We can set rates in a different way. We can set them, then adjust them for inflation at a lower initial rate, rather than having a payment based on a capital sum. Reducing the rate from 2.5% to minus 0.75% is a mistake and will result in an undue cost to the Exchequer.
I also have concerns about the probate tax. I see that it is likely to be judged by the national statistics people as a tax rather than as a charge, and I do not think it right that the Government should introduce stealth taxes. Probate charges should relate to the cost of the probate work, which is broadly irrelevant to the size of the estate. There might be some more work for bigger estates, but the difference will not necessarily be as large as has been proposed.
The biggest issue is national insurance contributions. I see the logic in what the Government want to do, because there is an unfairness between self-employment and employment, but the question is not so much one of revenue as of whether having a structure in the economy that encourages self-employment is beneficial overall, and whether that is a price worth paying. If we look at what has happened since 2008, we can see that unemployment in this country remained so low as we went through a deep and challenging session partly because of the great flexibility within our labour market. Part of that flexibility comes from self-employment, because employers do not have to take on all the risks of full employment, with all the benefits such as holiday and sickness pay that that entails. That means that the self-employed are a major contributor to the flexibility of the economy.
I very much doubt that increasing the national insurance contributions for the self-employed by 1% and subsequently 2% will fundamentally change the balance, but in economics, things often happen at the margins rather than being an easily identifiable inflection point when we are starting out. I would therefore be cautious about this change, and I urge the Government to look at the whole question of the relationship between national insurance and income tax in the round. National insurance represents about £130 billion of revenue. It is an enormously important source of funding for what the Government wish to do, but its relationship to income tax creates confusion and distortion within the system. This is just one of those distortions, and I am not sure that making a minor change at the edges is the right way to go about changing the relationship in taxation between the self-employed and the ordinarily employed. Those are the three minor cautions that I would offer on the Budget, but I remember a Conservative party slogan, “Britain’s on the right track, don’t turn back”, and that seems to me to be where we are.