Gains from contracts for life insurance etc: top slicing relief

Finance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 9th 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

The clause introduces the gripping topic of top-slicing relief on life insurance policy gains. It makes changes to ensure that the calculation of top-slicing relief on life insurance policy gains operates fairly and prevents excessive relief from being claimed. This measure supports the Government’s objective, already discussed in the Committee today, of promoting fairness in the tax system by ensuring that the relief is calculated in a fair and consistent way.

Life insurance policy gains arise, for example, when an investment bond is surrendered or matures. In this case, the gain accrues over the lifetime of the policy but is taxed in one year, which can result in gains being taxed at the higher rate. Top-slicing relief, or TSR, was introduced in 1968 as a mechanism to mitigate the impact of that higher tax charge. The principle behind TSR is simple: a taxpayer should not pay a higher rate of tax on their life insurance gain just because all of that gain falls to be taxed in a single year. Instead, the rate of tax on the gain should reflect the fact that it was accrued over the lifetime of the policy, assuming it rose in even amounts over the years during which the policy was held.

The calculation for TSR was intended to be straight- forward. However, changes to the personal allowance from 2010 have led to unintended complexity. A recent first-tier tribunal case brought into question how TSR interacts with the restriction to the personal allowance for higher rate taxpayers, creating uncertainty for taxpayers and a significant administrative burden for HMRC. It is for those reasons that we are making a change and a clarification to TSR in the Bill. I turn to both of those things.

The change made by the clause will permit personal allowances that have been reduced because the gain arises in one year to be reinstated in the TSR calculation. The gain will now be treated as if it arose in even amounts over the years during which the policy was held when determining the availability of the personal allowance in the TSR calculation. The change comes at an estimated cost to the Exchequer of £15 million per annum, but it provides a fairer result for those taxpayers who would otherwise have been taxed on their gain only because that gain has fallen in one year and reduced their personal allowance.

The clause will also put beyond doubt the principle that taxpayers cannot set their gain against their personal allowance first, in preference to their other income, in the TSR calculation. That will ensure that higher-rate taxpayers cannot get the benefit of the relief by effectively taking the benefit of the personal allowance more than once when calculating TSR. That will prevent excessive relief from being claimed and, in turn, protect £240 million of revenue.

The measure is estimated to affect around 2,000 of the 45,000 taxpayers who are entitled to top-slicing relief every year. The clause ensures that the taxpayers receive all the relief that they are entitled to and makes clear that taxpayers who seek to claim excessive relief will no longer be able to do so. It will ensure that top-slicing relief continues to operate in line with its original policy intent, and will therefore provide a fair and consistent outcome for those taxpayers who are entitled to claim the relief. I commend the clause to the Committee.

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

Before I turn to the substance of clause 36, and without dwelling on it too much, I will take slight exception to the Minister’s comments around the so-called levelling up agenda and the last 10 years. First, though, I must commend him—he is one of the few Ministers I have come across who understands how to pronounce my constituency name properly. He has great north-east knowledge, which will stand us in wonderful stead for the years ahead, when we can make sure that Sunderland and the wider north-east get their fair share of Government investment.

On clause 36, we note the Government’s stated objective of creating fairness in the UK tax system, ensuring that top-slicing relief is calculated in a fair and consistent way, and of seeking to provide legislative clarity. However, there are some issues that still remain around the language of the clause, regarding the treatment of gains before 11 March 2020.

In response to the clause, the Chartered Institute of Taxation noted:

“The amendments made by clause 36 have effect…from the tax year 2019/20. It is not clear why the amendments, which are clarificatory in nature and in accordance with the original policy intent, should not be extended to years prior to 2019/20 to provide the same clarity for taxpayers in respect of earlier gains.”

It also comments that,

“as clause 36 is not retrospective, an individual who is liable to tax in respect of gains from chargeable events before 2019/20 and who wishes to reinstate the personal allowance within the calculation for TSR will instead need to rely on the basis agreed in Silver v HMRC. Decisions of the First-tier Tribunal do not create a legally binding precedent.”

It argues that it is

“not clear whether or not HMRC will accept claims for repayment from taxpayers with gains in years prior to 2019/20.”

The Minister touched on this point in introducing the clause, but I would be grateful if he could clarify whether he intends for HMRC to accept repayment from taxpayers with gains in years before 2019-20. If he does not, as the language stands, do the provisions of the clause still affect taxpayers fairly?

The Chartered Institute of Taxation also notes that the approach is different from the approach in clauses 100 and 101, which we will come to later, which put

“beyond doubt that the relevant rules work as designed and intended but apply both prospectively and retrospectively.”

What assessment does the Minister make of that point?

The institute also draws attention to the fact that clause 36 specifies how reliefs and allowances are set against life assurance policy gains:

“The personal savings allowance does not operate as a typical allowance. It is a nil rate band of tax that does not extend the basic or higher rate bands. The draft legislation should specify that the personal savings allowance is not an allowance for this or any other purpose.”

It regards the term “allowance” as “an unhelpful misnomer”. I would be grateful if the Minister would address that point.

HMRC also notes that the clause will only really affect those with above-average earnings. We have considered that point more broadly in other aspects of the Bill; it points to something of a pattern in the measures that the Government are bringing forward. Over a significant period—over the last decade—we have seen that the impact of changes, whether that is spending reductions or the broader impact of Government policy, has fallen more sharply on those with less ability to make a contribution. Earlier in proceedings, we discussed the distributional impact of Government measures after 2010. We have seen a disproportionate impact on those from lower and middle-earning backgrounds. That cannot be sustained, not least in the current situation.

We hope the Government will continue to keep that under review, so that we can ensure that our public services have the funding they need, and that those who need additional support to make a contribution do not see themselves penalised as a result. However, we understand the intent behind the clause—the objective that the Government seek to promote—and I hope that the Minister will address the issues to provide some clarification on specific points.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman The Financial Secretary to the Treasury 3:45 pm, 9th June 2020

I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. Let me respond. She will understand that top-slicing relief has been around for a long time. It is therefore something that we have come to for specific reasons. As she will be aware, a concern is arising that the judgment, coupled with challenges from taxpayers, suggests that more clarity is needed in the legislation and, therefore, that we need to review the relief.

The review highlighted that some payers were paying tax on their gain at the higher rate only because they lost the personal allowance due to a gain being included in their income. That is why the conclusion was for the reinstatement of the personal allowance, solely for purposes of the top-slicing relief calculation, to address that and to bring it back in line with the policy intent.

Of course, as the hon. Lady says, the changes work in both directions—there is a cost to the Exchequer, which comes from allowing the gain to be treated as though it arose in even amounts over the years, but, at the same time, there is also a return from the Treasury, which prevents excessive relief from being claimed. That points to the essential fairness of the approach, because it is designed to restore fairness in the spreading of gain, but also to ensure that there can be no funny business, if you like, in the way in which the gain is treated with regard to the personal allowance that might allow it to be manipulated to the detriment of the taxpayer or the system.

The hon. Lady also asked about timing. HMRC will calculate the relief for affected taxpayers and advise them of changes in the relief calculation. For self-assessment returns submitted for the 2019-20 tax year, that calculation will be performed manually. For subsequent tax years, the calculation will form part of the automatic self-assessment process. Detailed guidance has been put on gov.uk setting out the changes in full. I hope that will put the matter beyond doubt.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 36 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.