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Budget 2016: A Missed Opportunity to Unburden Enterprise

21/03/2016 12:02 GMT | Updated 19/03/2017 09:12 GMT

First came a Summer Budget introducing a National Living Wage and a tax on share dividends. Then an Autumn Statement more notable for small businesses for what wasn't included than for what was. It's hardly surprising, therefore, that entrepreneurs were expecting a bit more from the Chancellor this time.

And on the face of it, Osborne did deliver some good policies. Reducing corporation tax to 17 per cent by 2020 sends the right message that Britain is the best place in Europe to grow a business. As does the cut to capital gains tax and the extension of Entrepreneurs' Relief to include long-term investors in unlisted companies. These measures should help drive more risk capital into fast-growing companies.

Elsewhere, small businesses are celebrating the cut to business rates, though it should be remembered that it is often landowners - not occupiers - who shoulder the burden of this tax. Even though firms write the cheques, when business rates are cut, rents rise in proportion, so firms are no better off - but landowners are.

However, reform to Stamp Duty Land Tax on non-residential property transactions, which the government predicts will lead to a cut in tax for many small businesses purchasing property, is a step in the right direction. Stamp duty is a bad tax and creates economic distortion at any level.

But the real missed opportunity was around National Insurance Contributions (NICs). While abolishing Class 2 NI for 3.4m self-employed people will act as a fillip for that group, the Chancellor should have reformed National Insurance entirely, by integrating both employees' NI, income tax and employers' NI into a single tax on income.

Complexity has long been a feature of taxation in Britain, and nowhere is this more manifest than in the National Insurance regime. NICs are a deduction from earnings, set up originally to fund various state benefits including the NHS, the state pension and other welfare-related schemes. Constant tinkering over the last 70 years, however, has left it almost unrecognisable and has reduced the likelihood of the electorate appreciating (i) what their total tax burden is; and (ii) the size of any increase.

But what makes the NICs regime especially opaque is the employers' part of national insurance, not least because the incidence of NICs falls squarely on employees - either through lower wages or higher unemployment. Indeed, study after study has shown that when countries increase their payroll taxes, it leads to a reduction in pay, not a reduction in profit.

This is not to say that the burden is lifted entirely from employers. An extensive Taxpayers' Alliance study in 2011 argued that administration alone imposes a £146m compliance cost on businesses and places a particularly heavy burden on smaller companies, which need to hire accountants to help them cope with the system. It also incentivises employers to hire temporary staff when, all things being equal, they would prefer to bring them into the business as PAYE employees.

In his 2015 Autumn Statement, the Chancellor announced that NICs would be abolished altogether for employees under the age of 21. But some companies might find it difficult to keep these young people on after their 21st birthdays, when employer NICs would kick-in. And from April this year, the Employment Allowance (by which all employers can reduce the amount of NICs they pay) will be raised from £2,000 to £3,000. But this still isn't enough. While CEBR modelling has shown that the Allowance has led to employer NI payments falling as a share of non-wage costs, this share will rise again - and significantly - as the National Living Wage reaches £9 an hour.

With a combined annual turnover £1.8 trillion in 2015, SMEs are vital to the UK economy. Cutting costs creates an incentive for these businesses to use their resources more efficiently and to transfer them into more production or more hiring. Mere tweaking is not enough.