Voluntary office-holders: payments in respect of expenses

Finance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 4th June 2020.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

What a delight it is to see you in the Chair, Mr Rosindell. As I touched on earlier, this is one of those clauses that I do not think elicits any spirit of contention on the different sides of the room.

Clause 13 creates a statutory income tax exemption for payments and reimbursements of reasonable private expenses incurred by voluntary office holders in carrying out the duties of their offices. Individuals undertaking voluntary work for an organisation such as a charity or local benevolent society are not generally classed as office holders or employees, so the payment or reimbursement of any reasonable expenses incurred by those individuals when doing the work of that organisation is not liable for tax. However, in some circumstances, an individual who does unpaid work for an organisation may also be an office holder. That is because they are appointed to a role that exists regardless of who occupies the position at any one time. They are referred to as a “voluntary office holder” in tax legislation. People in that position include, for example, magistrates and special constables.

An office holder, including a voluntary office holder, is chargeable to tax on any earnings from their position and subject to the tax rules for expenses and deductions on the same basis as employees. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ long-standing practice is that no tax arises on private expenses paid or reimbursed to voluntary office holders so long as they receive no reward for carrying out the duties of their office and any payments or expenses do no more than meet the expenses incurred. That treats voluntary office holders in the same way as volunteers in relation to expenses paid or reimbursed by their organisation, but the treatment is at the moment only concessionary.

This measure therefore places the current concessionary treatment on a statutory tax footing. That ensures that reasonable out-of-pocket private expenses paid or reimbursed to voluntary office holders in relation to their duties of office remain tax-exempt. The exemption recognises the role of voluntary office holders and the services that they provide. It ensures that the tax treatment of their private expenses continues to be comparable to that of volunteers, and it provides certainty by placing that treatment on a statutory footing.

Those who hold voluntary offices often—in fact, almost invariably—give valuable service in our communities. It is right that we legislate to provide certainty for people in such roles and bring the tax treatment of their expenses in line with that for others who volunteer their time. This is a simple and sensible technical change, and I therefore urge that the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Bridget Phillipson Bridget Phillipson Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Rosindell, and I welcome you to the Chair.

Opposition Members have no issue with the intention behind clause 13. It is right that the tax treatment of those carrying out valuable work on a voluntary basis is put on a statutory footing so that it is the same for all voluntary office holders, across the board.

Of course, most individuals who do unpaid voluntary work for an organisation are not office holders or employees, and I would like to take this opportunity, at this time, to express my gratitude for the amazing work that volunteers are doing right across our country in responding to the crisis we are experiencing. The work they are doing includes running food banks. Amazing volunteers in my constituency are providing that kind of support to vulnerable people and, frankly, to too many families. I yearn for the day when they will be able to be redeployed in other areas of activity because the support provided by the Government—the state—is adequate for all families to put food on the table. Many other volunteers at this time have been delivering meals or supporting people with prescriptions. There is a whole range of help and support being provided, which just demonstrates how important a role volunteers play in our society. That is of course no substitute for the necessary action we expect from Government, which has sadly been too lacking in recent years, and after a decade of big changes. That has meant that volunteers have filled the gap that should be filled by the state itself.

As for the scope of the clause, the Chartered Institute of Taxation has identified some technical issues, and I hope the Minister will be able to respond to some points about them. The first is about the lack of a definition of a volunteer office holder in this legislation and the fact that that may lead to some confusion as to whether charitable or other unpaid trustees would be regarded as office holders for the purpose of this exemption. The Minister was right to point to office holders such as special constables and magistrates—and perhaps those who are office holders in community amateur sports associations—but I would be grateful if he could clarify the scope of the clause.

The second concern that the Chartered Institute of Taxation has identified is whether this legislation will achieve its intended purpose, given that the clause covers expenses incurred in carrying out the duties of the office, but not explicitly those expenses that enable such duties to be carried out—for example, childcare costs. I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify the position and put on record that such costs would be tax-exempt for voluntary office holders under the legislation.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. These are two technical issues that she is right to cover. The position of Revenue and Customs, and of the Government, is that there is adequate clarity about the scope of the clause. It passes into law only a considerable body of accumulated practice in dealing with expenses of the kind that we have described. As I have mentioned, commissioners have discretionary powers—those collection management powers—to manage these taxes and duties, and are able to exercise those powers in particular circumstances. So if there is a concern that, somehow, the scope of the clause is inadequately defined, there remains extra statutory power for the commissioners to exercise those collection management powers in so far as they wish.

The hon. Lady is also absolutely right to raise the secondary issue of what counts as an allowable expense. The answer is that a definition of reasonableness exists in general in people’s minds and in law—of course, it reflects the facts of a case and is context-dependent. The core idea is that the payment or reimbursement should do no more than meet the actual expenditure that has been incurred by volunteers.

To give an example, someone may be volunteering for a charity, perhaps as a treasurer, which is an office holder, and doing most of their work from home. If the charity offers them a small weekly payment to cover the additional cost of using their home, that is a reasonable expense. To take a different example, if someone is volunteering as a magistrate at their local magistrates court for one day a week and seeks reimbursement for their childcare costs for the week, even if the court agrees to that, the full week will not be considered a reasonable reimbursement for private expenses, because it does not relate to the actual expenditure that has been incurred.

I can clarify, to that extent, the point the hon. Lady made. I think that tracks relatively clearly our normal intuitions about working, as well as working practice elsewhere in the voluntary sector. With that said, I would like to move that the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 13 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.