Autumn Statement: Questions for Scotland

George Osborne Image copyright PA

It's the "sincerest form of flattery," says Scotland's financial secretary, John Swinney. With the devolution of stamp duty, he devised a system that ironed out the property transaction tax's dafter anomalies.

And now, George Osborne has adopted a very similar reform.

Mr Swinney's reform applied the Scottish government's first significant progressive tax reform. Being revenue neutral, transactions on the most expensive 10% of homes would pay for lower costs for everyone else.

That translated to a tipping point of £324,280. On homes worth less than that, you'd pay less tax under Scotland's Land and Property Transaction Tax, when compared with (unreformed) Stamp Duty.

But with the reformed system of Stamp Duty, it's a rather different story. The tipping point has moved to £254,000.

George Osborne is expecting to lose £760m in tax take next year as a result of his reforms, rising to more than £800m for each of the following three years. That helps ease this reform by ensuring that 98% of people pay less. Only homes costing more than £937,500 will carry more tax.

Stamp Duty

So the new Stamp Duty is unlike John Swinney's revenue neutral approach. And that leaves quite a big gap on what people pay for the same value of house.

The Scottish Tories were quick to run the numbers, reflecting the 10% tax in Scotland on the tranche from £250,001 up to £1m. Between £250,001 and £500,000, George Osborne will be charging 5% tax.

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Take a house worth £350,000 - nearly double the average price of a privately-owned home. Until the reform, you'd pay £10,500. After it, you'll pay £7500. And in Scotland, from next April, you'll pay £12,300,

Homes for Scotland, representing housebuilders, says this makes the case for a more gradual rise in the Scottish tax, cutting the 10% rate between valuations of £250,001 up to £500,000.

The Scottish government counters that 80% of home-buyers will be better off or no worse off under the Swinney system than the Osborne one.

But to follow George Osborne's lead with lower rates, John Swinney would have to accept lower tax revenue. That could be funded through a higher level of block grant from the Treasury to Holyrood, representing a Scottish share of the hit the Treasury is taking.

But I'm told the negotiations between the Treasury and St Andrew's House on that block grant went cold ahead of the Autumn Statement. Perhaps some coyness about the Stamp Duty reform was the reason, and things will now become clearer for next year's Holyrood grant.

Business rates

There are other consequences of the Autumn Statement that Scottish ministers may need or want to address. Business rates (officially known as non-domestic rates) have been closely linked to the rest of the UK since the Scottish Parliament was set up.

Even the SNP government has promised to stick to the poundage rates set in Westminster, while each government has had its own rates relief scheme for smaller businesses.

(That's struck me as odd for a government committed to competitive cuts of corporation tax, if only it could get hold of that lever of power. It is already taking more than £2.5bn off business each year, and could have chosen to reduce that.)

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Anyway, Whitehall is now embarking on a review of business rates. That could move from basing it on rental value to sales or profits, reflecting different types of business. In particular, retailers argue they need some relief from the current system, to help them compete with online traders.

Will the Scottish government follow with it own review, or adopt the outcome of Whitehall's? It's not saying yet, but it looks unlikely. But its hands will be quite full with a review of council tax, starting in the new year. And ahead of the scheduled 2017 revaluation for business rates, it is having another look at the appeals system.

Corporation Tax

Then there's corporation tax. It was expected that George Osborne would devolve that to Northern Ireland, in response to cross-party pressure at Stormont. He accepted the case, but didn't announce it will happen, without first ensuring the administration is capable of handling the financial consequences.

The Northern Ireland Assembly has been running a worryingly large deficit of late. Given its strange coalition structure, MLAs have not been too clever about handling it.

If it's to take on corporation tax powers, with the aim of cutting them from 21% towards the 12.5% headline rate in Dublin, it faces a significant clawback of block grant from Westminster. It could be that there is a devolution of the tax, but on conditions that make it unusable.

The Scottish government is making the point that devolution to Northern Ireland cuts across the argument previously used against similar moves for Scotland - that allowing different business tax rates would undermine the single UK market.

But it will have to wait for further talks between the Treasury and Northern Irish politicians before it can take its case further.

Oil and Gas

The oil industry is describing George Osborne's tax cut as "a first step". Others say it's modest.

That is something of an understatement, as the industry is waiting to hear from Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander, in Aberdeen on Thursday, about the detail of the new offshore tax regime.

As I wrote earlier this week, the industry is facing pressures from the falling price of oil, rising production costs, depleting reservoirs and ageing equipment. If it is to maximise extraction of oil and gas, it expects to have significant tax breaks to do so.

The Autumn Statement offered sums that don't count as significant by oil industry standards. Cutting the Supplementary Charge from 32 to 30% is calculated to reduce the industry's tax bill by £55m to £60m per year. That's out of a tax bill that runs to more than £2bn annually.

Other changes include a tax break, totalling £20m over the next five years, for companies at early stage of investment in UK waters, who want to write off investment costs against future earnings.

Then there's a tax incentive for clusters of fields that require the expensive new technology to develop high-pressure high-temperature wells. The cost of that to the Exchequer; nothing next year, £20m over the following three years, sharply rising to £95m in 2019-20.

Energy accountants at KPMG describe the tax moves as "a drop in the ocean" or at least the North Sea, when compared with this year's £4.7bn tax receipts. But for now, the industry is keeping its powder dry.

Oil revenues

According to the Office of Budget Responsibility, with its Autumn Statement publication, the forecast for offshore oil and gas tax has been cut by a five-year total of £4.5bn.

The biggest shortfall it foresees is next year, down from £3.8bn to £2.2bn. That's partly down to the writing-off of high levels of investment that have been ploughed into the industry in recent years. Investment is near certain to fall, and so will the use of tax allowances.

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The OBR is using forecasts of a lower oil price than in the forecast it published with the Budget last March. At current dollar exchange rates, it foresees a fall from $109 per barrel, to $83, rising to $86. That's based on forward market prices, though current market prices are hovering above $70.

The OBR offers its own analysis of just how volatile oil revenues have been, as an explanation of why it keeps getting this wrong. Its pessimism and inaccuracy has this year been a target of campaigners for Scottish independence, who need to keep up tax receipts if their figures for independence are to keep the deficit down. The problem is that the OBR has consistently been wrong by being overly optimistic.