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The miles file

Rarely has a Chancellor taken so long to say so little. Even journalists, who are frequently asked to spin 1,000 words out of a single fact, were impressed by Gordon Brown&#39s ability to take an hour to say nothing.

So thin was the content of last week&#39s Budget that the child trust fund – an initiative that was first announced two years ago – hogged the headlines. Adding insult to injury, the Treasury provided fewer details this time around.

The savings industry, looking for any wafer of encouragement after a three-year equity bear market and a disastrous Isa season, nonetheless jumped on the proposed CTF as a good news story.

“Child trust funds could be the Isas of the future,” said the Pep and Isa Management Association. You could almost smell the desperation in those words, as the trade body struggled to find a glimmer of hope in a the Chancellor&#39s speech.

The first payments to CTFs will go out some time in 2005, although eligibility has been backdated to September last year. At present, the tax treatment of such funds is unclear.

It is widely assumed that any growth in the underlying assets will be exempt from capital gains tax and that there will be no charge on withdrawals once the child reaches the age of 18.

Any additional contributions by family and friends are unlikely to attract tax relief in the same way as contributions to personal pensions do.

The CTFs could prove popular with well-off families as a tax-efficient way to save for university fees, say, but the Chancellor&#39s vision of a trust fund for all children at 18, regardless of their background, is either naive or worse.

Don&#39t forget – the CTF will cost the Exchequer less than £250m each year.

If the savings industry expects to make a killing on CTF fees, it should think again. It is highly probable that qualifying products will have to comply with Sandler rules. A 1 per cent cap on annual management fees equates to between £2.50 and £5 for the majority of funds. Volume will be the name of the game.

As for the polite Budget submissions from investment managers and stockbrokers, Mr Brown was as unyielding as a 7ft bouncer at a teeming nightclub. Neither the repeal of the abolition of the dividend tax credit on equity-based Isas nor the scrapping of stamp duty on shares had their names at the door of No 11.

To be fair, investment groups were given a clear indication by Treasury ministers that the 10 per cent dividend tax credit would be given no reprieve.

Implicit in the response sent to one investment management group was that Westminster would be only too happy for new Isa money to be skewed towards bonds or cash, which are treated more favourably for tax purposes. Fund managers and Opposition parties have vowed to fight on but their cause looks almost as hopeless as that of the Republican Guard in Iraq.

Any reprieve would open a chink in the Treasury&#39s armour and let in complaints from pension funds and charities. Their complaint is not only bigger – £5bn a year – but arguably more deserving.

On the issue of stamp duty, the Chancellor, or his successors, may bend in time. If the 0.5 per cent levy on share purchases begins to erode London&#39s position as the premier financial centre in the European timezone, then he may act. More likely still, enterprising banks will find some way of avoiding the stamp.

A number of products are already exempt – exchange-traded funds, contracts for difference and covered warrants. At the moment, their use is small and confined largely to institutions but that could change, reducing the Exchequer&#39s take from the duty. As the amounts of revenue fall, so it becomes easier to scrap the levy.

The incoming chairman of the London Stock Exchange, former oil executive Chris Gibson-Smith, has said he will continue to argue the case for abolition of stamp duty. The public face of the oil industry during the “people&#39s protest” on high fuel prices, Mr Gibson-Smith clearly knows how to walk and talk in the corridors of power.

Still, there is no need to feel too despondent about the Budget. Indeed, there is reason to be cheerful. After all, Mr Brown did not raise taxes again – no doubt he is saving that for next spring.

Richard Miles is deputy personal finance editor at The Times


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