With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 10, page 4, line 34, at end add
‘for recipients of child benefit’.
Amendment 75, page 4, line 35, at end add—
‘(2) Schedule 1 will not come into effect until a study has been carried out into ways of mitigating the impact of the Schedule on families with only one earner, compared with families with two earners, and placed in the Library of the House of Commons.’.
Clause stand part.
Amendment 11, in schedule 1, page 131, line 7, leave out ‘high’ and insert ‘higher’.
Amendment 12, page 131, line 8, leave out ‘high’ and insert ‘higher’.
Amendment 25, page 131, line 10, leave out ‘£50,000’ and insert ‘£60,000’.
Amendment 26, page 131, line 11, leave out ‘one or both of conditions A and B are’ and insert ‘condition A is’.
Amendment 13, page 131, line 12, leave out ‘high’ and insert ‘higher’.
Amendment 27, page 131, leave out lines 19 to 24.
Amendment 28, page 131, line 24, at end insert—
‘(5) A person (P) is not liable to a high income child benefit charge if the total adjusted net income for the year of that person and any partner does not exceed £100,000’.
Amendment 77, page 131, line 24, at end insert—
‘(5) A person (P) is not liable to a high income child benefit charge if the total adjusted net income for the year of that person and any partner does not exceed £100,000, subject to any child or children in respect of whom child benefit is claimed being resident in the United Kingdom notwithstanding the European Communities Act 1972.’.
Amendment 14, page 131, line 26, leave out ‘high’ and insert ‘higher’.
Amendment 29, page 131, line 29. leave out from ‘met’ to end of line 30.
Amendment 30, page 131, line 31, leave out ‘and B’.
Amendment 31, page 131, line 32, leave out from ‘is’ to end of line 13 on page 132 and insert ‘100%’.
Amendment 32, page 132, line 14, leave out from beginning to end of line 2 on page 133.
Amendment 33, page 133, leave out lines 16 to 26.
Amendment 34, page 133, line 29, leave out ‘another’ and insert ‘a higher’.
Amendment 35, page 133, line 30, leave out from ‘681B(1)(a)’ to end of line 33.
Amendment 36, page 133, leave out lines 36 to 39.
Amendment 37, page 134, leave out lines 3 and 4.
Amendment 38, page 134, leave out lines 10 to 12.
Amendment 15, page 134, line 28, leave out ‘high’ and insert ‘higher’.
Amendment 39, page 134, leave out lines 34 to 37.
Amendment 16, page 135, line 9, leave out ‘high’ and insert ‘higher’.
Amendment 40, page 135, leave out lines 13 to 23.
Amendment 41, page 135, leave out lines 37 to 40.
Amendment 17, page 135, line 38, leave out ‘high’ and insert ‘higher’.
Amendment 18, page 136, line 9, leave out ‘high’ and insert ‘higher’.
Amendment 42, page 136, leave out lines 13 to 23.
Amendment 19, page 136, line 35, leave out ‘high’ and insert ‘higher’.
Amendment 20, page 136, line 38, leave out ‘high’ and insert ‘higher’.
Amendment 21, page 136, line 45, leave out ‘high’ and insert ‘higher’.
Amendment 22, page 137, line 13, leave out ‘high’ and insert ‘higher’.
Amendment 23, page 137, line 22, leave out ‘high’ and insert ‘higher’.
Amendment 24, page 137, line 26, leave out ‘high’ and insert ‘higher’.
Schedule 1 stand part.
I rise to speak to amendment 9 and the other amendments in the group, standing in my name and that of my hon. Friend Mr Leigh. We face a rather unsatisfactory state of affairs, because the guillotine will fall at 6 o’clock, which means that we have precisely 52 minutes to discuss the whole of clause 8 and schedule 1, which deal with child benefit and will affect 1.2 million families up and down the country, potentially yielding £1.5 billion for the Exchequer. How can one do justice to the complexity of what the Government are proposing in this short space of time?
Perhaps it is appropriate to start by reminding the House of what our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said on
“The House of Commons should have more control over its own timetable, so there’s time for proper scrutiny and debate.”
He said that
“there should be much less whipping during the committee stages of a Bill,” because
“that’s when you really need proper, impartial, effective scrutiny—not partisan point-scoring and posturing.”
It is against that background that I enter into this debate with confidence.
The Government’s proposals will, by their own admission, result in more complexity and less simplicity, which is completely at odds with their avowed intent on tax policy. The administrative costs alone will exceed £100 million, and 650 extra staff will have to be taken on to administer what is effectively the removal of child benefit from 1.2 million families.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman entirely. I recall when child benefit was first introduced in the 1970s, and I have to point out to those on the Government Front Bench that, throughout the Thatcher and Major Governments, no attempt was made to get rid of that universal benefit. We should stick with universality in this case.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Even during the International Monetary Fund crisis in the mid-1970s, things never got so tough that the Government of the day felt the need to interfere with child benefit. It was a reflection of the fact that families with children had higher costs than those without.
The proposals will create all sorts of perverse incentives, and the people who want to try to avoid the measures will have a field day. This has been well covered by the Treasury Select Committee’s recent report, as well as by the Chartered Institute of Taxation and other expert bodies. The fundamental issue is the proposals’ lack of fairness, as between one family and another.
The Centre for Social Justice says that the Government’s policy
“could threaten a new wave of family instability and breakdown”,
and that it
“flies in the face of their commitment to ‘shared parenting’.”
Does my hon. Friend find it incongruous that that policy is being pursued at the same time as the Government are failing to honour their commitment to introduce marriage or family tax breaks in this or future Budgets?
My hon. Friend makes a really good point, which was also covered in the recent Adjournment debate on this subject, which received what I can describe only as a rather woolly response from the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend Mr Gauke. He said that, basically, something was going to happen in this Parliament but the Government were not quite sure what or when. That was not good enough. We need an opportunity to look at the whole issue of transferrable tax allowances, and allowances in the tax and benefit system that recognise the family and marriage.
Returning to the issue of fairness, two people on £50,000 a year with children will not have to pay the high income child benefit charge, whereas a family with children with one person earning over £60,000 will have to pay it.
On the issue of fairness, would my hon. Friend have any truck with the idea of limiting child benefit to, say, the first two or three children, regardless of the parents’ income, which would retain the universal element?
There is a whole host of ideas going round. There was a time when no child benefit or allowance was payable for the first child, on the basis that parents should take responsibility for that child and bear the costs themselves, but, if they had any more, they could expect the state to help them. My hon. Friend’s point illustrates further the fact that this measure should have been the subject of proper consultation and draft clauses, so that we could have had a debate on it in the wider context of universal benefits. Instead, it was announced at the party conference and implemented in this way.
Is not one of the benefits of a universal system of child benefit the fact that everyone in society who has children feels part of that society and that welfare state? The proposal will breed resentment not only between the haves and the have-nots but between the haves and those whose family situation fits the new system.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point against these provisions. On the issue he raises, it would be worth reminding ourselves that the Christian organisation CARE has produced a useful document, “The Taxation of Families 2010/11”, which considers whether current tax burdens are fair. It looks at the relative position of households up and down the income distribution scale in the United Kingdom. For a family on £51,543 a year, who represent 150% of the reference wage, a single person with no children is better off than 94% of the population, a one-earner couple with no children are better off than 81% and a lone parent with two children are better off than 80%. Yet a one-earner couple with two children are better off than only 63% of the population and a two-earner couple with two children are better off only than 69%. That shows that targeting families with children for this tax exacerbates the unfairness rather than ameliorating it—running directly against the principles of fairness, equity and justice.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his amendment and on his arguments in support of it. Does he agree that because of the failure to consult, we do not know the answer to the question of how this policy will play out between women and men? Currently, child benefit is paid to the mother as the maintainer of children, but she may now come under pressure from her partner to forgo that child benefit so that his tax bill is not affected. That means an injustice between women and men; and, more importantly, it affects the amount of money spent on children.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right: that is another of the behavioural consequences, the full implications of which are not yet apparent.
One has to ask why we are going down this road. The justification for it—the avowed policy objective—is this:
“In order to address the fiscal deficit, the Government believes that it is right to ask those on higher incomes to contribute more.”
The Government’s proposal, however, asks those on higher incomes with families and children to contribute more, while those on higher incomes without children are not asked to contribute more. I do not see how that can be fair.
In case anyone thinks this is an issue discussed only among academics, let me say that it certainly goes very close to the heart of many of my constituents. I shall quote briefly from a letter that I received since the Budget from a constituent living in Christchurch. He starts off:
“I am writing to express my utter disgust and outrage at your party’s stance on child allowance announced in the budget last week.”
He explains that he and his wife choose to work hard, believing that they have a responsibility
“to look after ourselves and to help to generate wealth for the wider community” by contributing their utmost to industry. He says that he has an income of £60,000 and that his wife earns £12,000, providing a combined income of £72,000. As he puts it:
“under your disgusting new Tax rules we will lose the child benefit for our two children. However, in a household with two working parents earning £40,000 each, combined income of significantly more…that family gets to keep their benefit.”
Before I give way to my hon. Friend, let me read the last paragraph:
“I ask for your commitment to continue your fight against this latest most disgusting taxation scheme on child allowance and rally your fellow back benchers against the current disgraceful and unethical budget.”
That voter in Christchurch—probably a Tory voter—sums up one of the problems. Why are the Government advancing a proposal that is laser-guided to attack the core Conservative vote—families that earn between £50,000 and £100,000? What sort of politics is that?
If I am given the opportunity, and if I do not succeed in persuading the Government of the merits of amendment 28 in particular, I shall feel obliged to vote against both the clause and the schedule. I think that by then we shall have done everything possible to try to persuade the Government to change their mind., and if they do not want to change their mind, I shall feel duty bound to express my view in the Lobby accordingly.
The Treasury figures show that there are 840,000 households with children in which at least one person earns over £60,000 a year. I have proposed that everyone earning over £60,000 a year should pay a standard tax increment of about £1,000, which would generate about £2 billion. The 840,000 people in households with children would be only £300 better off, or a bit more, depending on how many children they had. There are approximately another 1.1 million people with taxable incomes of over £60,000 who do not have children. If everyone earning over £60,000 paid an extra £1,000, we would not have to bother with this very partial project of penalising families with children.
I am not suggesting that as a definite solution. I should much prefer, for example, to reduce our contribution to the European Union. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] However, it would at least be fairer and more consistent with the Government’s avowed intent that those on higher incomes should contribute more to deficit reduction.
Amendment 9 proposes that the
“High-income child benefit charge” in clause 8 should be described as a higher-income charge. I do not think it accurate to describe someone earning over £50,000 a year as having a high income—although such people may have a higher relative income, as is apparent from the CARE figures that I gave earlier. Funnily enough, HMRC’s own Budget document refers to
“Child Benefit: Income Tax Charge for Those on Higher Incomes”.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will accept that the charge in clause 8 should also be described as a “higher” rather than a “high” income charge. Under the heading “Policy objective”, the document states:
“In order to address the fiscal deficit the Government believes that it is right to ask those on higher incomes to contribute more.”
Obviously mine is a small amendment in comparison with the more substantial ones. If the Government are unwilling even to concede that point, it shows that the degree of stubbornness in the Treasury is even greater than many of us thought.
Is the high-income child benefit charge classified as a tax? I tabled a question to that effect that was due to be answered on Monday, and have just received a written answer from my hon. Friend the Minister—it should have been given then, but I understand the reason for the delay—which states:
“Classification is a matter for the independent Office for National Statistics.”
Effectively, we are talking about a new tax on people with particular incomes, rather than about removing child benefit from them. I have every belief that, in due course, the Office for National Statistics will classify this as a tax.
The Government have been keen to emphasise the need to cut expenditure, and not so keen to introduce tax increases. That may be why they have been rather coy about admitting that this will probably be a tax increase for definition purposes rather than a cut in benefit. My amendment 28, on which I hope we shall have an opportunity to vote, would ensure that there was no unfairness in the treatment of families with identical incomes. The single-parent trap and the couple penalty would be avoided, and the objective that taxes must be fair and simple would be met. This tax is neither fair nor simple.
We were discussing the granny tax earlier, and I would describe the measure now under discussion as a tax targeted at mummies and daddies in the squeezed, hard-working middle. People on equivalent incomes without parental responsibilities have nothing extra to pay and some households on joint incomes with children will also pay nothing, whereas single parents earning over £60,000 will pay a minimum of £1,300 a year more than before, and some of them will pay a lot more than that. This cannot be right. I hope the Minister will say the Government have had second thoughts and are minded to withdraw their proposal.
I will be as brief as possible, as I am aware that there is not much time left.
There are two key issues: the principle of what child benefit is supposed to be for, and the practical implications of the Government’s proposals. I want to emphasise the word “child” because we have lost sight of the fact that we are talking about children. The Child Benefit Bill introduced in May 1975 by the then Labour Government, with all-party support, was intended to offer a universal, non-means-tested, cash-free tax benefit for the good of all children. At its simplest, it was designed to ensure that mothers had money paid regularly into their purses, giving them at least some form of stable income, and that the money would be used for their families.
Like Mr Chope, a constituent of mine, Mrs Morris, contacted me. Her family’s income falls just above the threshold. They have four children to feed and clothe, and a mortgage, bills and fuel costs to pay, and they are going to lose £3,000 as a result of this measure. How can any reasonable person say that is fair?
My hon. Friend makes a very interesting point, and I shall come on to address the effect of this measure on many families on that borderline.
Many Members will have come from, or know, families for whom child benefit—or the family allowance, as it was called in days gone by—was a lifeline. No doubt some on the Government Benches will characterise our position as Labour trying to give more cash to high earners.
But that argument simply does not wash from a Government and a Minister who have continued to support a tax cut to millionaires while millions of ordinary people, including Mrs Morris and many people in my constituency, are feeling the pinch. Article 27 of the UN convention on the rights of the child, which the UK has signed, outlines an obligation to assist parents in meeting the material needs of their children.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister pointed at the Opposition Benches and said Labour MPs would be voting to give themselves a benefit, yet just after the Budget the Leader of the Opposition said to the Cabinet that they were getting rid of the 50p top rate of income tax to help themselves. Can we not all accept that we on the Government Benches are getting rid of the 50p rate to try to improve the economy, and Labour Members are trying to protect universal benefits and the welfare state as they have understood it?
I was hoping that the hon. Gentleman was going to respond to my point about children, but that is obviously not the case.
It is expected that the revised proposal will affect about 1.2 million families. Some 790,000 couples and 30,000 lone parents will lose the full amount of their child benefit. A further 330,000 couples and 20,000 lone parents will lose a proportion of their child benefit. The average loss will be about £1,300.
When these proposals were first announced, I tabled a parliamentary question asking for an estimate—not an exact figure—of the number of people earning between £50,000 and £60,000 who are in receipt of child benefit in each parliamentary constituency. I received the answer two days ago. It was short and simple: this information is “not available.” Surely that is exactly the sort of information that should be available in advance of such proposals being made to help MPs judge the impact of Government policies on their constituencies.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Government do not even know that simple fact, they are even less likely to know how many people have incomes that vary and fluctuate between £50,000 and £60,000, and that that is going to introduce yet further complexity for those families in the course of the year?
Again, my hon. Friend makes an extremely important point, which I hope to discuss in relation to how the clawback will operate. Will the Minister commit to provide that breakdown by parliamentary constituency and make it available, as a matter of urgency, in the House of Commons Library?
It has appeared at various times during the debate that the announcement of the changes was designed more to appeal to the Tory party conference than as a plan to be actually implemented. Suggestions have been made that the Chancellor perhaps did not even believe that he would have to implement it. I do not know whether that is true, but this appears to be yet another part of what the Leader of the Opposition described as an “omnishambles”. In Scotland, we would say that the Government’s plan is a bit of a boorach, which translates as a mess or a muddle.
This boorach is, once again, entirely of the Government’s own making. On the clawback, those with incomes above £50,000 will have their child benefit withdrawn at 1% for each £100 of income from January 2013. There is to be no child benefit entitlement for families where any earner has an income of more than £60,000. Some of the changes being proposed might be small steps forward, but they do not change the fundamental unfairness.
To return to the point made by my hon. Friend Steve McCabe about his constituent Mrs Morris, a couple with children where one earner is on £60,000 and another is on £10,000 will lose all their benefit, whereas a dual-earner couple on £50,000 each will potentially keep it all.
As Mr Chope said, the implementation of this approach will be complex. New computer systems and new staffing will be required. The Government have estimated costs of between £8 million and £13 million for the computer systems’ development and running costs alone, plus £100 million for staff resources. Interestingly, they have estimated that £5 million will be spent on customer information. I do not know exactly what customer information they intend to provide, but I hope that it will be explained in plain English. Over the years I have grown to mistrust Bills that have one-line clauses and multi-page schedules.
Schedule 1 is certainly not set out in customer-friendly wording. An MP sitting in an advice surgery trying to look through it to check out whether or not their constituents have an entitlement would have to go through seven pages. After several lines defining person “P”, person “Q” and whether or not “Q” is the partner of “P” throughout the week, they would find new section 681C, which provides an equation to work out whether someone would be entitled or not. That is not very customer friendly. There is a serious point as to whether the clawback mechanism is fair and workable.
Will the hon. Lady explain to the taxpayers of Sherwood in Nottinghamshire who are working more than 50 hours a week and probably earning only £20,000 as a family, why they should pay tax to support someone earning in excess of £60,000?
That is an important point and I will address it straight away. We have to decide whether or not we believe that child benefit is a benefit that should be paid for the good of children. What we are seeing in this measure is an unfair system, which is not providing for children; it is introducing a new form of taxation, as has rightly been pointed out, and people will be facing huge problems.
I was going to deal with my next point later, but I shall say now that individuals with an income in excess of £50,000 are going to be required to inform Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs as to whether they or their partner are in receipt of child benefit. It is not clear what would happen where someone either does not know or claims not to know whether their partner is receiving child benefit. In the absence of a legal obligation on partners to share information on benefit receipt, it is unclear what the tax authorities are going to do. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us.
My hon. Friend is making an extremely important and interesting point. Is she saying that this measure threatens the independent taxation of women?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. As I have outlined, the problems could be similar if both partners had an income in excess of £50,000. The charge would then apply to the partner with the higher income, and to avoid it being applied twice the partners would presumably have to share information with each other on their incomes and co-ordinate responses in their respective self-assessment forms or HMRC would have to implement some mechanism to link together individuals’ tax records to decide which partner was liable for the charge.
As was mentioned earlier, there would potentially be further difficulties if somebody who did not expect to come within the income bracket for the child benefit charge discovered at the end of the tax year that their income exceeded the limit. It can be quite common for self-employed people to find on preparing their accounts that their income was greater than expected. HMRC would then apply the charge retrospectively, but in order to do so it would need full details of the person’s cohabitation history for the year end. I gently tell the Minister that the potential for disputes is fairly obvious. The living together as husband and wife test is an established feature of the social security system, but we all know from the people who come to our constituency surgeries the problems that emerge. Its extension to the tax system raises a huge range of other issues. Whether a partnership exists will have to be determined on an ongoing basis throughout the year, rather than just at a single point of time, and individuals might not be aware of the need to report changes in their personal circumstances to the tax authorities.
We have already heard that there is a danger that the plan will encourage people to deny the status of their relationship to avoid the child benefit change, which will effectively introduce a couple penalty. That could be a disincentive for a lone parent considering moving in with a higher income person and could create an incentive for couples to split up when one partner has a high income. For people with several children, partnering decisions could have significant financial implications.
Has my hon. Friend, unlike the Government, considered the fact that in families where one parent chooses to stay at home and raise their family, that parent will now be forced into seeking employment? In this market, that will not be feasible.
My hon. Friend makes a significant point and that is part of the fairness test, which I do not think has been met. The Centre for Social Justice has been very critical of this aspect of the Government’s plans, which it argues could
“threaten a new wave of family instability and breakdown…which flies in the face of their commitment to ‘shared parenting’.”
I am not entirely unsympathetic to a great many of the hon. Lady’s points, but what she is describing has a great deal to do with the complexity of the tax system as a whole. That tax system doubled in complexity under her Government.
With respect to the hon. Gentleman—he said he had some sympathy with my points, so I do not want to be entirely negative in response—we will not solve the complexities of the taxation system by adding even more complexities that are unfair to families and will affect children negatively.
Let me put one final issue on the record. People who are not in work and who receive child benefit for a child under 12 receive national insurance credits to enable them to build up entitlement to state pensions. The
Government’s original announcement led to concerns about the impact on future pension entitlements of women, in particular, if families stopped claiming child benefit. The Government said from the outset that no one would miss out on national insurance credits as a result of the child benefit changes, but it is unclear how they proposed to ensure that. Under the latest proposals, people who are entitled to child benefit and families affected by this charge may elect not to receive it, but a claim for child benefit will still need to be made in order to receive national insurance credits. Information published by HMRC confirms that.
I am extremely conscious of the time so I will not say anything more, other than that I think that everybody should listen carefully to the debate and to the points that have been made. When Members consider how to vote, they should consider both the principles involved of support for families with children as well as the layers of complexity and confusion there will be if the proposal goes through.
I had not intended to speak in this debate so I shall keep my remarks brief. I do not have at my fingertips the comprehensive figures that my hon. Friend Mr Chope gave; he made some cogent and powerful points. From my point of view it is always a very risky endeavour when a political idea is fleshed out to become a fiscal policy of any Government. The remarks made just after the general election at the Conservative party conference were really an aspiration that is now being turned into a policy. I believe that this policy is a fiscal time bomb that will blow up in the faces of this Government. I also believe that what we are doing—[ Interruption. ]
Andrew Gwynne made a very important point about crossing the Rubicon of undermining the universality of child benefit. The same point was made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. Some time ago, the Child Poverty Action Group said this about child benefit:
“A benefit which goes to virtually all children is of course expensive. But it can also be argued that it is more likely that such a benefit will have ‘substantial and wide-ranging support’, and may be difficult to abolish; provision for the poorest children only, whilst cheaper, is often more precarious.”
Specifically, intergenerational redistribution and the value placed on children are universal values that we are seeking to undermine.
What would my hon. Friend say, though, about the example of two wealthy Americans who have four children born in this country who receive child benefit tax-free from the UK Treasury, but have to pay tax on it to the internal revenue service?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point and I accept her argument, but we need to look at this proposal within the context of the wider proposals in the Budget. We are rightly reducing the top rate of tax and corporation tax, so for those in the upper 20% income range we have introduced fiscal policies through which we seek to support entrepreneurship and business, supporting those higher-rate earners. We are also proud to be taking a substantial number of poorly paid working people out of tax. My concern is that we are not extending those same tax breaks to the squeezed middle and it is a very important message that we are sending. I accept that the Chancellor has tackled the specific issue of the cliff-edge effect, but he has not done enough to secure my vote in terms of the discrepancy regarding the one taxpayer in a two-person household.
A rather larger category than that mentioned by my hon. Friend Harriett Baldwin is the very minimum of £62 million a year—and I suspect much more—that is paid to children who are resident elsewhere in the European Union where costs are much cheaper, many of whom have never even visited the UK.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely apposite point. If we really are all in this together, it beggars belief for my constituents and his that we are talking about looking after the interests of people on low or median incomes but are remitting abroad, within the European Union, anything between £40 million and £75 million in various benefits for people and families who do not even live in this country.
It would not be fair not to mention that the Chancellor has sought to ameliorate the concerns that various Members across the House have expressed about this policy and I give him due credit for that. Unfortunately, however, I think this policy will go badly wrong and will have a specific impact on aspirational, ambitious families and will breach the basic tenet of universality in child benefit. For that reason, I cannot and will not vote for it.
There are four problems with the proposal that the Government are putting to the House this evening. First, it is unfair. Mr Chope made it clear that it is unfair as between family patterns of income, unfair as between men and women, and unfair as between those who have children and those who do not.
Secondly, the proposal is illogical. Because it is unfair as between those who have children and those who do not, it would be more sensible, in order to have a fairer approach, to address the fact that personal allowances are paid to people on very high incomes. If the Minister is concerned about people on very high incomes, he would do better to shave the personal allowances of people on such incomes, but far from doing that, what he did was cut income tax for those people. That is illogical.
Thirdly, the proposal adds to complexity. I hope the Minister can explain to the House how he will maintain the independence of women’s taxation, given the information sharing requirements of the new system.
The point about women’s tax and independence is extremely important. Does my hon. Friend agree, following also the point made by Mr Chope, that the likely behavioural impact of the changes, which could include women being encouraged or coming under pressure not to work, is that they would contribute to higher female unemployment, which we know is at its highest since 1987?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I was coming to that point. I want the Minister to address specifically the point about independent taxation of women. He was shaking his head earlier. I hope he will explain from the Dispatch Box in two minutes’ time how he can maintain it. My hon. Friend is right. As I said, there is an issue, thirdly, of complexity being added to the system.
Finally, the proposal is completely uneconomic. It will be bad for work incentives. People will think, “No, I’m not going to do extra hours.” There will be arguments in families about who does what. It will also mean that some people will refuse promotions. This is no way to make the British economy more efficient.
We are somewhat short of time. There are two reasons why we may not be able to do the measure justice. First, the Opposition tabled an urgent question, which took an hour out of our debate—[Interruption.] They may groan, but they did. We had agreed that there would be no statements today to allow us to have a proper amount of time. Secondly, the Opposition included in the debate both the clause and the schedule. They need only have put the clause in for us to have the debate. As a consequence, the schedule will not be scrutinised in the Public Bill Committee.
Clause 8 introduces a tax charge on a child benefit recipient or their partner if their income is above £50,000. The changes that we are introducing in the Bill ensure a balance between reducing the cost to the Exchequer of child benefit and ensuring that those on low incomes are not affected. Opposition Members like to forget that the reason why we are making very difficult decisions is the state of the public finances that we inherited. We must ensure that the measures that we take are both fair and reasonable. It is only right and proper that we ask those with the broadest shoulders to bear the greatest burden. That is why the measure and others announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor at the Budget—
The Minister said that the charge would apply if “their” income was above £50,000. That would be correct if he accepted the amendment of my hon. Friend Mr Chope. But actually it applies if his or her income is above £50,000. But on “their” income, they can carry on up to £100,000 as long as the amount is split equally between them.
The focus on doing this through the tax system and on having one taxpayer above a certain threshold enables us to avoid the position whereby we would have to put every child benefit claimant through the tax credit system and apply a means-tested system to 8 million different cases, creating a substantially greater administrative struggle for both Government and many individuals. That is why we have taken that particular point.
Unfortunately, we are introducing more and more complexity. For example, the new charge must be paid by the higher earner, who might not be claiming child benefit when the lower earner is, even though the lower earner is not legally obliged to inform the higher earner whether he or she is claiming child benefit. This is an absurdity, making our tax system even more complex.
I recognise that not everyone wants to address the matter and that there are those who do not want to change the position whereby people earning £20,000 or £25,000 a year are paying taxes to fund child benefit for substantially wealthier families, and I realise that arguments are made to defend that. But if we are to do something about it, we have a choice. Do we do this through a tax credit system, which means putting everybody through that system, and doing it on a household basis, or do we try to find an alternative way of doing it that reduces the administrative demands? I do not deny that there is complexity in this method, but relatively, we believe that this is the simpler way of doing it.
It is misleading to insinuate that poorer families are subsidising better-off families. If there is a need to address income inequalities, why should people who have children pay the price of that rather than people who do and do not have children according to their means?
The only benefit received by those in the top 10% of earners, which includes all of us, is child benefit, if they have children. That is the only benefit that we receive, so it is the only one that can be reduced or withdrawn. That is why we have this approach. It is perfectly fair that steps are taken to remove child benefit from those households that contain people in the top 10%.
Has the Minister heard of progressive taxation? That would be a concrete way of clawing back money from those who can afford it. The danger of the Government’s approach arises when everyone has a service and everyone stands up to defend it. As soon as one starts to chip away at it, it is undermined, and the poorest lose out most.
We do have progressive taxation, and under this Government the top 1% of earners pay 27.7% of all income tax at a higher rate than at any point in our history. While considering the universality of child benefit, what is being done was not our first choice, but given the position that we were left in it was necessary. When a Government need to raise revenue it makes sense to turn to a measure with a broad base where a significant number of recipients are not reliant on the additional payments they receive, and child benefit is just that sort of payment. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said that we would seek to withdraw child benefit from higher rate taxpayers. We always said that we would consider how to implement the measure, and we have been clear that a complicated new means test is not a sensible way forward. Instead, we should look to the existing systems and processes to ensure that we can achieve this goal.
I am still confused about why we cannot assess all the incomes in a household in the same way as when we quite correctly limit the benefits a household can claim to £26,000. What is the difference?
For those who are in the tax credit system, we currently make an assessment of household income. If a person is not in the tax credit system, we do not make an assessment of household income and so have information only on individual income. Were we to try to do this on the basis of household income—I understand the argument made by hon. Members that that is the right thing to do—we would have to accept that that would involve putting everybody claiming child benefit into the tax credit system—all 8 million cases—which would be a substantial administrative burden on the state and on those individuals.
A number of points have been made in the course of the debate. Let me see whether I can pick up on those, rather than addressing every amendment. My hon. Friend Mr Chope argued that it should apply only to a household income of £100,000 or more. Not only would that result in the administrative challenge I have set out, but it would cost an additional £900 million, which would be unaffordable as well as impractical.
Cathy Jamieson asked about providing information at constituency level. We can release the information by region, but the survey data are simply not good enough at constituency level. I can say that 63,000 people in Scotland will gain as a result of the changes we announced in the Budget, compared with the previously announced policy. She asked what the £5 million for customer information will pay for. It includes provision for an online calculator and guidance for customers, and a letter that will go out in the autumn to all individuals above the higher rate threshold. We will also be updating existing guidance and testing it with customers, and there will be marketing spend to highlight the policy.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch asked why the legislation refers to “high” rather than “higher”. He is right that “higher” is mentioned in some of the other documentation, but the point, which parliamentary counsel considered, is that “higher” begs the question, “higher than what?”, so we used “high”.
I have only one minute remaining and want to address the concerns raised during the debate, so I will not give way.
The question of classification and whether or not this was a tax was raised. As my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch said, that will depend on the Office for
National Statistics assessment. Let me deal with the question the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun asked. Independent taxation will still apply, each partner will still have their own personal allowance and tax rate bands, and the amount of child benefit, even if it is received by the taxpayer’s partner, will not increase the amount of income liable to tax. Where there are two high earners in a household and they do not want to tell each other their incomes, there will be a mechanism whereby they can find out whether they have a higher or lower income but without the full details.
Mr Hoyle, my time is up. As I have said, the Government have had to make difficult decisions. In order to continue to provide child benefit, we must do so in a sustainable manner. At the current cost that is not the case. We have increased the threshold to £50,000 and put in a taper. This all mitigates some of the concerns that hon. Members have raised, but the budget deficit left by the previous Administration is the challenge we must overcome if we are to avoid a far worse predicament.
I thank everybody who has participated in this spirited debate. Having heard the Minister’s explanation in relation to amendment 9, I will seek to withdraw it. Hopefully, we can have a vote on amendment 28, which deals with the injustice whereby a single-earner family earning £60,000 will lose their child benefit while a family with two people earning £50,000 will retain it. This issue will come back to haunt the Government, I fear. That sometimes happens when policies are drawn up on the back of a fag packet. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Proceedings interrupted (Programme Order,
The Chair put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (
Amendment proposed: 75, in clause 8, page 4, line 35, at end add—
‘(2) Schedule 1 will not come into effect until a study has been carried out into ways of mitigating the impact of the Schedule on families with only one earner, compared with families with two earners, and placed in the Library of the House of Commons.’. —(Cathy Jamieson.)