Abolition of Gift Aid donations threshold

Small Charitable Donations and Childcare Payments Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 18th October 2016.

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“(1) The Chancellor of the Exchequer must carry out an assessment of the impact on charities and Community Amateur Sports Clubs of amending the Gift Aid Small Donations Scheme so as to remove the 10% Gift Aid donations threshold that must be met in order to access the Gift Aid Small Donations Scheme, including an assessment of the differential impact on different sizes of charities and Community Amateur Sports Clubs concerned.

(2) The Chancellor of the Exchequer must lay a report of the assessment before the House of Commons within six months of the passing of this Act.”—

Charities and CASCs must make Gift Aid exemption claims on donations received in order to make a claim under the Gift Aid Small Donations Scheme. The total Gift Aid donations must be at least 10% of the amount of the small donations on which top-up payments are claimed. The new clause would require the Chancellor to assess the impact of abolishing this requirement.

Brought up, and read the First time.

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 2—Review of anti-fraud measures in relation to Gift Aid Small Donations Scheme—

“(1) The Chancellor of the Exchequer shall, within six months of the passing of this Act, publish an assessment of the efficacy of anti-fraud measures designed to regulate the Gift Aid Small Donations Scheme, including, but not limited to, the Gift Aid donations threshold.

(2) The assessment shall have particular reference to the efficacy of the matching requirement.”

This new clause would require the government to publish an assessment of anti-fraud measures designed to regulate the Gift Aid Small Donations Scheme.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (House of Lords)

I appreciate having the opportunity to move the new clause. Two of the three pieces of evidence that the Committee accepted today strongly support its inclusion in the Bill, one from the Churches’ Legislation Advisory Service and the other from the Charity Tax Group. The other submission is not against the new clause, it just does not mention it. As was mentioned earlier, a paper produced by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the Charity Finance Group, the Institute of Fundraising and the Small Charities Coalition says that it is vital that the matching requirement is changed or removed.

I take Members back to when the gift aid small donations scheme was first brought in. I was not present, but the Library has kindly produced a briefing that covers some of the matters that were discussed, and particularly the matching requirement. Sajid Javid was the Minister at the time, and I want to quote what he said in the course of the debate on that legislation. Government amendment 30 was added to the Small Charitable Donations Bill, and it allowed the Government to make changes to the matching requirement. He said:

“It will allow us to remove the matching provision entirely…Even so, charities would always need to claim some gift aid in each year to ensure that they can claim under the scheme…It is something that many charities have asked us to introduce”.—[Official Report, 26 November 2012; Vol. 554, c. 98.]

So back then, charities were in favour of flexibility in the matching requirement and argued for it, and ultimately, the Government accepted that.

Having read the comments of Members at that time, I think the reason for that amendment was that the figures are arbitrary. The gift aid small donations scheme was amended fairly heavily during its progress through Parliament, particularly in relation to the matching requirement. When the scheme was introduced, it was suggested that top-up payments should be claimed only for amounts up to £5,000, but that was increased to £8,000. It was also suggested that the ratio of claims through the small donations scheme to gift aid claims should be 1:1 to begin with. The Government moved on that and changed the ratio to 10:1. Both those figures are fairly arbitrary, and the fact that the Government moved so dramatically shows that the figures are not necessarily set in stone.

Small charities have to receive £800 in donations under the gift aid scheme in order to claim the maximum allowance under the gift aid small donations scheme. Some very small charities will not receive £800 in donations that they can claim under the gift aid scheme, but they might receive £8,000 in very small donations, whether through church collections, people writing cheques or people making contactless payments. Unless they have that matching £800, they cannot claim the full allowance under the scheme.

The new clause, which is in my name and is supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central, would get rid of the matching requirement. It asks the Chancellor of the Exchequer to carry out an assessment. Because the change does not need to be made under primary legislation, the Government can carry out the assessment and make the change without being required to bring the matter back before the House in the spectacular way that they have to do with some other things.

Our proposal is widely supported by charities and would very much help the smallest charities, which feel strongly about it. As Members of all parties have stated today, take-up of the scheme has not been as high as expected. I argue that that is because some of the smallest charities are not able to manage the paperwork that is required.

I am not suggesting that we get rid of the requirement to claim gift aid in general. It is reasonable, given the Government’s desire to prevent fraud, that they have charities make at least one claim and fill in the full version of the forms. It is not, however, reasonable for the Government to expect the smallest of charities to go through that cumbersome process to claim the full amount of £800 in gift aid on small donations. That view is strongly supported by the organisations that have taken the time to write to us.

I intend to press the new clause to a vote. I understand that the Government might not want to accept it today, but I would very much appreciate it if they would seriously consider before Report the fact that a 10:1 ratio is possibly not the right arbitrary level. If they will not consider abolishing the matching requirement, will they consider making the ratio 20:1 or 50:1? That would be hugely beneficial to the smallest of charities, which benefit most from the gift aid small donations scheme and do not have the people power to fill in many of the relevant forms. I want them to continue to fill in forms, but not so many.

Photo of Rebecca Long-Bailey Rebecca Long-Bailey Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

New clauses 1 and 2 both get to the most important issue for the charity sector: the so-called matching requirement. The requirement is that to make a claim under the small donations scheme, a charity must receive a certain amount of gift aid donations in the same tax year. The total of eligible donations on which a charity can claim a top-up payment is restricted to an amount between equal and 10 times the net donations on which gift aid is claimed for the year.

New clause 1 would require the Government to carry out a review of the impact of abolishing the matching requirement within six months of the passing of the Bill, and Labour’s new clause 2 would require the Government to conduct a review into the efficacy of anti-fraud measures designed to regulate the gift aid small donations scheme, with particular reference to the matching requirement. On Second Reading, the Minister said that the requirement is

“to protect from fraud the small donations scheme, which has substantially fewer record-keeping requirements than gift aid—an important factor that was looked at when the scheme was first designed back in 2012. It is by retaining the rule that donations under the scheme must be matched with gift aid donations that we best can do that.”—[Official Report, 11 October 2016; Vol. 615, c. 215.]

However, as far as I am aware, she did not produce any evidence that the matching requirement is an effective anti-fraud measure.

As we have heard, the sector says that the requirement is a huge barrier for many small charities. They would like it to be significantly reformed, if not scrapped entirely. For instance, the Churches’ Legislation Advisory Service has suggested extending the requirement to 20:1. Given the Government’s reasons for not proposing any amendments to the requirement, the Opposition think that we should simply have a chance to see the evidence that the requirement works.

We agree, of course, that preventing fraud in the scheme is of paramount importance, but if the measure is simply adding a layer of red tape and is not effective, the Government should review it. The Charity Finance Group has highlighted the fact that only 275 reports of suspicious activity were shared between HMRC and charity regulators in 2015, which represents a rate of one suspicious activity per 500 charities. The group considers that to be a sign that fraud in the scheme is not of a high enough level to justify the effects of the matching requirement. That might well be the case, or it could be that the requirement is an effective caveat to the scheme, but we would only know that if there was a publicly available assessment of the effectiveness of all the measures in the scheme designed to combat fraud and of where the requirement sits within that. I can see no reason why the Government would not want to carry out such an assessment, and I hope that the Minister will accept our new clause 2, or work with us to table a Government amendment on Report that deals with any issues or concerns with our wording.

Finally, I would welcome the Minister’s comments in response to evidence produced by the Charity Finance Group, which welcomes the intention behind our new clause but believes that the Government should focus on increasing punishments for those who commit abuse and providing more opportunity for charities to report on suspicious organisations.

Photo of Jane Ellison Jane Ellison The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

As the hon. Member for Aberdeen North said, new clause 1 would require the Chancellor to lay before the House an assessment of the impact of removing the gift aid matching requirement within six months of the passing of this Act. New clause 2 would require the Chancellor to publish an assessment of the efficacy of the scheme’s anti-fraud provisions in the same period.

I should start by saying that I welcome the cross-party consensus on the importance of protecting the gift aid small donations scheme, and charitable tax reliefs more generally, from abuse. Indeed, I completely agree with the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles, who said on Second Reading:

“We must make sure that any loosening of the rules for access to Government grants or tax reliefs does not provide a further incentive for tax avoiders, albeit a small minority, to set up a charity.”—[Official Report, 11 October 2016; Vol. 615, c. 220.]

She was exactly right to draw our attention to that. The Government also agree with Peter Dowd, who said during his closing remarks on Second Reading that

“it is vital that sufficient safeguards are in place to prevent fraud when Government funding or tax breaks are provided, as in this case, to the charity sector. I think that sentiment would get cross-party support.”––[Official Report, 11 October 2016; Vol. 615, c. 247.]

Indeed, I think that sentiment does have cross-party support.

Let me say a little about fraud in the charity sector, which is relevant to the new clause. None of us likes to contemplate it or talk about it, but sadly it exists. As the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend Mr Wilson, said on Second Reading,

“it is an unfortunate fact that unscrupulous individuals seek to exploit charitable status for criminal purposes.”––[Official Report, 11 October 2016; Vol. 615, c. 250.]

It might shock colleagues to hear that the “Annual Fraud Indictor 2016” document produced by Experian, PKF Littlejohn and the University of Portsmouth’s Centre for Counter Fraud Studies estimates that fraud costs the charity sector about £1.9 billion each year. The report also states:

“Fraudsters are fast, inventive, adaptable and willing to quickly exploit new opportunities.”

I am sure hon. Members will therefore agree that it is vital the Government make sure that any initiatives, no matter how well intentioned, have suitable safeguards in place to limit opportunities for abuse, particularly when those initiatives involve spending public money. Indeed, both the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles and the hon. Member for Bootle made exactly that point on Second Reading.

The gift aid matching requirement provides a deterrent for those who would seek to exploit the small donations scheme. A number of hon. Members have raised concerns about the matching requirement; we have heard them again today. A few hon. Members, including the shadow Minister and the hon. Member for Clwyd South, cited a survey by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and others that suggested that the matching rule acts as a barrier to claiming from the gift aid small donations scheme, with 50% of respondents with an income under £10,000 wanting the matching rule to be removed or reduced. However, it is worth drawing the Committee’s attention to the fact that the same survey also found that only 5% of respondents claimed no gift aid at all, and just 10% felt that they did not claim enough gift aid to make claiming top-up payments worthwhile. Similarly, the Government’s own assessment found that 92% of charities claiming gift aid for the tax year 2014-15 claimed on donations of £500 or more, entitling them to the maximum small donations allowance, which at that time was £5,000. That is interesting evidence that for the vast bulk of charities, the matching rule is not a barrier.

Photo of Anna Turley Anna Turley Labour/Co-operative, Redcar

I would put the burden of evidence and proof back on the Minister. This provision has existed for three years now. Does she have any evidence of its benefit or usefulness, either in promoting the use of gift aid or in reducing fraud? If there is none, then given the clear objection from the sector, I really do not see any benefit to it whatever.

Photo of Jane Ellison Jane Ellison The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

First, I would argue that the matching rule has become more relevant because of the provisions in the Bill to simplify the scheme, for example the end of the two-in-four rule. Secondly, I have been sat here musing as I have listened to Members making their points about the need for me to prove that the rules are necessary. I cannot see how that can be done without first relaxing them and then having to report to the House that there had been large amounts of fraud, public money had been wasted and so on. In other words, the only way to prove it is to prove a negative.

I have already cited some evidence, and I will give some more. As appalling as the sad determination of some individuals to exploit charitable rules may seem to all members of the Committee, we have sufficient evidence across the range of charitable tax reliefs to believe with reasonable certainty that were any loopholes to be opened up, they would be exploited. It would be a sad situation if I had to come back to the House and say, “Actually, I was right. There has been a lot of fraud, we have lost a lot of public money. A number of small charities have had their reputations damaged as a result.” The evidence we have from the sector more broadly indicates that I am making a good working assumption that is well evidenced.

Photo of Susan Elan Jones Susan Elan Jones Labour, Clwyd South 11:00 am, 18th October 2016

I am a bit concerned, because when we were here a few years ago the example we cited was the Cup Trust, where there was wide-scale evidence of fraud. We asked whether it was registered for gift aid and the answer was yes. I am concerned about linkage.

I appreciate that we are looking at is a review to do with gift aid six months after the Act comes into law, but in view of the changes made last time when we were told initially it had to be same for same—we ended up with something vastly different and vastly better—will the Minister look at those arguments? Even if the Government’s view is that there has to be some sort of matching, it need not necessarily be set at the current level. That is our big concern.

Photo of Jane Ellison Jane Ellison The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

Two arguments are being advanced. One is that there should be no matching requirement at all. I am afraid I reject that for the reasons I have given, and I will try to provide more evidence. I understand the point that the hon. Member for Clwyd South makes and I understand that there was movement during the passage of the previous Bill with regard to the ratios. With all of these things it is sometimes about trying to strike a reasonable balance, and I think 1:10 is a reasonable number. It is an easy number from an administrative point of view and it keeps matters much more straightforward for the charities in question. I am glad however that she supports the principle that there should be a matching rule to avoid fraud. I will say a bit more about why we think that is important.

The Government’s own assessment found that 92% of charities claiming gift aid for the tax year 2014-15 claimed on donations of £500 or more. That would have allowed them to claim the maximum small donations top-up allowance, which at the time was £5,000.

It is worth adding that while the 8% of charities claiming on less than £500 of donations would not have benefited from the maximum small donations allowance because of how the matching rule operates, the vast majority would have been entitled to a proportion of that allowance. In fact, 98% of charities claiming gift aid in 2014-15 claimed sufficient amounts to receive a small donations allowance of at least £1,000. I submit to the Committee that with 98% of charities claiming enough to get an allowance of at least £1,000, the rules are not proving a barrier; they are being used and people are managing quite well with them. The figures do not support the assertion that the matching rule is a major barrier. Indeed, I think most people would say that it strikes the balance of reasonableness.

As I have said, the Bill is a simplification measure—it removes the two-year registration requirement and the gift aid history requirement—and leaves only the matching rule as the link between the gift aid small donations scheme and the wider gift aid scheme. The Government have always been clear that a link to gift aid is necessary to allow HMRC to carry out effective compliance activity. I ask hon. Members on both sides of the Committee to support that principle.

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay

Does the Minister agree, in response to the concerns raised by the SNP spokesman, that the Government have done an awful lot to simplify the gift aid claiming process for charities? I speak as someone who has been involved in operating gift aid claims for charities for many years. The process now is incredibly simple in its online form, so it is not the burden that perhaps it was in the past.

Photo of Jane Ellison Jane Ellison The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I think that is right, and I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. We are really trying to make this as simple and straightforward as possible, but we need some safeguards. That is why the matching rule is important. I would suggest that requiring HMRC to publish a detailed analysis of compliance activities and the efficacy of anti-abuse rules could be unhelpful. I would hate us inadvertently to provide a roadmap for fraudsters. If there was a requirement to publish that information, it would provide valuable information to that dishonest minority whom the Government are trying to root out.

I would like to reassure the Committee that HMRC works with charity regulators to ensure that charities are properly regulated, the abuse of charities is properly and robustly dealt with, and the tax reliefs claimed are used for charitable purposes. If a charity is suspected of fraud, HMRC will share that information with the Charity Commission, which can consider further action, including removal from the charities register. We have made it easier to report fraud. I hope that it goes without saying that all tax policy remains under constant review, and this scheme is no exception. The Government will of course continue to monitor the effectiveness of the small donations scheme, as they do with all charitable tax relief.

We are very keen to make sure that the good name of all those charities that do wonderful work at international, national and local level is not abused. I will give the Committee just one example. In May this year, three individuals were jailed for a total of 22 years for defrauding HMRC of £5 million in fictitious gift aid claims. I am afraid that there are more examples of large sums of money where that is true. Those people are out there and, as the report I cited earlier pointed out, they are very quick to spot loopholes, however well intentioned.

HMRC publishes a comprehensive national statistics package, to which I alluded earlier, which allows anyone to scrutinise the efficacy of the Government’s support for charities. However, requiring in legislation that the Government publish separate assessments within six months of the passage of the Bill is both arbitrary and unnecessary and, for the reasons I explained, in the case of one of the reviews it is likely to be impossible to prove what it seeks to prove. I therefore urge hon. Members not to press their new clauses to a vote.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (House of Lords)

Regarding the new clause that I tabled, I have asked the Government to undertake an assessment of the differential impact on charities of different sizes. As I have tried to make clear, both on Second Reading and today, my concern is particularly about the very smallest charities, some of which find that this is a barrier. I am slightly bothered by some of the conversation both today and on Second Reading. Perhaps I am naive, but I do not think that charities generally set out to defraud the Government. That is pretty unusual, and it bothers me how much of this conversation has been slanted towards concern about issues relating to fraud. I appreciate that some people try to commit fraud, but they are a small minority. It is only in relation to the largest amounts of money that we should be particularly concerned about that.

Photo of Jane Ellison Jane Ellison The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I want to clarify my remarks, which were principally centred on the fact that there are people out there who are fraudsters and who would seek to exploit loopholes in charity law and in gift aid rules. My comments were not focused so much on charities themselves being defrauders, although there have been one or two examples of this. Predominantly, this is about people exploiting charity law and the reliefs available in the same way that they exploit other loopholes.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (House of Lords)

I am really grateful for that clarification. I was concerned about the tone of some of the conversation that had been taking place. In relation to the new clause that I have tabled, I am asking the Chancellor of the Exchequer to look at the differential impact on different charities of removing the 10% matching requirement. The Government have made it clear, and it has been suggested by charities, that this could be changed to a different level of matching requirement.

The Government have accepted that this is a relatively arbitrary figure. It is good because it is a nice round number, but that is not necessarily helpful, particularly for the smallest of charities. I would very much appreciate it if the Government would consider accepting new clause 1, which looks at an assessment, and which would help those very small charities which most need this matching requirement to be removed.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 7, Noes 9.

Division number 1 Christmas Tree Industry — Abolition of Gift Aid donations threshold

Aye: 7 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.