Peter Rhodes on a rare day for a Budget, targeting the black economy and mankind's vanishing fertility

Read the latest column from Peter Rhodes.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak – rare day
Chancellor Rishi Sunak – rare day

Today is a rare day. It is a Budget Day when a chancellor has an opportunity to impose higher taxes on people who are eager and willing to pay.

We are not children. We know that the UK economy has been riddled by loans, grants and payment holidays in the fight against Covid-19. We accept there must be a reckoning. We are also aware that while some folk have been hard-hit by lockdown, others have done very nicely out of it in terms of extra shifts, inflation-linked pensions and – above all – no opportunity to spend much. It is reckoned that about £150 billion has been accumulated in unexpected savings.

And while £150 billion slips easily off the tongue, it is a colossal sum which would more than pay the wages of 60,000 NHS nurses for the next 50 years. One relatively painless way of raising billions is to freeze the thresholds at which people begin to pay standard and higher rates of income tax: as wages rise, more of your pay rise is subject to tax.

Something else we've accepted in lockdown is how little we need cash. We have become accustomed to buying everything from newspapers to bread using debit cards. This Budget is a great opportunity to encourage even more cashless buying and attack the cash-in-hand “black economy” which every year siphons billions of pounds into deals without the taxman getting a penny.

But it's not just small traders who work cash-in-hand. Only last month a Times investigation revealed that at least 49 British universities may have inadvertently facilitated money laundering by allowing foreign students to use banknotes to pay £52 million in fees. In 2018 public schools were told by anti-fraud police to report parents who attempted to pay school fees of up to £40,000 a year in cash. The black economy is vast and has no class or conscience.

I loved the image of Russian diplomats crossing the border from hard-up North Korea on a hand-cranked railway cart. In the old black-and-white days, no movie pursuit was complete without our hero frantically cranking a rail cart. Nearly 100 years after the deadpan master of the movies took to the rails, I couldn't see the image of those Russian diplomats without imagining Buster Keaton in hot pursuit.

If you think people worry too much about climate change, you might be right. A new book, Count Down, suggests human fertility is the big threat. It is declining so fast that by 2045 the global sperm count, battered by pollution from “everywhere chemicals” in our air, water, motors and cosmetics, will have reached zero.

The author Shanna Swan, an environmental and reproductive epidemiologist declares: “That's a little concerning, to say the least.” Damn right, it is. Some species may go out with a whimper and others with a bang, but the last historians may record how Homo sapiens discovered everywhere chemicals, and became a nowhere man.

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