I remind the Committee that with this we are taking amendment No. 13, in page 3, line 23, at end insert
'provided that such person has appeared before an official of the Board, who is satisfied as to the identity of such person and of the claimant and that the such person acts genuinely for the claimant.'.
I warmly welcome you to the Chair, Mr. O'Hara.
I made the point this morning that the system of requiring interviews for those taking the fast track in winding up estates—a considerable number of people—has worked well in helping those involved and in helping the Inland Revenue to keep an eye on matters. The Minister's main objection to our amendments, which would require a meeting with the relevant Revenue officer, was that too many people would be involved for it to be practicable. That may be a fair point, but both the working families and children's tax credits are complex. It is not easy to work out what people qualify for or the average number of hours worked. I anticipate that the majority of people will want interviews to help with their forms. In many ways our amendments are more important for that reason than for the avoidance of fraud.
Just before lunch, I received, as other hon. Members may have done, a note from the citizens advice bureaux expressing concern that it would be difficult to advise, for example, a lone parent wanting to move off benefit and into work. It is difficult to forecast income over a year. The tax credit inquiry centres run by the Inland Revenue to advise people on their applications may be inadequate.
Compulsion may be over the top, but if the Bill is to help people, particularly people entering work for the first time, with a sophisticated and complicated matter and prevent a high level of wrong claims—some 75 per cent. of claims for the children's tax credit were found to be wrong—substantial resources will be necessary so that Revenue officers can meet people to go through their circumstances and advise them. The matter is not simple and it is mistaken to think that inquiries through the internet and modern communications in such complicated territory will work satisfactorily. I hope that the Government accept that.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move amendment No. 9, in page 3, line 11, at end insert
'provided that no claim shall be made for any period more than 4 weeks after the date upon which the same is payable.'.
With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 10, in page 3, line 13, leave out 'earlier or'.
No. 11, in page 3, line 19, at end insert
'provided that the prescribed time shall not be more than 4 weeks later than the date upon which the award becomes payable.'
These are partly probing amendments. Amendment No. 9 would limit the backdating of claims to four weeks. There is no apparent limit in the Bill, but there is major scope for errors, fraud, sloppy administration by the Inland Revenue, and waste of time and money in legal costs to recover money. Four weeks may be too short and a longer period may be reasonable, but a time limit is needed to avoid inefficiency, fraud and waste.
Amendment No. 10 is slightly different. As matters stand, the Revenue can treat claims as if they were made earlier than they were actually made. As drafted, the clause gives scope for bad management, and almost encourages the incompetent handling of claims. The amendment is designed to put pressure on those who administer tax credits, and on those who make claims, to do so in good time.
I, too, welcome you to the Committee, Mr. O'Hara. You were in the Chair the first time I served in Standing Committee, some four years ago, and I shall leave you to judge whether I—or the rest of the Committee, for that matter—have progressed at all since then.
I have some misgivings about the amendments, in that there appears to be some misunderstanding about what the powers are intended to allow the board to achieve. People may claim late, after the point at which they became entitled, for perfectly good reasons that have nothing to do with fraud or poor management. Provisions in the social security system variously allow backdating of one month, three months or, in some cases, 12 months. Because of the complexity of the tax credit scheme, an entitlement to claim may not be instantly apparent to the person concerned.
A face-to-face appointment with an adviser, or with a representative of a citizens advice bureau, may be booked some weeks after the event that triggers entitlement. Therefore, for someone to lose money because the process was not completed within four weeks seems unduly restrictive. A delay between making a claim and becoming entitled could occur through no fault of the claimant, and the more complicated the system, the more excusable such a delay should be. Amendment No. 10 would appear to rule out any backdating at all, and in my view that is too restrictive. We should concentrate on helping to ensure that entitled non-recipients get their money—even if they get it a bit late—rather than on taking money off them and penalising them for the complexity of the system. For those reasons, I am disinclined to support the amendments.
I join other members of the Committee in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. O'Hara. It is always a pleasure—in this case, an unexpected one—to serve under you, and I am delighted to make my first appearance in Committee under your chairmanship.
The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) kindly made it clear that the amendments, which deal with the mechanics of making claims, are probing amendments. That is extremely helpful and I am happy to respond accordingly. Amendment No. 9—I appreciate that it is imperfectly drafted because it is a probing amendment—would restrict the time allowed for claims to a maximum of four weeks. I hope that the difference between the Government and the Opposition on this point is one of degree, rather than substance.
We want to stress that the essential point about tax credits is that they are designed to target support at the time that people need it. We want to encourage people to take up their entitlement in good time, so that they can get the support that they need when they need it. Having said that, we need to allow claimants reasonable time to identify that they are entitled to claim, and to claim. As the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) suggested, it is important that the claims process be flexible and recognise the practicalities of people's lives. We must recognise that the times when one first qualifies for a working tax credit or a child tax credit—when one starts a job, or one has a new arrival in the household—are often particularly busy and stressful. We will therefore allow a period of three months in which claims can be made, rather than the four weeks proposed in the amendment.
There is a balance to be struck, and we must offer flexibility and recognise the everyday practicalities of real life. A time limit of three months will enable the rules governing child tax credit claims to be aligned with those governing child benefit claims on the birth of a child. That will allow new parents to claim the child tax credit and child benefit in tandem—a further part of the integration process. However, because the time limit is set out in regulations, we can keep it under review in the light of experience. I hope that that clarifies matters for the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, and that he finds that acceptable.
On amendment No. 10, even with a time limit of three months, there will inevitably be cases where a timely claim proves invalid for one technical reason or another. We do not want the entitlement of claimants who have done their best to comply with the rules to be curtailed through no fault of their own. To avoid such claimants losing out on a technicality, it would be appropriate to treat a claim as if it had been made earlier than it actually was. It is for such circumstances that the phrase ''earlier or'', in subsection (1)(b), is intended to cater. To avoid claimants losing out unfairly, it is right to allow some flexibility in respect of the effective date of claim. The current rules for working families tax credit and disabled person's tax credit allow some room for manoeuvre, and we intend to take a similar approach in the regulations dealing with claims for the new tax credits.
Amendment No. 11 would restrict the power, conferred in clause 4(1)(d), to make regulations. The power allows regulations to provide that an award of tax credits be subject to the condition that requirements for entitlement be satisfied at a prescribed time. If the amendment were accepted, the prescribed time would be within four weeks of the date on which the award becomes payable. I reassure Opposition Members on this point. The Government do not intend that tax credits be awarded to those who do not in any sense meet the qualifying conditions.
We will consider the main clauses dealing with entitlement—clauses 8 to 12—in due course, but the basic principle is that the qualifying conditions for eligibility for tax credits must be met. People cannot qualify for tax credits until they meet those conditions, and they will cease to qualify once they no longer meet them. Clause 4 (1)(d) is not intended to undermine that principle, and it is certainly not intended to allow the Inland Revenue to make payments—not even those limited to four weeks—to people who do not meet the qualifying conditions. It is simply a machinery provision. We are concerned with the mechanics of making claims, not the rules of entitlement.
Paragraphs (b) and (c) of clause 4 (1) allow that, in certain circumstances, claims may be made in advance of a person's becoming entitled to tax credits. We are still considering the circumstances in which that provision may apply. A possible example is the person who knows that they are about to start a new job. In such a circumstance, it may be right that the regulation allow them to submit a claim for a working tax credit shortly before they commence work, so that the Inland Revenue can ensure that the credit is available as soon as they qualify for it. As I have said, we must ensure that we deliver the payment when it can do most good and when it is most obviously needed.
However, it will be necessary to make it clear, as we shall in regulations, that a person who submits an advance claim is entitled to receive working tax credit only if they actually take up the job. The award needs to be made conditional on the requirements for entitlement being met at the date on which the award is set to begin. If the requirements are not met on that date, the reward will never become payable. Paragraph (d) is designed to enable us to impose that conditionality whenever an advance award is made. The requirements for entitlement will need to be met on the date on which the award is due to begin, not four weeks later, or even two weeks later. I hope that with that clarification the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
I thank the Minister for his response and in particular for clarifying, at least for me, that the Government initially intend there to be a three-month time limit. That addresses the main issue that we were raising. What everyone wants to avoid is the development of a lucrative trade for clever lawyers specialising in back-claiming for long periods, long after that support was needed for the people concerned, who have survived notwithstanding.
Making claims in advance arises later in the Bill, especially under clause 7, and will need a fair degree of probing. However, I thank the Minister for his explanation of what ''earlier'' is intended to mean in the context of clause 4(1)(b). On the basis that, essentially, three months' backdating will be the limit, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move amendment No. 12, in page 3, line 20, leave out paragraph (e).
This is also in the main a probing amendment to ask why there is a provision for a claim to be made after a person has died. That is not the same issue as where children have died, which is addressed in clause 51. Some child tax credit claims will continue or potentially increase if one spouse has died. Would it not be better to hasten the process of the claim being made by the surviving spouse or partner? The intent may be to refer to claims that people are not entitled to and qualified for because they are dead, but that are still being paid after death for administrative reasons. There is a principle that money should be spent on the living in need rather than on what amounts to an administrative issue. The real question is: why is that provision included?
Were we to leave out clause 4(1)(e) we would leave out a provision that allows a claim to be made or proceeded with in the name of a person who has died. We want to include that measure. It is important in our view to allow up to three months for a claim to be made. Couples will be required to make joint claims. If a couple did not claim the tax credits to which they were entitled immediately, they would normally be able to make a claim within the following three months and have the award backdated to the point at which they started to qualify.
Clause 3(2) requires that such a claim be made jointly but, clearly, it could not be if in the interim one party of the couple died. If a claim were made while both partners were living, that should not disqualify the other partner from the benefit that would otherwise have accrued. Without the Bill's provision, the surviving partner would find themselves denied tax credits for which they would otherwise be eligible. That would not be just, particularly at the difficult time when there are real needs in a family because of the end of a partnership through the death of a partner. The amendment would deny a partner the opportunity of gaining the benefit that should accrue to them by virtue of their partnership. That is probably not the intention of Opposition Members, so I hope that they will withdraw the amendment.
I thank the Minister for his response. Whether the enforced making of joint claims, particularly in relation to children, accords with human rights law arises later in the Bill. A number of people in the charity sector are keen to ensure that that is the case. On the assumption that it is the case, I understand the reason for the provision. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Before we proceed, I note that there will have been debate on no less than five groups of amendments to the clause. I am therefore minded, unless I sense strong objection, to move the clause stand part without debate. The next amendment gives opportunity for wide-ranging contributions, and I will be tolerant of that.
I beg to move amendment No. 14, in page 3, line 28, leave out paragraph (h).
This is again a probing amendment. Why is the phrase
''treated . . . in such other circumstances as may be prescribed''
included? It appears to be a woolly, catch-all addition, which again widens scope for wasted administrative costs and fraud. As we have said, the rules should be clear and there should be a requirement to stick to them. In essence, why is the paragraph included?
Taking notice of your suggestion, Mr. O'Hara, I have a broader point that addresses clause 4(1)(g), but which could arise under paragraph (h). Where a claim is treated as being made by one member of a couple, there could be conflict between the two members about who makes the claim. What happens when dispute occurs between them? That may be covered in regulations, but can the Minister indicate whether the board will make a decision or ruling in such circumstances? The clause addresses claims that can be made by one member of a couple or another, but they may have conflicting reasons for wanting to be the claimant. Perhaps the Minister could give us a steer as to what the regulation may say.
The reading of clause 4(1)(h) is assisted when read in conjunction with clause 17. As I deal with the amendment, I will briefly outline how the clause is intended to work. In due course I shall come to the point made by the hon. Member for Northavon.
Clause 17 deals with the finalisation of tax credit awards at the end of the tax year. It would require the Inland Revenue to issue notices to people who have been awarded tax credits setting out the information on which the award has been based. Those people will be able either to confirm that the information is correct or to provide up-to-date details of their income and circumstances. The Revenue will use that information to make a final decision as to claimant's entitlement for the year just ended. That is dealt with under clause 17, which we shall discuss more fully in due course.
Where appropriate, the Revenue will use that information to renew people's awards for the year ahead without them having to do anything further. Co-ordinating the process of renewing claims with that of finalising awards will ensure that claimants are not subject to multiple requests for the same information. There will be a single information-gathering exercise each year, which will keep the burden on claimants to a minimum and ensure that claimants with an entitlement to tax credits can see their payments continue without interruption. For some families, significant changes in their income and circumstances from one year to the next may have little or no effect on the tax credits to which they are entitled. We
therefore intend automatically to renew the awards to those families each year, which will be less burdensome for them. That will be similar to the way in which claims to income tax relief such as the children's tax credit continue in many cases without a new claim being required every year.
The Inland Revenue will write to those families setting out the information that it holds about them, and explaining that it intends to renew their award. The claimant will have an opportunity to update the information if it is wrong, and under clause 17 they will be required to do so. If that information is correct, there will be no need for the claimant to contact the Revenue, which will simply renew their award.
Strictly speaking, clause 3 provides that when an award runs out at the end of the tax year, a new claim is needed to trigger entitlement for the following year. It will therefore be possible to renew awards automatically only if a new claim can be deemed to have been made each year, and regulations under clause 4(1)(h) will allow that to happen. The point of deeming the claim is that that allows the award to continue automatically. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs and other hon. Members have pointed out the importance of ensuring that the new tax credit system minimises the burdens on those claiming the credit, and of streamlining the system so that families are able to get the support to which they are entitled with the minimum of hassle.
Claimants will be given the information required as and when it is necessary to inform them following any change in their circumstances. They do not want a barrage of correspondence. It is, however, important that they are aware of their entitlements and responsibilities, and the guidelines will make that clear. We must ensure that the Revenue is able to gather information to ensure that awards of tax credits are correct, and the Bill gives the Revenue all the powers that it needs to do that job. Where it is possible to keep awards running on the correct footing without asking claimants to fill in additional forms or to submit new claims, it must be right to do that. If the award is changed, and this has a direct bearing on the point made by the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), they must be told why.
I turn to the point made by the hon. Member for Northavon. Clause 3 makes it clear that couples will be required to make a joint claim for the tax credit. That means that we require them both to sign the initial application form. For many couples, however, entitlement to tax credits will run on relatively unchanged from year to year. For those couples, it is important to keep red tape to a minimum when it comes to renewing their claim at the beginning of each new tax year. In some cases, we plan to allow a claim to be renewed by one partner on behalf of the couple,
which is allowed for in subsection (1)(g). In those cases, the Inland Revenue would contact both partners to ensure that they were both aware of the basis on which the award had been renewed.
If a dispute arose about circumstances, the Inland Revenue would ultimately have to take a view. If it needed further information, it could seek it, and it would have to tell both couples its view. In those circumstances, it is vital that both couples should have the opportunity to make representations. Similarly both couples would have to know, and be able to determine, why a particular decision or course of action has been arrived at.
One concern about the sort of regime under which each partner is told the details of the whole claim, which would include information about the other partner's circumstances, is that the desire of men and women for privacy drove the move to independent taxation. The Treasury always tells us that tax credits are about making the benefits system more like the tax system, so why is there a distinction about privacy on tax credits that does not apply to income tax?
The distinctions exists for the very reasons that the hon. Gentleman outlined in his initial question. When people put forward a joint claim, they have decided jointly to claim. Once they have decided to do that, it seems right that both should subsequently be kept informed of decisions that arise as result of their joint claim. It is difficult to find a way around that without breaching another principle, namely that parties to a joint claim are entitled jointly to the information on which it is decided. A balance must be struck.
One is aware from one's experience of family law practice—other members of the Committee also have such experience—that trust may, sadly, break down between parties in the course of relationships. In those circumstances, it is important that both parties have available to them the information that informs decisions that affect them both. Without that, the situation is unlikely to improve, and it may be made worse.
Tax credits target support to families according to their circumstances, which helps to match support to changing needs. They provide a way for the tax system to recognise a family's needs and to take account of the resources available to them. To do that, communication with the family, as a unit, is required. In that way, we are better able to match a family's overall contribution to the Exchequer to the family's circumstances. The couple's contribution to the Exchequer and their shared circumstances are evidenced by their joint application. That is not a breach of independent taxation. Everyone continues to have his or her own personal allowance and to set his or her own personal set of rate bands—that does not change—but the couple make a joint application as a family. The circumstances of the family are taken into account, and it must be right that family members should know all that there is to know about the basis on which decisions that jointly affect them are made.
Sadly, some families break up. That leads to a change in circumstances, in that the family is no longer a family. The consequences will include changes to the couple's eligibility for tax credits.
I thank the Minister for his explanation. If there is to be a regime of deemed new claims for the following year to save administration, it would be prudent to require people to confirm to the Revenue that their circumstances have not changed. If the Revenue is to rely purely on a roll-over of information, that will be an incentive to people not to come clean if their circumstances change. That creates a need for care.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move amendment No. 82, in page 3, line 30, after 'made', insert
'or who may be entitled to make'.
The amendment would insert a phrase to include not only people who have made, but may be entitled to make, a claim in the context of the board of the Inland Revenue supplying information relating to the claim or any other information that is relevant to entitlement to tax credits. This is about take-up. We should provide the board with powers and encouragement to supply information to people who might be entitled to make a claim but do not realise it because they do not understand the system. The amendment would give the board powers to supply the sorts of information mentioned in clause 4 both to people who have made a claim and to those who might be entitled to make one.
People who are entitled to make a claim should be able to obtain from the Revenue ready access to calculations, face-to-face help, efficient and helpful helplines, clear forms and explanatory literature. None of those are cheap. What mechanisms does the Minister plan to put in place to help to ensure that not only those who know that they are entitled to make a claim, but those who might be so entitled, receive information and are helped as far as possible? The Minister and I share a desire to maximise take-up, and the amendment would do that by giving the board powers to provide information to a wider spectrum of people.
I have no disagreement with the hon. Member for Northavon on take-up, and I recognise that it needs to be kept under constant review. We will have an opportunity later to reflect further on the issues involved. Several hon. Friends share with me an interest in take-up, and constituency experience demonstrates its importance. I therefore understand why the hon. Gentleman tabled the amendment.
At first sight, the amendment suggests a misreading of clause 4(2), which does not deal with conveying information for the purposes of take-up, but allows the board to disclose to a claimant or claimants any information relating to their award so that they are aware of the basis on which decisions have been made. Of course, the board has powers to disseminate general information about the overall nature of the scheme
and its regulations. It does not require the amendment to enable it to fulfil its responsibilities.
Under subsection (2), the board can disclose to a claimant information relating either to the claim or to an award of tax credit made on the claim. That is important because the Revenue needs to react to the information that it receives, contacting claimants to check details and adjusting awards to ensure that the correct amount of tax credit is paid out. In doing so, it must ensure that claimants understand why any changes are made. For example, if a couple have made a joint claim and one member of the couple notifies the board of a change of circumstances affecting the award, the board will need both to amend the award to reflect the change and to explain to the other member of the couple why the award has been amended, to ensure that both parties agree.
The subsection is designed to deal only with that narrow purpose, but the amendment would widen its scope so that the board could disclose such information to any person who might be entitled to make a claim, as well as to claimants. That would make no sense in the context of the purpose of the clause. I do not denigrate for one moment the importance of take-up, but the amendment, in my respectful submission, is not the right way to deal with it. Where people have yet to make a claim, there is no claim or award about which to disclose information, so the proposed extension of powers is redundant.
I assure the hon. Member for Northavon and all members of the Committee that the Inland Revenue will make information about the new tax credits widely available so that people who are entitled to claim are able to do so. Work is already under way to ensure that people are helped to submit accurate claims and that clear, accurate and user-friendly information is provided. The Bill does not need to be amended to achieve that. There will be a dedicated tax credits helpline and publicity. Households entitled to income support or income-based jobseeker's allowance will be able to access the new credits at the same time as they claim their social security benefits.
People will need to provide information only to a single agency—jobcentre plus. That should assist in take-up. People moving into work from benefits will be able to ask staff at jobcentre plus for assistance in completing their claim for new tax credits, and information on tax credits will be provided by jobcentre plus when a person moves into work. That addresses a concern expressed by citizens advice bureaux and other organisations that have written to us. They want to ensure that people are fully aware of their entitlements and, where necessary, that they receive assistance in completing their claims. Jobcentre plus will then pass on their application to the Revenue, so people need to deal with only one Department and will not be pushed from pillar to post, as our constituents undoubtedly sometimes feel they are. Similarly, people will be able, if that is what they need, to obtain face-to-face help from Inland Revenue officers.
Before the Financial Secretary concludes his remarks, will he say a little about the circumstances in which a person would have a face-to-
face interview? If not, I should be happy to receive a letter from him about it, if he wanted to deal with it in that way.
Data protection is taken into account in the wording, but the Bill must make it clear, partly for the reasons outlined in our previous debate, that when people make joint applications, there will be communication as to outcomes and reasoning jointly with the parties to that application. Everybody should be aware of that from the outset.
I am grateful to the Minister for putting on record some of the strategies that the Revenue will adopt to try to enhance take-up. I am particularly concerned about take-up of the working tax credit, as to some extent we are dealing with a client group that has had no experience of claiming means-tested benefits: the childless or the low paid may never have claimed means-tested benefits. If they have gone through the Jobcentre Plus process, some of the mechanisms that the Minister has described will reach them. I am aware, however, that a proportion of previously unemployed people and people who change jobs never come into contact with a jobcentre. I hope that the Minister can reassure us at some point, not immediately, that other take-up mechanisms for that group, which has less contact with officialdom, are also being put in place.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.