Covenants and Maintenance

Ways and Means – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 15th March 1988.

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I now turn to an important area of personal taxation which is ripe for reform and simplification: the taxation of payments made under deeds of covenant and maintenance arrangements.
Covenants to charity will be wholly unaffected by the changes I am about to propose.
Other covenants, and maintenance arrangements, are essentially ways of transferring income from one individual to another, usually from one member of a family to another, whether it is a parent or grandparent covenanting to a child, or a husband paying maintenance to an ex-wife.
Most of the financial transfers that take place within families are rightly and properly outside the scope of the tax system altogether. I propose, as far as is practicable, to take covenants and maintenance out as well. This will greatly simplify an unnecessarily complex part of the tax system.
First, covenants. Charitable covenants apart, I propose to take all new covenants made by individuals on or after today out of the tax system altogether. In other words, people receiving payments under covenants will not be liable to tax on them, and those making the payments will not be able to claim tax relief on them. The tax treatment of existing covenants will continue unchanged.
The largest single group of people affected by this change will be students, together with their parents, many of whom nowadays choose to make their contribution to the student maintenance grant by covenant. This has arisen as an unintended by-product of the reduction in 1970 of the legal age of majority from 21 to 18.
As I have already indicated, those who have already made such covenants will continue to benefit from tax relief. But for new students the parental contribution to the maintenance grant will be assessed on a new and more generous scale, to reflect the withdrawal of tax relief on new covenants. My right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Education and Science and for Scotland will be publishing the details tomorrow.
One desirable side effect of this reform is that future students will no longer be deterred from taking vacation jobs because their covenant income has already absorbed their personal allowance.
Student covenants apart, there will be no compensation for the loss of tax advantage arising from these proposals. But once rates of income tax are set at reasonable levels, this is precisely the sort of tax shelter it is right to dispense with.
Next, maintenance. Here, too, we tax the recipient, only to give tax relief to the payer. The present rules can be complex and confusing for people going through separation and divorce. The tax system ought to intrude as little as possible, though it is reasonable that there should be some recognition of the fact that an ex-husband is continuing to support his ex-wife, or indeed vice versa.
Accordingly, I propose that, for new maintenance arrangements, recipients will not be liable to any tax whatever on maintenance payments. Relief to the payer will be restricted to payments to a separated or divorced spouse, up to a limit equal to the difference between the married and single allowances.
For existing maintenance arrangements, the present rules will continue to apply in 1988–89, except that a separated or divorced spouse will be exempt from tax on receipts up to the difference between the married and single allowances. Full relief will continue for all those who are making payments under existing court orders or agreements. The same protection will also apply to those who have already applied for court orders, provided that they are made by 30 June. From April 1989 there will be special transitional rules to continue protection for existing arrangements.
While the transitional provisions are inevitably somewhat complex, the new system will be very much simpler than the old, for all concerned. It will reduce the tax relief that can be obtained by the better-off payers of large amounts of maintenance, but for most couples the ex-husband will continue to enjoy full tax relief while the ex-wife will not be taxed.
The reform of the tax treatment of maintenance that I am proposing today will also remove one of the lesser known tax penalties on marriage. At present, an unmarried couple can make large payments either between themselves or to their young children, and get tax relief that would not have been available had they been married. My proposed reform will put an end to that.
As I have said, this reform and simplification of the taxation of covenants and maintenance in no way affects covenants to charity. Indeed, I have a proposal to help charities further.
The payroll giving scheme has now been running for nearly a year. I am glad that so many employers have already set up schemes, and I hope as many employees as possible will take advantage of them. In order to give further encouragement to charitable giving, and to assist the growth of the payroll giving scheme, I propose to double the annual limit on tax-allowable donations under the scheme to £240, or £20 a month.