The Rise of the Robots, and the Role of Taxation

by Robert Leggett

When not dealing with his party’s internal strife, Labour’s Tom Watson has

spent a lot of this year talking about the rise of the robots, and the profound effect that this will

have on the UK of the future.  He talks of the benefits of future technology,

such as the added safety and efficiency that driverless vehicles will bring, not

to mention the potential economic benefits.  But he also predicts a world where

as many as 11m UK jobs will be lost in the next decade, as firms seek the cost

savings which automation might bring them.

New technologies fascinate me and excite me, but there is no doubt that the

impact of such rapid change on society must be carefully managed.  As a tax

adviser, I wonder how the tax system will cope with such changes, and even

whether it is one of the main drivers behind this change.

The truth is that for many decades, successive governments have been obsessed

by taxes on work, whether employed or self-employed; with NIC included, we pay

far higher taxes on income from work, than we do on investment income.  This is

strange, as normally you would expect taxes to be raised on things that we want

to discourage, such as cigarettes and alcohol; surely we want to encourage

employment?  Indeed, according to HMRC statistics, PAYE Income Tax and NIC account for 48.6% of

taxes collected in 2015/16; the figure will be higher still when self-employed

Income Tax is included, but this figure is not published.  A significant

reduction in employment would not just see social consequences, and increased

Government spending on benefits, but is also likely to have a drastic impact on

the amount of tax receipts.

Corporation Tax might seem like an obvious replacement, if the use of

machines will increase corporate profits.  But economies currently seem to be

competing to reduce Corporation Tax rates to attract business, and bucking this

trend might simply see less investment in the country and be counter

productive.  Furthermore, profits-based taxes are more susceptible to economic

downturns.

Future Governments will therefore need to think outside the box if they are

to deal with this, and it is possible that wealth based taxes will have to take

up some of the strain from income based taxes.  This must be approached with

caution.

But I think we should also ask ourselves whether this obsession with taxes on

work is driving automation much faster than would otherwise be the case; perhaps

driving automation where there is no underlying social benefit.  Whilst I may be

able to see the underlying benefits of self-driving vehicles, do I want to be

served my coffee by a robot barista, or would I prefer the social interaction of

a real person?  Businesses though, understandably, will seek to automate where

there is an economic benefit to them in doing so; in other words, if technology

is cheaper than their employees. 

Are employment based taxes and costs preventing workers from

competing with their robotic counterparts?

Let us consider that a particular worker expects £20,000 per annum in their

pocket.  In order to receive this, the employer needs to pay the worker a gross

salary of £24,754 in 2016/17 because of Income Tax and NIC.  Added to this, the

employer must pay Employer’s NIC of £2,297, apprenticeship levy of £124, and pay

1% into a pension under auto-enrolment on salary from £5,824 to £43,000.  This

rises to 3% from April 2019, at which point it will cost the employer £568 per

year.  This brings the total employment cost to £27,743, before even starting to

think of the impact of employment rights.  There are no similar taxes and costs

on a machine; perhaps a future government will introduce some sort of levy on

robotics, but this would be extremely difficult to design, and could hold the UK

back in the technological race.

Of course, a company will save Corporation Tax, currently at 20%, on the

total employment costs, as this will reduce taxable profits.  But the running

costs of a machine will also get Corporation Tax relief, as will the cost of

purchase (over time) via Capital Allowances.

So to me, it seems little wonder that there is a rush to automation; by

taxing work so heavily, the tax system makes it difficult for workers to compete

with their robotic counterparts.  Blue sky thinking in the tax system may not

just be required in the future to deal with the consequences of automation, but

it might also provide workers with a more level playing field, and stop there

being the “wrong type” of automation.

Author

Robert Leggett

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