(Limerick East): I move amendment No. 1:
In page 17, between lines 15 and 16, to insert the following:
"(1) As respects the year of assessment 1994-95 and subsequent years not more than 20 per cent. of all taxpayers shall pay tax at the higher rate."
This amendment requires the Minister for Finance to take steps in the next budget to ensure that from the fiscal year 1994-95, and subsequent years, not more than 20 per cent of taxpayers would pay tax at the higher rate of tax; in other words, that 80 per cent of taxpayers would pay tax at the standard rate or at a lower rate.
I made this point previously on Committee Stage and have re-submitted the amendment to give the Minister an opportunity to respond today in the House.
There has been an over-concentration of Government time and attention on the rates of tax. For a long time now an almost indeological position has been advanced by the Government, particularly since the Progressive Democrats became part of the Administration in 1989, resulting in an over-concentration on amending the rates of tax, disregarding the amount of tax which taxpayers pay and the income on which they pay tax at varying rates.
I would like the Minister, if he is still around for next year's budget, to refocus his attention away from the marginal rates of tax to the amount of tax being paid and the level of income at which it is paid. At present in relation to personal allowances for individuals a single person becomes liable for income tax at something over £60 while, if we look at the exemption limits, a person becomes liable for tax at £70. The point at which people enter the tax net is far too low. We have the ludicrous situation where married couples who are well below the poverty line and qualify for family income supplement from the Department of Social Welfare are paying tax on their income to the Revenue Commissioners.
Another major problem in the tax system is that people on low incomes move very quickly to a rate of 27 per cent plus full PRSI. Therefore the effective rate is 34.75 per cent for a single person with an income of £70 or more. Not only is the entry point in relation to income too low but also the rate at which one enters the tax code is far too high. I have tabled a second amendment, to which I will refer in passing, which suggests that there should be an introductory rate of tax of 15 per cent, initially for a small tranche of income, say, £500 for a single person and £1,000 for a married person with a view to lowering this hurdle. If a person enters the tax net at a low level of income they should also enter at a low rate of tax. A low introductory rate of 15 per cent would be quite helpful. The Minister will recall that in the recent budget in the United Kingdom, just before the election, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Norman Lamont, introduced an introductory rate of tax of 20 per cent.
My third objection to the present income tax system, and the third area that I would like the Minister to examine between now and the next budget, is that people on moderate incomes jump from the standard rate to the higher rate of tax, now 48 per cent. While this is onerous for single persons, it is also onerous for married couples who are able to avail of double allowances and double band allocations. According to the Minister's own figures 37.5 per cent of all taxpayers now pay tax at the higher rate.
Originally when income tax was introduced it was levied at a low percentage — in effect, there was a flat rate of tax. The concept of a higher rate of tax was introduced to impose a surtax on the wealthy so that those on high incomes would pay something in addition but it was always intended that the high rate of tax would act as a kind of equaliser so that the enormously wealthy would not pay a small amount of tax on huge incomes. It was never intended that the high rate of tax would apply for the generality of taxpayers.
I am not sure what percentage of taxpayers should be liable to the higher rate; some people would argue that it should be as low as 5 per cent but that the high rate should be as high as 60 per cent. There are arguments that one could make but as an initial step, up to the mid-nineties, if only 20 per cent of taxpayers paid tax at rates about the standard rate we would be making progress. The central point I am making is that the focus of attention of the Government must be moved from an over-concentration on the rates of tax towards the actual amounts of tax paid by people and the pressure points to which I have referred. Three of these can be easily identified.
The second major point that I would like to make on this issue is that Government spokespersons, in particular members of the smaller party, the Progressive Democrats, have made extravagant claims that there is a major connection between the marginal rates of tax and the level of jobs in the country. They talk about the tax wedge as if it were the only problem in the labour market. They have deliberately put forward the argument that if one could only narrow the tax wedge jobs would be created, literally by the thousand, but when they talk about the tax wedge they tend to ignore many of the factors which contribute to the tax wedge and simply say that it is the marginal rates of tax which are the main plank which causes the large tax wedge. Not only is the point being made incorrect but it is also propagandistic. Some propaganda is harmless but this is harmful because it has convinced many people that there is a quick fix to unemployment, that if we can get the rates of tax down to a certain level, hey presto, everything will be all right.
I would ask the House to recall that in 1981 when Deputy Garret FitzGerald's first Administration took power the high rate of income tax was 65 per cent. When we left power this had dropped nine points to 56 per cent. Since 1987 it has dropped a further eight points to 48 per cent. Therefore the top rate of tax has been brought down by 17 points during the past ten years. The other phenomenon is that the past ten years has been the decade of the unemployed and we have reached a situation where unemployment is at its highest since the foundation of the State.
There is no identifiable connection between the top rate of tax and the level of employment, furthermore the advocates of low marginal rates of tax seem to have forgotten that during our time in office the top rate was brought down nine points while during the term of office of Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats it has come down another eight points with the result that there has been a drop of 17 points. I have been driven to the conclusion that many of the people who are arguing that there is a connection between the top rate of tax and employment are not being sincere, that they are putting a respectable cloak around a greedy demand and do not have the neck to get up and say that they have wealthy supporters and want them to pay tax at a low rate. They are cloaking it in this respectable garment and saying, "this is not just for the people involved at all; this is going to have a major effect on the economy and everybody will go back to work".
In relation to the standard rate of tax, something similar has happened. In 1987, the standard rate of tax was 35 per cent but it is now 27 per cent, a drop of eight points. Yet, look at what has happened since 1987 in relation to employment and the labour force; if there is a connection between the standard rate of tax and the creation of jobs it is minor, while many of the claims being made are extravagant. I know that the Minister agrees with many of my arguments and perhaps he will put my next argument to some of his colleagues in Government. If the marginal rate of tax is to provide the quick fix which its advocates demand, how in the name of reason does one expect it will only happen when the destination is reached? If dropping the top rate by 17 per cent and the standard rate by 8 per cent has not had an identifiable effect on the rate of job creation, how can anyone argue if it is dropped to 25 per cent on the standard rate and 44 per cent on the higher rate in next year's budget that suddenly a magic button will be pressed and jobs will flow? What is so special about 25 per cent and 44 per cent? This theory of so-called tax reform, by concentrating on the marginal rates, does not stand up to any serious analysis. The problems in regard to income tax are as I outlined. First, people pay too much and there is little scope to relieve their burden unless the base of taxation is extended, because 85 per cent of all income tax services the national debt. The country is being run on the proceeds of VAT, excise duty, corporation tax and other levies.
We know the commitments which have been made in connection with the Maastricht Treaty and we know what the Government will have to do when it is passed on 18 June. I sincerely hope it will be passed with a large majority. We know there is a commitment to reduce the debt as a percentage of GNP, which is an easier thing to understand, down to 60 per cent. The national debt is over £27 billion at present; it must come down as it is 107 per cent of GNP. Over the next six years it will have to be reduced to 60 per cent, which is a tall order. The attempt to do that, even against the background of strong growth through the decade, will necessitate a series of deflationary type budgets. There is very little room for expansion in fiscal policies when faced with that commitment by the Government.
The Government could do something to relieve the pressure; they could outline a programme for the decade of the sale of State assets and the dedication of those assets to the reduction of the debt. They would do a service to State companies who have done so much for this country in terms of economic growth, expansion and employment. They would do them a favour because the Government must come clean with State companies and tell them that they will not in a position to provide them with the capital necessary for their expansion as they have made commitments in Europe which will not allow them to give them the necessary capital injections. We must be straight with State companies and tell them that if they need large tranches of capital — and companies like Aer Lingus certainly do — it will have to be found in the private market. There will have to be a restructing of companies so that they can avail of that and an offer of shares of the public to provide extra capital. That would take some of the pressure off the Government. If we proceed as we are and fulfil the commitment of the Government for a balanced current budget and over the next four years bring the debt as a percentage of GNP down to 60 per cent, it will mean a very tight fiscal position and presages deflationary budgets with very little scope to relieve the overall burden of taxation. As I have said, this can only come about as a result of the widening of the base or a reduction in the debt, with a consequent reduction on servicing costs.
Poor people who cannot afford to live are in the tax net and they should be taken out of it. That is the first priority. I do not make any apology for standing up for the poorest and the lowest paid. That is where the first money should be put if the Government have any leeway. Help the needy, not the greedy. I cannot understand why people should have to pay tax and at the same time be in receipt of family income supplement from the Department of Social Welfare. The second point is that the rate at which people enter the tax net is far too high. I suggest an introductory rate as is the case in the United Kingdom. As the late John Kelly said, we are not apeing the British, because this proposal was made 12 months ago by the Fine Gael Party before it was announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the United Kingdom in his last budget. The third point is that there should be an extension of the standard rate of tax so that the higher rate applies only to those on higher incomes and not to those earning modest salaries.
These amendments show the priorities of my party in relation to income tax. I know that I have aired all these views in the special committee but I wanted an opportunity to air them in this House.