Margareta Pagano: Move over, Darling - here's your Budget
With just 10 days to go, and after intensive discussions with my local newsagent and other top industrialists, please accept my advice
Sunday 12 April 2009
Now the macho G20 is out of the way, it is time for Alistair Darling to show he can be just as robust handling the real needs of Britain's business community. So, respecting governments' traditional reverence for the opinions of the unelected and the capriciously co-opted, here is a modest guide to what he should announce in next week's Budget. I am grateful for contributions from some of the country's top industrialists and to Jay, my local newsagent and serial entrepreneur, who have told me what they would like from the Chancellor and, frankly, if he doesn't get it right this time, it's time to move over, Darling.
The Chancellor needs to win over the millions of pensioners whose savings have been wiped out as well as entice people back into saving. The Tories have tinkered with this by promising that basic-rate taxpayers will be exempt from tax on savings and by increasing age-related allowances, giving pensioners some £400 more a year. But this doesn't go far enough. This is a good chance for Darling to outwit them. One simple way would be to triple the tax-free ISAs allowance of £3,600.
Currently those who pay basic-rate tax get 20 per cent relief on their pension payments while those paying 40 per cent tax get the same in relief. How about equalising the relief so that everybody gets 30 per cent? It's fair and spreads the gains.
Cash is running out for the adult apprentice scheme. This is disastrous as retraining is the policy most likely to get us through this crisis. Companies should get double-expense allowances for taking on new staff; bring in school-leavers and graduates on training or volunteering type schemes (tax relief from the Government) and train them up in disciplines for the future, whether it be forestry or conservation. Incentives should be offered to pupils studying sciences.
Encourage our greatest brains at Imperial College, Cambridge and Oxford to lead a new troika think-tank with Government, other academics and our top venture capitalists to come up with 10-year plan to create new research projects in the biotechnology/medical and engineering fields. Increase tax relief on all R&D projects to promote new research and incubator companies.
Borrow Guillaume Pepy, head of the French SNCF railways, to help build the best railway network in the world. Link London to Scotland, to Manchester and Birmingham with TGV lines. Let the private sector raise the capital with railway bonds: something for pensioners to buy for their children with their untaxed savings.
Just abolish HIPs.
Local banks and credit unions
The Treasury and the Financial Services Authority should encourage new banks and credit unions as well as offer insurance schemes for distressed companies. If it can be done for banks, it can be done for companies.
The Government should promise tax relief for green technology incubator companies, give big subsidies to home-owners and businesses for retro fitting and cut capital gains tax for those investing in green technologies. Britain is bottom of the world league in green technology, manufacturing less than 5 per cent of the world's eco-businesses: time to spearhead a new industrial revolution.
They can't admit it but governments like people to smoke, drink and drive big, petrol-guzzling cars as they are the best sources of huge tax revenues. Keep tax increases to a minimum but freeze the price of a pint to save our pubs, six of which are closing a day.
Darling can't and won't cut taxes, which is what he should do to stimulate wealth creation, but he can be bold instead. One radical move would be to reform council spending by cutting the central budget and giving them tax-raising powers instead. Take the lowest paid out of tax altogether but don't put the top rate up again.
Cut company rates for investment which will help job creation. One industrialist goes even further, challenging the Chancellor to give businesses a three- to five-year tax holiday. Cut capital gains tax on all investments, but crack-down on corporate tax evasion – estimated to cost the Exchequer some £100bn.
UK investors buying listed shares are the world's most taxed so stamp duty should be abolished. It's a no-brainer for a Conservative government but none has ever been brave enough. This could be Darling's moment to show that Labour really is the party of equitable wealth creation and not just the creature of the very rich.
Chairmen step into the line of fire as shareholders look for scapegoats
To train or not to train? That's the $64,000 question which I predict will soon be rocking the boardrooms of FTSE companies as shareholder anger mounts over the role played by some top chairman during the financial crisis. Investors are finally waking up to the fact that it is the governance of many companies, particularly banks such as Royal Bank of Scotland, which has been as much to blame for their failure as not following the letter of regulation itself.
We shall see some of that anger vented this week when Sir Peter Sutherland, the chairman of BP, comes under pressure from Pirc, which is threatening to vote against his re-election because of his role at RBS. Investors are also threatening the position of Bob Scott, chairman of the troubled Yell group, who was the senior independent director at RBS, while other investors are calling for the head of Marcus Agius, chairman of Barclays for his handling of the bank's fundraising.
This is not just hot air. While there isn't a cat's chance of Sir Peter being voted off the board, Pirc's anger raises a much broader question over the nature of a chairman and his or her relationship with the board. Board structures are a bit like the British constitution: unwritten, flexible and based mainly on common law. But in today's complex, globalised world it may be time for the roles to become more systematic and formalised. Unlike many other professions, chairmen evolve with time and experience into the job. No one teaches you how to run a billion-pound company with thousands of employees all around the world. It could be that boards need to consider some sort of training – or even annual certification – for chairmen in our biggest companies.
The most important thing of all is that a chairman needs to be prepared to fire the chief executive. If he isn't up to that, then he's not up to the job.
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