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Budget 2013: After the ‘omnishambles’, the ‘aspiration’

WHEN HE GETS A MOMENT TO STOP AND THINK, it seems fair to assume the chancellor will be generally pleased with this year’s Budget after the infamous ‘omnishambles’ of his 2012 statement.

He’ll certainly be happier with its reception compared to last year’s at any rate – leak or no leak. But despite having a smoother ride this year, there were predictably few big tax and spending announcements.

Along with reliefs for the creative industries, freezes to fuel duty and NICs and a drop in tax on beer, other policies – a cut in corporation tax and a rise in the personal allowance – followed a familiar tack.

Sandwiched as it was between last year’s Autumn Statement and a Spending Review due in three months time, Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, described the Budget as “the rather insubstantial filling between two pretty chunky slices of bread”.

Although largely a non-event, the Budget was not without controversy. The Help to Buy scheme has already been branded a “second home subsidy” by Labour and raised concerns of a new housing bubble.

Its proponents argue that by underwriting homebuyers’ mortgages with £15.5bn, first-time buyers could get a leg-up onto the housing ladder and the market would be more widely stimulated, but many are baffled that it was not matched by any adjustment to stamp duty land tax.

That is not the only potential shortcoming to come from this Budget. While the very largest and the very smallest of businesses will respectively be happy with the 20% corporation tax rate and the £2,000 employment allowance, there are some suggesting SMEs were left out, with precious few measures designed to benefit them. That said, they can take solace in the extension of the capital gains tax relief extension for the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme.

While tax avoidance predictably reared its head, with Osborne taking the opportunity to proudly flag up the automatic information-sharing deals struck with the Isle of Man, Guernsey and – newly – Jersey and warning similar deals are on the horizon for unnamed jurisdictions further afield, there are those who feel let down that there was no effort made to better define avoidance.

Not only that, but there are concerns over the broadening of the government’s ‘naming and shaming’ policy on evasion to take in avoidance. The main question is around where exactly the line is drawn, with advisers – including CIoT president Patrick Stevens – emphasising the need to protect innocent parties engaging in standard tax planning.

Perhaps the area that drew the loudest howls of pain was the revisions to the bank levy in order to offset any benefit from the fall in corporation tax. It prompted accusations of populist spite, rather than any consideration by Osborne for the impact it could have on the ability of banks to lend. That may be the case, but the more pertinent point advisers are making is that it surely is not healthy to impose separate tax regimes on particular industries, especially for tax simplification.

Still, if Osborne’s aim was to avoid a repeat performance of last year’s comparative disaster, he succeeded. Though with the IFS warning that tax rises of up to £9bn could be imposed after the next general election, Osborne may have only delayed the inevitible.

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