New Clause 2 — Independent taxation and family benefits
Business of the House
Christopher Leslie (Nottingham East, Labour)
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
New clause 2 would force the Treasury to come clean on its plans to withdraw child benefit from families with higher-rate taxpayers from January 2013, which will take £2.5 billion a year from those families from 2014-15 onwards.
Ever since the Chancellor announced the policy of means-testing child benefit a month ago at the Conservative party conference, the policy has gradually unravelled. The Treasury has struggled to spell out exactly how it will implement the idea-especially as there has rightly been separate and independent taxation of individuals since 1990, when it was recognised that there were major problems with taxing women as though their income were effectively part of their husbands' property. Those days may seem long ago now-it is 20 years since Lady Thatcher left Downing street, and 20 years since Britain joined the exchange rate mechanism-but the Government have adopted a déjà-vu approach to policy making which looks set to reopen that history.
We have grown used to the principle of independent taxation over the past two decades, and many now take it for granted, but we ought to pause and reflect on why it is so important. The Government's proposed changes to child benefit imply a requirement for mothers to disclose their receipt of child benefit to their partners, and a requirement for partners or husbands to be taxed on the income of their spouses. That represents a potential breach of the principle of separate and individual taxation which, as the new clause says, was introduced in the Finance Act 1988, and which applied from 1990 onwards.
The 1988 Act introduced a radical change in the system of taxing husbands and wives: independent taxation. Until then, husbands and wives were viewed as one person for tax purposes, and the Revenue, of course, saw only the husband. The spouse's income and gains were added together, and the couple were treated as if the total income were that of the husband. He was responsible for completing the annual tax return and for paying all tax due, including that on his wife's income and gains. However, with the introduction of independent taxation, spouses were treated as separate individuals for tax purposes and for the first time married women enjoyed privacy in, and responsibility for, their own tax affairs. In addition, some married couples were paying more tax because they were married than they would have if they had been cohabiting. That drew much criticism at the time.
It is instructive to look back at the speeches advocating the virtues of independent taxation, especially by the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who has since been ennobled as Lord Lamont. In the 1988 Budget debate he called this reform
"a radical proposal for independent taxation...It will give married women the independence and privacy in tax matters that they have been denied for so long...Under the new system, a married woman will be treated as a taxpayer in her own right with a full personal allowance to set against her income, and her own basic rate band. She will have responsibility for her own tax matters and will be able to enjoy complete privacy if she wishes...It is an important principle that there should be independence and privacy in taxation matters."-[ Hansard, 16 March 1988; Vol. 129, c. 1193-94.]
Clearly the Prime Minister should heed the words of his former boss in these matters. I gather that Lord Lamont is still occasionally called upon to give advice to his former special adviser. Perhaps their diaries clashed on the day of the fateful decision on child benefit, but there is still time for the Prime Minister to make that call to Lord Lamont, and to see the error of his ways and rein in his doctrinaire Chancellor on this issue, especially as the Prime Minister promised before the general election to protect child benefit. Winding the clock back 20 years and reversing decades of progress in equality in taxation and in the responsibilities of individuals for their own income risks creating a set of major perversities in the tax system that could have significant ramifications. That is why the Opposition are opposed to the changes in child benefit.
Let us consider the administrative shambles that would be created if the Government were to get their way. The Wall Street Journal has reported insiders in the civil service talking of "panic stations" at the Treasury with growing acceptance that the policy is virtually "unenforceable" and "likely to be ditched". If a mother is under no legal obligation to tell the father that she is in receipt of child benefit-unless we do see the end of independent taxation, of course-how can this tax on families work? Currently, the father's tax status is irrelevant to the mother's entitlement to child benefit. Can the Minister tell the House how this clawback arrangement will work, especially if parents are divorced or divorcing or separated or separating, or if the mother simply declines to report the tax status of the father of her children to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs officials.
Can the Minister also tell us whether the rumour that the Treasury is considering a new database to match mothers with their partners is true, and would that not make the Child Support Agency seem a bit like a pocket calculator by comparison? Will the Minister spell out the mechanisms the Treasury envisages in respect of this policy, and the enforcement mechanisms it is planning to put in place to take these sums off families earning approximately £45,000 or above? Will the Treasury be relying on a self-certification approach by the partner not in receipt of child benefit? Will the Minister take this opportunity to state for the record that the Government will continue with the important principle that mothers should be the primary recipient of child benefit payments?
The poor design of this policy could easily undermine revenue plans too. Clawing back the cost of the benefit from higher rate taxpayers through the tax system would be "intrusive" and involve lots of form filling. That is the opinion of one of the Chancellor's own advisers on tax policy, John Whiting, who the Chancellor recently appointed as the tax director of the Office of Tax Simplification. Mr Whiting suggests that the policy would be an administrative burden that would merely "make a dent" in the estimated £2.5 billion of savings the Treasury claims the change would bring. We are not alone in questioning the logic of this ill-thought-through proposal, therefore. We know from the reporting on this policy that the Chancellor rode roughshod over his Cabinet colleagues when it was announced at the Conservative party conference. Clearly many in the Cabinet were oblivious to those plans when the Chancellor sprung them on them, but it is now clear that he also rode roughshod over those in the civil service. They were insufficiently included in the plans for this policy and had he consulted them properly, they would have pointed out the chaos that it would create.
These are serious matters affecting millions of families across the UK, not only millionaires such as the Chancellor's family or the Prime Minister's family, but those on relatively modest incomes. They include police officers, college tutors, health service workers, senior teachers, pharmacists, paramedics, train drivers and air traffic controllers. Many are caught up in this category, the arbitrary design of which will create great unfairness with punitively high marginal rates of taxation.