New Clause 2 — Independent taxation and family benefits

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 5:15 pm on 8 November 2010.

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Photo of Chris Evans Chris Evans Labour, Islwyn 5:15, 8 November 2010

The conflicting press reports on this policy that we have seen over the last couple of months mean that the Government must explain their plans to withdraw child benefit. Like many commentators and Members of this House, I am deeply concerned by proposals that will see a lone parent or single-earner couple earning just above the higher rate threshold lose their child benefit while a dual-earner couple both earning just under the threshold would continue to receive it.

The reform could also distort incentives for those with incomes around the higher tax threshold. As I understand it, those earning above the 40% tax bracket will no longer receive child benefit for their children-that bracket is currently about £44,000. The system is complicated by the fact that that rule applies to single wage earners. If both parents earned, say, £42,000-or £84,000 between them-their family would continue to receive child benefit.

The Treasury has a duty tonight to explain how its plans to withdraw child benefit from families with a higher rate taxpayer could work in practice. Some tax experts have said that ending child benefit payments to couples with one higher rate taxpayer earning more than £43,875 a year is unenforceable. The method of recovery will require taxpayers to submit annual paperwork, new HMRC tax codes and a change in the law to cover parents who separate or live apart.

Higher rate taxpayers will need to tick an honesty box on their tax return, stating whether they or their partner have received child benefit in the past year and it is said that they will be fined if the information provided is incorrect. According to press reports, taxpayers might face fines if they fail to disclose whether their household received child benefit. On 29 October 2010, the Financial Times stated:

"From 2013, higher-rate taxpayers in the self-assessment system will be required to tick a box declaring that their household claims child benefit. They will then pay a higher rate of tax corresponding to the level of benefit, which is worth £1,700 to a couple with two children.

Those on the pay-as-you-earn tax system will be asked in a letter to disclose if their household claims the benefit-a declaration that will put them into a different tax code. The benefit would then be deducted in the next tax year, in an 'end-year adjustment' similar to that in the tax credit system."

We have seen the problems that that has caused over the past couple of years. The article went on:

"Legislation to implement the changes will include laws setting out what will happen to the benefit if parents split up, remarry or share custody."

To me, it is not clear how a system based on an end-year adjustment would cope with in-year changes in circumstances such as the birth of a child, a partner moving out or a new partner moving in. It is also unclear what a household will constitute for these purposes. As I have said, parents who earn £42,000 each would keep the benefit-worth £1,752 a year for a couple with two children-whereas a family relying on one income of £44,000 would lose out. Someone with children on a £42,000 salary would be better off than someone on a £45,000 salary, as they could keep all their child benefit.

At present, there are no definitions of "household" in either tax or child benefit law. Defining a couple is not easy, particularly if a couple split up. He might be a higher rate taxpayer while she is the carer for the children-or, with equality fresh in the mind, she could be a higher rate taxpayer while he is the carer for the children. When they part, she could claim child benefit as she has little other income, but if the rules treat them as still part of the same household-perhaps they have split up but are still living together-she could lose her child benefit, or even have to pay back whatever she has received.

We already knew that the plans were unfair, but what has been increasingly clear is that they simply have not been thought through. We do not even know if the provisions on independent taxation will be repealed. If mothers are under no legal obligation to tell fathers that they are in receipt of child benefit, how can this tax on families work? The policy will simply create more work; there will have to be a lot of checking up. People will have to put a lot of effort in to get it and to make sure they are getting the right amount.

We are now seeing significant confusion about what the policy means in practice. Quite simply, it is creating more questions than answers. In the June emergency Budget, it was announced that the income tax personal allowance will rise by £1,000 to £7,475 from April 2011. However, the 20% tax band is being squeezed so as not to benefit higher rate taxpayers: whereas the 40% tax band currently starts at £43,875, with no tax on the first £6,475 and 20% on the next £37,400, that will change from April next year. At that point, the 40% tax bracket will start at £42,375, with a personal tax allowance of £7,475 and a reduced £34,900 tax band of 20%. Does that mean that people could lose child benefit even if they earn less than £44,000 from April next year? If that is the case, an additional 800,000 wage earners will be brought into the higher rate tax band from next April, which makes a mockery of the Government's claims to be on the side of hard-working families. If tax allowances remain as planned, those earning more than £42,375 will be denied child benefit. The Government must answer these questions ahead of April 2011.