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My Lords, since 2010 the Government have announced successive increases in the personal allowance totalling £2,965. Taken together, these changes will ensure that more than 2.2 million low-income individuals will be removed from income tax altogether. The Government are also taking other measures that will benefit those who are below the income tax threshold, including the introduction of universal credit, support on childcare and the pupil premium.
My Lords, some 4,300,000 employees already earn too little to benefit from the increase in the personal allowance this year-which I fully support-and this will rise to nearly 5 million workers in 2013-14, about 17% of the labour force, of which two-thirds will be women. How can it be right or fair that a policy trumpeted as helping low-paid workers does nothing for the lowest-paid 5 million? Will the Government look seriously at new ways to end this unfair situation?
My Lords, some of those 5 million were paying income tax until we took them out of income tax, so they have benefited significantly from the changes that we made. The vast bulk of those 5 million are people in work who are not working full time, so one of the key things that we have to try to ensure is that more people are working full time. One of the better statistics on the labour market-which had a good year in many respects last year-is that 32,000 people who were working part time and who wanted to work full time got full-time jobs in the last quarter of last year.
My Lords, the living wage is one component in supporting the poor, and the Government have made it clear that they encourage people to use it. However, for many people who are poor the key thing is to get into work and, having got into work, to work the number of hours that are compatible with the family circumstances in which they find themselves. Particularly via the universal credit, we are taking steps to make sure that work always pays and that people are indeed encouraged to take up the maximum number of hours that are appropriate for them.
My Lords, while congratulating the Government on raising the threshold at which people pay income tax-an ideal which was first put forward by my noble friend Lord Saatchi-perhaps I may just ask whether they have any plans to raise the threshold at which people pay national insurance. Many of the people to whom the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred are still paying national insurance at very high rates, and national insurance is a tax. Would we not be wise to merge national insurance and income tax so that people realise just how much is being taken out of their pay packets?
My Lords, the Government do not have any plans to raise the threshold for national insurance simply because-as noble Lords will be aware-to do so would be extremely expensive. The Government looked at merging national insurance and income tax but have decided that they will not take that consideration any further forward for the course of this Parliament.
My Lords, is it not true that the 5 million people who may have benefited from the changes have in fact had to pay extra VAT since this Government came to power? They are all paying 2.5% extra in VAT. Could we not look for a reduction in the VAT rate, which in turn would then be a great stimulus to the economy?
Is any thought being given to rates of pay for the self-employed? We have heard about the living wage, which is great, and even the basic wage is something, but I meet so many people in caring jobs who are earning less than £2 an hour. How can they live on that? The employer, who is usually employing them directly, has no obligation whatever to pay any more than that. These people are often a bit intimidated but they continue to work for that sort of miserable amount because they really care about the person.
My Lords, as the noble Baroness knows, we have minimum wage legislation. That is the route to ensuring that people are paid a decent minimum wage.
My Lords, will the Minister admit that some of the people to whom I think the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, was referring are classified as self-employed and therefore are not protected under the national minimum wage legislation? Will he write to me with details of the reductions in benefit that will occur for those who earn too little to benefit from the subject matter in the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and who will therefore be losing money twice?
I am always happy to write to the noble Baroness. On the first point she raised, if one is self-employed, the only person you can look to to pay your salary is yourself. If you earn money yourself, you are able to pay yourself well. If you have a contract with somebody as a self-employed person, you should be looking to be paid at least the minimum wage under that contract. However, many self-employed people do consultancy work of various sorts for a fixed price or produce goods and the extent to which they earn an income depends on the extent to which they are able to sell what they produce.
My Lords, the noble Lord's Answer to his noble friend Lord Greaves was pathetically thin against a background where, as he must surely appreciate, unfairness is perpetrated very heavily against the low-paid and the poor, for whom the Government have scant regard, having of course withdrawn significant numbers of benefits from them. When will the Government address the fact that the economy is so lacking in demand that we are in the worst depression for 80 years? Ministers are not matching up to the challenge presented.
My Lords, for most people the most important factor in the economy is whether they have a job. Last year, an additional half a million people got a job and it was a major step forward in their personal circumstances. The labour market has performed well, and it continues to perform well, and all forward indicators in recent surveys suggest that, across all sectors, even more people are likely to be employed in the near future.