Good morning, colleagues. Our first witnesses this morning are from the Chartered Institute of Payroll Professionals and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. We have until 12.30 pm for this session. Will the witnesses introduce themselves?
Samantha Mann: I will focus on the child care vouchers in exchange for salary sacrifice because that is the scheme with which most of our members will be familiar. I was involved when the scheme was first introduced about 10 years ago. It is fair to say that a high percentage of our members currently operate those schemes, and they are comfortable with them. They are comfortable with salary sacrifice. Employer-supported child care and child care vouchers widened the opportunities for employers to consider salary sacrifice, whereas previously they would not have done so.
Looking ahead to tax-free child care, there will be quite a transition for our members to get to grips with because there is a significant difference; they are going from any form of employer involvement to no employer involvement. The one thing that has been clear in the consultation documents so far is that there is no mandatory role for the employer in tax-free child care, for there is no mandatory role for any employer in child care at the moment.
HMRC tells us that 5% of employers operate employer-supported child care schemes at present, and they have a slight financial gain from that due to the national insurance disregard. We are getting positive results in the surveys that we have run with our members so far, with employers thinking that they might want to continue being involved in helping their employees to process the payments from their pay into child care accounts. I think that as we go along and as more information comes out about it, we are going to see fewer rather than more employers actually wanting to be involved in supporting their employees in this way.
Charles Cotton: I would like to support a lot of what Samantha has said. While around one in 20 employers currently offers child care vouchers, among our members it is about six in 10. A lot of our organisations are providing them as part of a flexible working package to help parents get into work, stay in work and return to work. One of the things that appeals to them about the new arrangement is that it could encourage more people with caring responsibilities into the labour market, potentially from disadvantaged groups. What many of our employers that already supply employer-supported child care will probably do as we start to transition is keep with the voucher arrangements for existing employees until they are no longer eligible, and then move over to the new scheme.
A lot depends on how many winners and losers there are in an organisation. It may be that everybody will be better off under tax-free child care so it is important that we have information to communicate to our employees, so we can let them know that there is a change and to say, “In these circumstances you may be better off going to the new regime”, or, “Under these circumstances you may be better off sticking with child care vouchers.”
Thank you. Just to follow up on a couple of points that you raised, are you aware of any members of your organisations that are already looking at winding up the voucher schemes in anticipation that their employees may prefer to use a new scheme? Have you had a sense of that from your members yet?
Charles Cotton: Talking to my members, we have not come across any organisations that have talked about that, but we have done a consultation and some organisations think they potentially might. We have found that some organisations are going out to their employees and saying, “The system is changing. You may be better off under the child care voucher arrangement. We offer child care vouchers—join now while you can.” I am sure that, once things start to become clearer and we move towards the autumn 2015 deadline, many organisations will be in a better position to see whether they carry on or close those schemes. Even if they decide to go with tax-free child care, many of them may still offer the ability to take money from the payroll into the accounts.
What about the converse of that? Have you seen members actually taking steps to join the scheme in anticipation of its being better for some of their staff—and therefore they need to join before the deadline?
Samantha Mann: We have no statistical evidence that they are going one way or the other, but anecdotally, when we have talked with members over the summer at our national forums about this process, one of the calls was for more clear guidance on the introduction. When is “autumn 2015”? What does that mean? Also, what will the transition mean for their employees?
We know that employees with children under five will be covered from the go-live date of child care payments and tax-free child care; what we do not know is when autumn 2015 will kick in. We know that there is going to be a staggered approach in year one for children up to 12, but we do not know how that will stagger. Potentially, that gives us a situation where, from autumn 2015, a certain group of employees might be caught in a position where they can apply for neither employer-supported child care nor tax-free child care, because they are caught in the staggered approach.
There are still those question marks over the go-live date—what that will mean—so our members are asking us for information. We, in turn, are asking Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for information. Those issues are quite key, because they will help our employers to decide whether they want to go all out and really promote employer-supported child care for employees who will benefit from staying in such schemes from autumn 2015, or—the converse—whether to scale back and just go, “We’ll just let it die a natural death.”
It appears that tax-free child care is to replace employer-supported child care. There is a big question mark as to whether there will ever be an end date to the tax reliefs and national insurance disregards that exist. It would be useful to have a heads-up if that is going to be the case, because that could make a big difference. If employers big up their employer-supported child care membership in the next year, and then, two Budgets down the line, a Chancellor says, “We’re doing away with the tax relief and the NI disregards,” those employers will have undertaken a lot of work for no benefit, at a time when they have enough on, and when there is no mandatory requirement—this is quite simply to support their employees, to help them to work.
Just to follow up on a point you made, Samantha, about employer involvement and engagement in the scheme, there is the benefit you mentioned in terms of NI disregards. But, more generally, the new proposed tax-free scheme—I hesitate to call it that, because it is not that—will ultimately do away with that employer engagement. What do you feel the implications will be for not only employers, but staff in organisations where the link is removed?
Samantha Mann: We know from experience that, where employees struggle with work-related benefits—essentially, the child care payments will be a work-related benefit, because they will be only for working parents—and they are struggling to gain information and an understanding of the system, they will turn to their employer, either through their payroll department or their human resources department, depending on how the employer is set up. So—sorry, I have forgotten your question.
Samantha Mann: Absolutely—sorry. Removing that link means that all the employee has is an online account and whatever online guidance they can access to help them through the myriad complexities that are child care benefits. It has to be said at this point that our specialism is not the benefits available to working parents. However, I believe from hearing anecdotally from experts that it is a minefield—an extremely complex area.
We know that if an employee puts in an eligibility claim, and it is accepted, that will automatically stop the universal credit or working tax credit that they might have—we know that because the legislation and regulations tell us that. But an employee might not know that, and they might not fully understand it. If we move from employer-supported child care to child care payments, employees potentially lose the valuable support that they will be getting from Charles’s members.
Charles Cotton: I suppose that, looking at our members, there is a link, but only one in 20 organisations provides child care vouchers at the moment, so you could argue that there is not really a link anyway—it is only among certain organisations where there is.
As we move to the new arrangements, I think that organisations will still try to engage with individuals around the area of flexible working. Tax-free child care is only one part of what the Government are trying to do to encourage a flexible work force. Similarly, child care vouchers are only part of what employers are doing to offer flexibility in their reward packages to employees, to encourage more people to go into work and to return to work.
Charles Cotton: That is an option, but we have not surveyed our members. Perhaps in a few years’ time when it is brought in, one of the questions that will be asked of our members is: are you contributing to the child care accounts of your employees? But we have not got any idea whether they are looking at doing that.
Samantha Mann: We have surveyed our members on whether they will consider continuing to support their employees with tax-free child care by way of making a deduction from their net pay and paying that over into an account. At the moment, statistically, quite a high percentage of our members who currently offer employer-supported child care are saying yes, they will do that, although that obviously requires processes in itself. We are still waiting for more information to come out, so I suspect that those statistics will change.
For an employer actively to provide an additional top-up to a child care account, there would be taxable implications to that, which would create a cost implication for the employer where there is not one now. Although we have not actually asked our members whether they would consider doing that, based on anecdotal evidence I would suspect not. At the moment, they are putting together rewards packages that take advantage of existing tax benefits or NI disregards. There will not be any with child care payments, so I think that that is unlikely.
If the Treasury looked at this and found a way in which it could be done that was either tax-neutral or advantageous, that would, presumably, tip the balance.
Charles Cotton: Among our members, I think about one in 20 have onsite crèches and nurseries. I cannot see that there would be, from these proposals, either an incentive to expand that provision or an incentive to reduce it. It is only among the larger organisations that typically have people close together.
Charles Cotton: Yes. I suppose that there are different parts of the pie. The funding could be there, but it depends on the organisation. If it cannot expand the crèche, there are limitations on the number of people it can offer these places to. Just because you have increased the funding does not necessarily mean that the supply can respond. It may respond over time, but not necessarily in the medium term.
In our other oral and written evidence, one of the criticisms of the tax-free scheme, as opposed to the employer-supported child care vouchers, has been that it will remove from the equation the employer’s relationship with employees. Can I just probe a bit further on whether you think that is an issue?
I am thinking not just in terms of a mum returning to work, where an employer would sit down and have a conversation with her, but in terms of a dad, for example, whose employer might not even know that he was having a child or his circumstances were changing, but they would become aware of that because he was getting child care vouchers. That would start a different kind of conversation. Do you think that there will be a loss of involvement among employers, or not, because of this change?
Samantha Mann: I just wanted to get a point in. You have talked about parents returning to work. One of the things that I noticed when going through the Bill and the regulations was that with parents who are on some form of parental leave, which will undoubtedly include shared parental leave from next year, the child who they are on parental leave for is not included; they do not appear to be included anywhere within the Bill or the regulations. We found that to be quite harsh. I cannot believe that—
Samantha Mann: Well, I reread it twice and I have asked the question. I have to say that law is not my specialism, but as I have read the Bill that seems to be the case, and I would like to think that that would be amended as the Bill goes through.
As for whether or not there will be a loss, this is Charles’s specialism rather than a payroll professional’s specialism. From a payroll perspective, only where an employee is struggling, either with accessing tax-free child care or with accessing working tax credits through universal credit because there is a clash, or if there is a clash with other child care benefits that they might be getting in myriad other ways—if that causes them an issue that will impact on the employer, because they will come to the employer for financial support in the form of an advance.
Conversely, if the employee gets into trouble claiming tax-free child care when they should not be claiming it—they are not eligible—and therefore there is a repayment to be made, potentially that could impact on the employer, because the repayment might be collected through the tax code. So, from a payroll perspective, those would be the issues, but it would be more of an administrative burden from that perspective.
Charles Cotton: I agree with Samantha. Many of our larger organisations have reward packages that are quite sophisticated, so there are lots of touch points with employees around benefit selection and payroll, so they can get streams of information about the situation of their employees. Other organisations are creating flexible reward packages, so individuals can select those benefits that best suit their needs. Among smaller organisations, you would not necessarily have those formal touch points, but if you are in a small organisation you probably are quite aware of the individual circumstances of your work force.
Building on that, the main beneficiaries, other than the families themselves, of Government subsidies of child care, of which this Bill is another extension, are businesses. Do you think businesses play a sufficient role in that context, and do you think that this Bill will take some of that role away? I suppose that is the point I am making. In my view, we do not hear enough from business about the benefits to their businesses of having available, affordable, good-quality child care, or about businesses really stepping up to take part in that debate and helping to meet that in some way.
Charles Cotton: Larger organisations have a longer time frame. They recognise that the world of work and the work force are changing. The average employee is ageing. Many employees have child care commitments—many of them have elder care commitments—so it is important to have flexible working arrangements. It is not only about what the Government can do to encourage them; it is also about what employees themselves can do.
I would imagine that micro and small organisations that just focus on the day-to-day, month-to-month or year-to-year might not see the immediate link between what they are trying to do and the importance of having low-cost, quality and convenient child care arrangements in their area.
Can I go back to the issue that you raised about how parental leave works? Do you think that sufficient provision is being made for women on both unpaid and paid maternity leave in the arrangements as you see them working?
Samantha Mann: It certainly does not appear to be now, based on my reading of how the Bill is written. It seems specifically to exclude any child care that would be required for a child who is not the cause of the need for parental leave. For example, a worker having her first child will not have existing employer-supported child care, so she will go off on maternity leave. The law allows for her to have 10 keeping-in-touch days, and increasingly those are being used. That is working very well, and of course with shared parental leave there will be more keeping-in-touch days for both parents.
That mother on maternity leave will want to take advantage of good child care and of any child care top-up schemes that exist. As things are written, I do not believe that she would be able to, or that the father would in a shared parental leave situation. As I said, with my limited understanding of how the law is written, I would say it does not provide for them at all.
Samantha Mann: Yes. Obviously, a parent who already has a family started might already be part of an employer-supported child care scheme or might be receiving child care vouchers through a salary sacrifice scheme. As things stand, they will continue to receive that through the period of their leave, because it is a non-cash benefit. Again, there will be quite a disparity between what currently exists in employment law under salary sacrifice arrangements and what will exist under the Bill as written. It does not appear to support that new parent situation.
Can I ask, then, about the relationship between universal credit and tax-free child care? How realistic do you think it is for parents to switch between tax credits—and, in future, universal credit—on the one hand and a tax-free child care scheme on the other, according to what is in their best interests? From your technical point of view on this, are there any issues that we should be alert to?
Samantha Mann: I would imagine there are a myriad, but from a technical perspective, as I said earlier, this is not my expertise. Again, from how I read the regulations as written, if a successful eligibility submission is made, from that point universal credits or the child care element of working tax credits would stop. That is my understanding. That is very black and white, and I am concerned that given the Government’s increased digital agenda, it has the potential to be too black and white, and therefore to cause short-term problems for employees who are trying to fund child care so they can go back to work. However, any more than that I could not say.
Charles Cotton: I have not got much to add, but from what Samantha’s research and mine showed, one of the concerns was around people whose earnings fluctuate quite significantly. You have got a three-month assessment period, so they might have to keep going through that assessment regime, which again could cause strains and issues, with people always having to refer to their HR departments to say, “If you give me extra money, it could have an effect on my amount of universal credit, and perhaps tax-free child care as well.”
Samantha Mann: It certainly has that potential. I had not considered it from that angle until just now, but yes, it does. The one thing I have picked up through discussions with people who know the subject very well is that it is an extremely complex area. Specialists earn a lot of money understanding the area.
For the average Joe Bloggs employer—we are not talking about a large employer with substantial resources in a position to support its employees through every step of the parental process, but about the smaller employers that the Government are encouraging to grow—taking on just the first employee gives a massive wodge of legislation to comply with. Technically, the employer does not have to deal with the provision at all; if they do not have to deal with it, a small employer might choose not to. That would be a shame, but their priorities would be very different from those of a large employer that is well-staffed and able to delegate the management of those priorities.
I think that a smaller employer would struggle and probably just say, “No, I’m not interested.” They struggle to pay and understand the fact that they have to deal with the many sorts of paid parental leave that exist, so I think that the idea that they would willingly go into supporting their worker in this way, over and above a friendly chat, would be difficult for them.
I want to go back to some of the more practical issues. Do you have any particular thoughts on the current proposal for NS&I to be the sole provider of the new scheme? I understand that that will remove a lot of your members’ involvement in terms of the new scheme, but what are your thoughts on having a single provider rather than the multiple providers of the current system?
Samantha Mann: Our earlier survey suggested that our members believe that security would be important for employees. In the early stages they were not really clear on whether it was going to be an account or vouchers, but when we surveyed on account provision, the security of funds was important. Although we did not set out to have a preference on who the account provider is, the fact that NS&I is a Government-backed agency adds an element of security for the individual employee. That is important for the employer because the employee can place the money into that account, secure in the knowledge—touch wood—that it will still be there when they need to pay for their child care.
What was more important to our members was the fact that there was a single provider, rather than multiple providers. One challenge that employers, particularly payroll providers, are currently facing is the myriad of different pension accounts that they could have to deal with when it comes to automatic enrolment obligations. If they were going to support employees by making deductions from net pay and paying into accounts, the last thing that payroll provider members—not employer members—wanted to be thinking about was having to deal with several different account providers. They wanted to deal with only one, so the response we got on that was overwhelming.
Charles Cotton: I would mirror that. Most of our members wanted either one or a few. There were concerns that a large number of account providers would mean that there were issues around ensuring that the right data was being transferred in the correct format, or around what would happen if people decided to move from one account provider to another. Also, the employee could say, “I could go to account provider B, C or D—which one should I go for?”, which would mean our members were moving into the realms of advice. Although we are agnostic about who provides the accounts, most of our members would prefer there to be as few providers as possible.
You suggested in some of your comments that there is a bit of uncertainty out there because there is no clear information about exactly how the new scheme may work, although there is a vague timetable for autumn 2015. We have taken evidence from NS&I that one of the issues with undertaking the development at this stage is that there is a legal dispute about who should be providing the service. The dispute is causing a delay to the development, and possibly the dissemination, of information about how the scheme will work. What are your members’ thoughts and potential anxieties on that? What do they feel about their inability to plan for the future?
Samantha Mann: At the moment, based on what little they know, our members are open to providing support under the new scheme. Anecdotally, the one thing our members are calling for is clear guidance to help them plan. The larger employers are well resourced and well staffed with professionals who are in a position to know their craft and to talk employees through the possible advantages and disadvantages of different schemes without being seen to give financial advice, which is obviously not within their remit. They are simply calling for clear guidance that clearly sets out for the individual employee and their adviser exactly what the benefits are of each scheme.
The child care payments, for example, cover children only up to the age of 12, or disabled children up to the age of 16, whereas employer-supported child care has different age regimes. There are quite a lot of complexities. You then add to that mix the complex benefits that currently exist. If an employee goes down the child care payments route, they potentially lose out on working tax credit support or universal credit support. Equally, there is an impact if they are part of employer-supported child care.
All of those complexities currently exist, so it is about making it clear what guidance does exist. Regardless of how child care payments will be administered, either through one account or multiple accounts, the basics will not change. The basic top-ups and the eligibility will not change; only the account that it goes into could potentially change. It is about making sure that that guidance is out there. The guidance must be clearly written, recognising the different audiences that exist. Employees will need to read it, and I note that there is already a small amount of guidance out there for employees. Employers need to read it, too. We were talking outside earlier about how making a comparison between employers is a little like making a comparison between a blackbird’s egg and an ostrich’s egg. They both have a shell, but apart from that there is a huge difference. It is the same employers; there is no set piece of guidance.
Then, of course, the media need to know about it, and professional technical writers need to know about it so that they can advise employers. Employers have a lot to deal with when it comes to payroll and HR issues. At the moment, they have got it pretty full-on with other issues, and so thinking about employer-supported child care and about child care payments is less of a priority for them. When we put a survey under them and ask them to complete that survey, they will respond to it—bless them—but it is not a priority for them to be thinking about just yet.
It is about providing that information so that technical writers can give it to employers and build it into training courses. An individual who is going on a course now to understand expenses and benefits in kind, which will include employer-supported child care, needs to have that incorporated into the course so that they understand the implications of making those decisions in future. What account the money goes into in the end is a minor thing when it comes to administration, as long as there are not multiple ones.
I have a question. You may not know the answer to this, because it is a slightly technical question. Do you have any feel, under the present scheme, for where the main benefits are coming in terms of pay ranges and pay percentiles—at what level is employer-supported child care providing the maximum benefit? Do you have a view, looking at the Bill, as to whether the new scheme will provide the maximum benefit at a higher pay level, a lower pay level or about the same level as the previous one?
Charles Cotton: We have not carried out any research among our members to see which earning groups have taken up the child care vouchers more and how that might change under tax-free child care.
Turning to the second question, we have not carried out any research. However, looking at the purpose of the new scheme, the idea is to reach out to a wider range of individuals than would necessarily have been able to participate in the previous scheme. Obviously, we are very supportive of groups such as the self-employed being able to access this benefit. Again, 95% of organisations provide child care vouchers anyway, so we hope that this will potentially lead to all employees of all organisations being supported if they have children. I do not know whether you have any research, Samantha.
Samantha Mann: No, we have not carried out specific research on this question. As employer-supported child care stands, an employee cannot sacrifice their pay below the national minimum wage that prevails for their age group, so any employee who is currently in receipt of the national minimum wage is excluded from employer-supported child care. The advantage of child care payments is that the deduction would be coming from net pay—take-home pay—and therefore the group of employees who are currently excluded from employer-supported child care would be included.
You ask which group we perceive will take advantage of this. Although I stress that we have not carried out a survey on this, I suspect that it is more likely to be the higher paid, quite simply because of cash-flow issues. They are more likely to have the cash flow to enable them to put money into an account, to process the top-up and then to pay the child care. As I say, that is just a finger-in-the-air feel; it is not based on any statistical evidence.
Are there any more questions? I thank the witnesses on behalf of the Committee for sharing their expertise with us. I am sure that the Committee will benefit from it during further deliberations.