Tax treatment of social security income

Finance (No.3) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 27th November 2018.

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Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury 3:30 pm, 27th November 2018

I beg to move amendment 2, in clause 12, page 9, line 7, at end insert—

‘( ) The Chancellor of the Exchequer must review the revenue effects of the provisions in this section and lay a report of that review before the House of Commons within six months of the passing of this Act.”

This amendment would require the Chancellor of the Exchequer to review the revenue effects of Clause 12.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

With this it will be convenient to discuss clause stand part.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

I know people are going to be terribly disappointed that this is my last contribution today. Other colleagues must have an opportunity to have their say. The disappointment is palpable, but I must push on.

The clause deals with the tax treatment of social security income. Again, I refer to the explanatory note, which provides a helpful introduction to the clause:

“The Scottish government is introducing five new social security payments: young carer grant; best start grant; funeral expense assistance; discretionary housing payments; and carer’s allowance supplement.”

It goes on:

“The government is also confirming the tax treatment of another four social security benefits: the council tax reduction scheme, discretionary housing payments and the flexible support fund, overseen by the UK Government, and the discretionary support scheme, overseen by the Northern Ireland Executive.”

Furthermore:

“Social security benefits are administered by a number of different UK government departments and the devolved administrations. The tax treatment of social security benefits is legislated for within income tax legislation. The tax treatment of new benefits should be confirmed when each one is introduced.”

The note continues:

“The Scottish government’s fiscal framework underpins the powers over tax and welfare that are devolved to Scotland through the Scotland Act. This states that ‘any new benefits or discretionary payments introduced by the Scottish Government will not be deemed to be income for tax purposes, unless topping up a benefit which is deemed taxable such as Carer’s Allowance’.”

This, in part, relates to social security changes made by the Scottish Government, which is a matter for Scotland to decide. We also note that this ensures that some new social security payments are not subject to additional taxation, which is a sensible approach that will make the finances of many on the lowest incomes as simple as possible. We would, however, like to query the decision to make the carer’s allowance supplement taxable.

The equality impact assessment for the clause suggested that the carer’s allowance supplement will be confirmed as taxable. That is a supplementary payment to carer’s allowance, which is a taxable benefit paid by the UK Government. The majority of recipients of care allowances are women, so more women than men will receive the carer’s allowance supplement in Scotland. In effect, it looks as though the only additional social security payment being denied the tax exemption is the one that will primarily affect women. Perhaps the Minister will elaborate on why that is the case. It appears to stem from the fact that the UK carer’s allowance is itself taxable—a UK Government decision that is likely to have the very same gender impacts.

The Women’s Budget Group has demonstrated on numerous occasions that women are already disproportionately affected by the Government’s policies in relation to the years of austerity. Its research shows that 86% of the austerity burden was and is being borne by women. That is eight long years during which our mothers, sisters and daughters have borne the brunt of those cuts, and now here we are with yet another measure that will disproportionately affect women more than men. A member of the Women’s Budget Group, Dr Angela O’Hagan, helped put this into context when she said:

“Budget processes have increasingly become the conduit for discriminatory policies, such as the UK Government’s rape clause and the cumulative attacks on welfare income especially among poorer women and women of colour. It is essential that external voices such as UK Women’s Budget Group are engaged and heard, and that the Government’s budget processes are opened up to closer scrutiny for their impact on equalities groups and their potential to advance equality through more effective allocation of public finances and more equitable means of raising government revenue.”

I suggest that had the Government allowed more scrutiny of the clauses and sought consultation as per the normal procedure before they came to office, these issues might have been ironed out during the Bill’s development. Instead, these negative gender impacts are squirreled away in policy papers on particular and specific clauses after it is too late to do anything about them, with the right properly to amend already denied to the Opposition by the Government through their refusal to table an amendment of the law resolution.

I hope the Minister will explain why this discrepancy has been included in the Bill and make moves to rectify it immediately. Time and again, we have called for an equality impact assessment of the Budget to flag these matters up, and every time that has been denied by the Government, who appear to want to slip these inequalities through. We will continue to hold them to account on every single one.

The amendment also relates to the matter of the Government’s behaviour regarding consultation and would require a review of the revenue effects of the clause. In the policy paper on the clause, the Government list the Exchequer impact as negligible. We have heard that several times today, so will the Minister enlighten us as to what “negligible” means in cash terms? It is not necessarily going to be “negligible” on an individual basis for those affected by this proposal. It would be helpful to have a band of figures starting, presumably, at zero and going up the scale. We hope that a proper review of the revenue effects of this measure would be made available for the purposes of good practice alone. I continue to refer Members to the “Better Budgets” report helpfully provided by the Institute for Government and the Chartered Institute of Taxation. The report states that

“the Treasury and HMRC should publish the evidence base behind measures and the assumptions on which costings are based, and ensure that these are appropriately detailed.”

Clearly, that was not the case with this measure. I have already spoken to the Committee on this point, but it is essential that the Government begin to change their behaviour towards the scrutinising of legislation, especially when it places further burdens on women. These proposals have already taken their toll and will continue to do so, unless we stand up and do something about it.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Economy) 3:45 pm, 27th November 2018

This is a process question for the Minister about going forward and ensuring that we scrutinise legislation in the best way. It would have been helpful if, in the explanatory notes, there had been some comment provided by the Scottish and Welsh Governments because both measures involve making changes that affect devolved benefits.

Given the devolved and reserved aspects of many of the matters we are discussing, I again make the case for a geographical split in the changes that the clause makes. There could have been specific Scottish, Welsh, RUK or whole UK sections, which would have made effective scrutiny easier. I emphasise that it would have been incredibly helpful to have that. I suggest for next year’s Finance Bill that, if the Government make changes of this nature, they could make both changes to ensure the most appropriate scrutiny.

I am happy to support the Opposition amendment. The hon. Member for Bootle made a powerful case about the gendered impact of the social security changes of recent years and the fact that women have been disproportionately hit by them. We do not want to see those changes exacerbated by a tax system that amplifies the issues faced by women as a result of the Government’s policies on social security. I am comfortable supporting the Opposition’s amendment and I plead with the Minister to consider making the changes that I have requested for future years.

Photo of Anneliese Dodds Anneliese Dodds Shadow Minister (Treasury)

It is an enormous pleasure to be in this Committee with you in the Chair, Ms Dorries, and to make my first brief speech here. I would like clarification from the Minister on the specific issue of tax treatment of council tax reduction schemes. Subsection (5) on page 8 of the Bill refers to “a” council tax reduction scheme, stating that

“Payment under a council tax reduction scheme” is exempt from income tax. However, page 26 of the explanatory notes refers to

“the” council tax reduction scheme.

I am sure that colleagues will know that there is no longer one council tax reduction scheme across the UK, since central Government decided to top-slice that form of social security and devolve the design of it to different local authorities, albeit with the stipulation that the protection should be maintained for older people. Only a very small number of local authorities still provide full council tax relief, including council tax relief for low-income families. I am enormously proud that Oxford City Council is one of those.

Central Government have washed their hands of responsibility for this benefit. They have refused to provide figures on take-up, for example, in response to parliamentary questions that I have tabled. They have also refused to provide figures on the number of low-income people now being taken to court because they cannot pay council tax, because they are no longer provided with the relief. I am not cavilling over semantics when I ask the Minister to make crystal clear that the exemption from income tax provided in the Bill will apply to all council tax reduction schemes, not to some particular version of those schemes that the Government might wish to focus on.

Related to that, I heard a very worrying rumour that the Government might seek spuriously to argue that funds spent on council tax relief for families by local authorities should not be counted in central Government’s assessment of local authorities’ expenditures, because they are, in theory, discretionary. I disagree fundamentally with that position, because it would penalise those authorities that support the worst off. It would be helpful if the Minister confirmed that, just as I hope he will confirm that council tax relief for families is viewed as legitimate in the Bill, and for income tax purposes, it will be viewed as legitimate expenditure when it comes to the allocation of central Government support for local authorities.

Photo of Mel Stride Mel Stride Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Paymaster General

I start by addressing the specific points raised by the hon. Members for Aberdeen North and for Oxford East. On the explanatory notes and the value or otherwise of a specific reference to input from the Scottish Government, I will certainly be happy to look at that in the future. I assure the hon. Member for Aberdeen North that there were significant discussions on these measures between the Treasury and Scottish officials in the appropriate manner. On the technical point raised by the hon. Member for Oxford East around “the” scheme versus “a” scheme, the information I have is that the scheme came into force in April 2013. However, I will look into her specific question about whether the measures apply to “a” scheme or “the” scheme. I am afraid that I do not immediately have an answer to that, but I will get back to her as soon as I can.

Clause 12 clarifies and confirms the tax treatment of nine social security benefits. The income tax treatment of social security benefits is legislated for in part 10 of the Income Tax (Earnings and Pensions) Act 2003, which provides certainty about existing benefits and needs to be updated when new benefits are introduced. For example, the Scottish Government are introducing five new payments following the devolution of powers, including the young carer grant, the discretionary housing payment and the carer’s allowance supplement. Other payments covered by the clause have been in operation elsewhere in the UK for some time, such as the council tax reduction scheme and the flexible support fund, but are not yet covered clearly in legislation.

The changes made by clause 12 ensure that such payments are taxed appropriately, and that that is clear in legislation. The clause clarifies and confirms that such payments are exempt from tax, with one exception—the carer’s allowance supplement—which is taxable. That is in accordance with “The agreement between the Scottish Government and the UK Government on the Scottish Government’s fiscal framework”, which states:

“Any new benefits or discretionary payments introduced by the Scottish Government will not be deemed to be income for tax purposes, unless topping up a benefit which is deemed taxable such as Carer’s Allowance.”

Amendment 2 would require the Chancellor of the Exchequer to review the revenue effects of the clause and lay a report of that review before the House within six months of the passing of the Bill. Such a review is unnecessary. The Government have already published a tax information and impact note for this measure, and our assessment, supported by the OBR, is that the Exchequer effects are negligible.

On the carer’s allowance supplement, which was introduced in Scotland in 2018, as a general rule benefits are taxable if they replace lost income. The carer’s allowance has therefore always been taxable. The vast majority of those receiving the supplement have income below the personal allowance and would therefore not be expected to pay any income tax. That is an important point in respect of the point made by the hon. Member for Bootle. I will not dwell on each payment covered by the clause, but I reiterate that eight of these payments are exempt from taxation. HMRC has not and will not collect any tax from these payments.

As the tax information and impact note sets out, the taxation of the carer’s allowance supplement is expected to have negligible Exchequer effects because, as I have said, the vast majority of those carers receiving the additional payment do not earn sufficient income to pay any income tax at all. However, any income tax receipts from that will of course go to the Scottish Government.

The Committee will also know that taxable social security income is aggregated and reported to HMRC through self-assessment after the end of the tax year. This is an important point in the context of the amendment. That income will not need to be reported until January 2020. A review would therefore be impractical only six months after the Bill’s passing. I therefore ask the Committee to reject the amendment. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

We will not push the amendment to a vote. However, I push the case to the Government that, while these amounts of money may be negligible to the Treasury or to HMRC, if the measure affects a particular woman who is already under the stresses and strains of helping a relative, it is important that we give them as much latitude as we possibly can. Whether we like it or not, this will be perceived as a continued attack on women who continue to be the biggest assistants to relatives—yet again, it is an attack on those people who are doing a caring role.

Photo of Mel Stride Mel Stride Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Paymaster General

Once again, divine inspiration has arrived and I can confirm that the CTR is a reference to multiple schemes—so it is “a” rather than “the”. The measure therefore covers all those schemes.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 13