The news that the UK has entered recession brings into sharp focus the difficult decisions on taxation which face government.

Finance ministers are having to balance putting up taxes to shore up the public finances against the impact of higher taxes on economic activity by households and businesses. Those decisions have a material impact on retailers’ sales and outgoings and their ability to keep down prices for customers.

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Tax announcements have been coming thick and fast. UK ministers recently trimmed employee national insurance contributions. The Chancellor is considering restoring tax-free shopping and allegedly mulling reductions in personal tax. Hopefully, his Budget this week will reform the apprenticeship levy which in Scotland, following the axing of the flexible workforce development fund, is little more than a tax on jobs.

Meanwhile, Scottish Finance Secretary Shona Robison has unveiled a raft of tax changes. Scottish income tax will increase for higher earners, which could impinge on retailers’ ability to attract specialist or senior talent from other parts of the UK. Council tax is being frozen and local authorities can now double it on second homes.

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Firms occupying medium-sized and larger premises face a bumper rise in their business rates bills. In a shock move in the Scottish Budget it was revealed larger grocery stores may become liable for a business rates surtax, to plug a projected hole in devolved finances. This could increase retailers’ rates bills by a fifth. Three months on from the Budget and details about this surtax are scant.

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Meanwhile, plans for a tourism visitor levy are being progressed and ministers are investigating a levy on visiting cruise ships.

Scottish ministers have even created a Tax Advisory Group to assist them. Its to-do list includes a refresh of the administration’s taxation strategy and a “national conversation on tax”. Business will hope for a little less conversation and a little more action, ideally to finally deliver on the commitment to restore business rates parity with England for larger premises.

A forward plan and coherence over any future devolution of local taxes to councils would not go amiss either. This would be a welcome contrast to the piecemeal approach pursed of late which is seeing councils handed control over workplace parking levies and tourism taxes. A kaleidoscope of differing local taxes may help plug gaps in councils’ finances. However, it can add complexity and cost to the operations of businesses and make budgeting trickier. It can also impinge on customers’ disposable incomes. It is also far from clear the needs of the economy would be factored into decisions, one reason why business ought to be invited to be a part of any such talks.

What is missing in all this talk of tax is a commensurate debate about public spending and controlling government’s running costs. The need for that is given added weight by the consideration being given to a surtax on grocers, which may simply be the thin end of the wedge.

Others have pointed to the need for action. Scotland’s Auditor General has said “the delivery of public services in their current form are not affordable”. Holyrood’s Finance Committee has called for greater consideration of affordability of spending commitments.

Perhaps what is missing is an advisory group on public spending control. Ideally, it might recommend a strategy rather than what appears from the outside to be muddling along as normal. Business should be up for this debate, as firms have everyday experience of cutting their cloth and balancing income and expenditures.

What might such a group recommend?

The Scottish Spending Review two years ago hinted that a rationalisation of the 129 public bodies and disposal of public sector premises surplus to requirements was a sensible place to start.

The Auditor General has highlighted how the number of civil servants has doubled since devolution. Options could include a smaller headcount, recruitment freeze in certain areas, and rescinding the no compulsory redundancies policy.

Fewer regulatory initiatives would allow government to focus on mission-critical tasks.

Getting on top of spending may be politically unpalatable but would help militate against the need for tax rises which stymie recovery. It would give fiscal headroom to make the investments necessary to grow Scotland’s economy.

David Lonsdale is director of the Scottish Retail Consortium