Chancellor keeps his eyes on the No 10 prize

Pre-Budget report is set to steer clear of unpopular measures
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The Independent Online

Chancellor Gordon Brown has another chance to meddle with our money tomorrow. His pre-Budget report is ostensibly an annual update on the state of government finances, but in recent years it's become a stage to drop heavy hints about future policy.

In previous reports, Mr Brown unveiled the 10p starting rate of income tax and gave details of pension reforms allowing individuals to invest in residential property. Last year, he announced plans to extend maternity leave from six to nine months.

What he can and can't do is restrained, of course, by his finances. The slower economic growth Britain is now experiencing has given rise to fears that he may put up national insurance contributions (NICs) to help pay for public spending.

But any such move would be bound to be unpopular with swathes of the population, and that is likely to persuade him otherwise, says Victor Dauppe at MacIntyre Hudson accountants. He points out that Mr Brown has a future general election to fight, probably as prime minister.

A more populist initiative would be to announce details for the disposal of so-called orphan assets, the billions of pounds left forgotten for years in banks, building societies and insurance companies.

Most members of the financial services industry will be scouring the Chancellor's speech for changes that might affect their own businesses - changes which, in turn, usually end up affecting the consumer.

Here are the financial targets Mr Brown is most likely to aim at.

National insurance

All employees pay NICs through their salaries via Pay As You Earn; this is currently 11 per cent on income between £94 and £630 a week, with any salary above this limit taxed at 1 per cent.

"If the Chancellor was feeling particularly cavalier, he could make all earnings above £408 a month [about £94 a week] subject to an 11 per cent NIC charge," says Mr Dauppe. "This would boost Treasury coffers, but the impact on Middle England might come back to haunt Mr Brown if he ended up fighting the next election as party leader."

Orphan assets

Lost and forgotten savings have long been earmarked by the Chancellor for charitable use. Details of his plans have been thin on the ground, but it is expected that a commission will be announced with a remit to look at how best to channel the cash to charities.

The reluctance of banks and building societies to let go of the cash piles has proved a major stumbling block.

In addition, legal complexities remain over the tax status and ownership of the money. Although the Treasury's preferred definition of an orphan asset was one untouched for three years, it's understood that financial institutions will - at least for now - have to give up only those that have lain dormant for a decade.

Customers will always be able to get their money back, though, if and when they recall or find it.

Self-invested personal pensions

Under the new pensions regime to be introduced from 6 April next year, wealthy and sophisticated savers who use self-invested personal pensions (Sipps) will be afforded generous tax breaks.

However, the new rules would in theory allow individuals with Sipps to take a tax-free lump sum from the fund at retirement and recycle it back into a pension to gain another 40 per cent tax relief. This potential loophole is expected to be closed this week.

"Close attention will be paid to any constraints on how pension funds can be invested under the new regime," says John Whiting of the accountancy firm Pricewaterhouse-Coopers. "There's an urgent need to announce the final rules soon."

Tax credits

Patrick Stevens of Ernst & Young thinks the Chancellor may be forced to make some sort of statement on tax credits after a year of turmoil that saw the taxman trying to claw back overpayments to low-income households. In some cases, families were left relying on Salvation Army handouts.

"Mr Brown will undoubtedly reiterate the benefits of the current system but may well add an announcement of a review of the regime with a view to simplification or rationalisation," Mr Stevens says.

Real estate investment trusts

Promises, promises: the launch of real estate investment trusts (Reits), which let individuals invest in commercial and residential property, has been heralded for the best part of 18 months. But details have yet to emerge.

Wrangling over tax relief and the structure of the funds has delayed proceedings. But Mr Whiting believes the Chancellor may at last confirm a timetable for the launch.

Inheritance tax

Mr Dauppe thinks the Chancellor could announce a consultation on the reform of inheritance tax (IHT), payable at 40 per cent on any estate above £275,000.

More families than ever before are finding themselves caught in the IHT net after the deaths of loved ones, prompting many ordinary savers to consider tax-efficient ways of sheltering their money.

The number of people liable for IHT will rise by more than two-thirds to 3.6 million by 2009, the accountancy firm Grant Thornton suggests. This is largely due to house price inflation in recent years - and because the IHT threshold has not been adjusted in line with this.

However, Mr Brown relies on IHT income for his spending plans. He is likely to announce a consultation rather than anything more dramatic at this stage, Mr Dauppe says.

And one to watch...

Industry sources suggest Mr Brown could announce a windfall tax on the energy sector in the guise of a "consultation".

The charity National Energy Action is calling on the Chancellor to introduce such a tax; it says gas and electricity companies are profiting at the expense of consumers.

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