judging whether this policy approach is in fact right or not – given that it has been criticised by Andrew Dilnot as well as Labour spokespeople).  It looks rather like the sort of high-handed approach from Whitehall that has been all too common in the past – and which in the present context strengthens arguments for independence in Scotland.  (Of course, it also sits on top of the UK Government’s exclusion of claims for attendance allowance from beneficiaries of that policy after free long-term care for the elderly was introduced.)  It also suggests that a more nuanced approach to welfare devolution may be hard to implement, because doing so is beyond Whitehall’s habitual ways of working.

What this is not is a case for devolving inheritance tax.  IHT is one of few taxes emphatically not suitable for devolution on fiscal grounds.  Experience in both Canada and Australia of transferring the death/estates duty tax base to the provinces/states was that within a decade, tax competition between the various governments drove the rate of tax to zero across the whole country.  There are few cases where the evidence of fiscal competition cannibalising a tax base is so clear.

Thinking about social care costs is actually a tricky challenge.  It involves redistribution across time as well as space.  At present, devolved governments have the responsibility for providing care, but not the policy or legal instruments to secure its funding.  The way the UK Government has ploughed ahead making policy for England with so little regard for the position of devolved governments has done it few favours.

UPDATE: This post was written just before Jeremy Hunt made his statement in the Commons (which is available here) or the Department of Health published its white paper Caring For Our Future: Reforming care and support, Cm 8378 (available here).  There’s no mention in the white paper of the use of changes in inheritance tax (or NICs transferred from the soon-to-be-discontinued second state pension) to fund the new policy.  Indeed, for that matter there’s no mention of devolved governments or institutions at all.

Yet the white paper notes, without irony, ‘Fragmented health, housing, care and support are letting people down.  A failure to join up also means that taxpayers’ money is not used as effectively as possible, and can lead to increased costs for the NHS’ (p. 16).  Moreover, the DH statement says, ‘A national minimum eligibility will make access to care more consistent around the country, and carers will have a legal right to an assessment for care for the first time.’  All that is true, but applies as much to policy across the UK as that within England.  When directly asked about the devolution implications in the Commons, by Willie McCrea from South Antrim, Hunt stalled, saying ‘different approaches are being tried in all four constituent parts of the United Kingdom and we must look at what is happening in the different parts and all learn from each other.’

The UK Government has set out a policy only for England, which affects devolved governments and their policy functions quite significantly – but without there being any apparent assessment of its impact on them, or the fact that the UK Government possesses and is using policy levers that are not available to them despite their similar responsibilities.  This is simply confused policy-making; and the fact that the financing was discussed in the press and Commons statement, but does not appear in the published documents, suggests it was made rather late in the day too.

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My involvement in the IPPR’s Devo More project

On  Friday, IPPR published my paper Funding Devo More, the fruit of a long period of reflection about devolution finance and how the UK might do it differently and better (that’s available here).  It also marks the start of my involvement in IPPR’s ‘Devo More’ project.

The aim of this project is to consider how devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland might be enhanced; how to make a devolved UK work better.  That means increasing the scope of devolved powers and responsibilities, but also looking at the Union as a whole and how to improve that.  Effective devolution means more self-government, but it also means ‘more Union’; a more effective tier of government that delivers certain functions that devolved governments are unable to, in a way that makes it clear what the Union does for citizens as well as what devolved governments do.  That is a far cry from the vestigial sort of entity it has often become in many of the Scottish debates.  It’s also a step beyond the current thinking that suggests ‘more powers for Scotland (or Wales) means less for Westminster'; this need not be zero-sum game, if the thinking about what is involved is careful enough.  If we are to continue to live in one decentralised country, we will all need to be clearer about which government does what and why.

I’ve explained separately some of the ideas underpinning my financing paper, which will be carried through into the project as a whole.

The ‘Devo More’ project will necessarily be a wide-ranging one, and our next big piece of work is to look at how devolution of aspects of welfare and social security might be accomplished, and what the implications of that will be.  Another strand will be the sort of changes needed at the centre of government for is rather different sort of union to work.  There is a good deal involved in the project, and those interested should keep an eye on the project’s webpage, which is here.

I’m very glad to be working with the Institute for Public Policy Research, and particularly Guy Lodge, on this project.  IPPR have long taken a serious interest in debates about devolution and its implications, including the work they have done recently on developing public attitudes about national identity in England, their ‘Borderland’ project on the implications of change for Scotland for northern England, and how ‘English votes for English laws’ at Westminster might work.  (The same can’t be said for most of the other London think-tanks.)  For my part, working with IPPR isn’t a reflection of any political views; as well as formal committees, I’ve advised parties and politicians from across the political spectrum in the past (including Conservatives, Lib Dems, Labour, the SNP and Plaid Cymru), and hope to continue to do so.  It is simply a pragmatic judgment about who has the willingness and the resources to do serious, policy-oriented thinking about the future of the UK.  In this respect, IPPR have stolen a march on their rivals.

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