Clause 98 - Power to make temporary modifications of taxation of employment income

Finance (No. 2) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:00 am on 11th January 2022.

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

Photo of Lucy Frazer Lucy Frazer The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

Clause 98 introduces regulation-making powers to allow the Government to make temporary changes to provide income tax relief on certain benefits in kind or expenses in a disaster or emergency of national significance.

Covid has highlighted the limited scope to respond quickly to make changes to the current benefits-in-kind and expenses tax system to support people during the pandemic. The Government are determined to learn from that experience and ensure that we are prepared for future crises. It is expected that during any future disaster or emergency of national significance, it may be necessary to make similar changes on a temporary basis. The current legislation allows only for changes to be made through secondary legislation in limited circumstances. The clause introduces regulation-making powers that will allow the Government to respond quickly and effectively to various future emergency situations—including, but not limited to, pandemics—if deemed necessary.

The clause introduces regulation powers to allow employers to support their employees through the provision of a certain benefit in kind or expense in a disaster or emergency of national significance without creating an additional income tax charge. The powers can be exercised only in a way that provides support to taxpayers, as changes can be wholly relieving only and cannot create a tax charge. The Treasury can determine when it is appropriate to use the powers, but may make changes only to the income tax expenses and benefit-in-kind rules. Any changes made through the powers will have effect only for a limited time, up to a maximum of two complete tax years. The clause allows the Government to respond quickly and effectively to provide support to taxpayers in disasters or emergencies of national significance, and I commend it to the Committee.

Photo of James Murray James Murray Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury)

As we have heard, clause 98 relates to the power to make temporary modifications of taxation of employment income. The clause will grant the Treasury the power to make regulations to modify temporarily parts 3, 4 and 5 of the Income Tax (Earnings and Pensions) Act 2003 under ministerial direction, in the event of a disaster or emergency of national significance. The regulations must set out which disaster or emergency they are made in respect of, and the powers can be exercised only in a way that is wholly relieving to the taxpayer and cannot be used to create a tax charge.

This measure has been introduced in the context of the covid-19 pandemic, and indeed covid has highlighted the limited scope to make changes to the current benefits in kind and expenses rules to respond quickly to the pandemic. We understand that the aim of clause 98 is to enable changes to primary legislation to be made rapidly in response to significant national events. In that respect, we do not oppose this clause, provided that it is applied in strictly exceptional circumstances of national importance.

The clause uses the terms “emergency” and “disaster”, but a specific description of these criteria is missing. I would be grateful if the Minister set out what the Treasury would consider to be an emergency or disaster. Without a doubt, the onset of the covid-19 pandemic was a good example, but without a robust and transparent framework to guide the Treasury—given that the use of the power seems to be at its sole discretion—it is important that we are clear about the circumstances in which income tax liability can effectively be waived. Moreover, clause 98 notes that such measures would be temporary and would not apply longer than necessary. Again, guidance and a framework are conspicuously lacking, as the Government has provided no definition of “temporary”.

Early in the covid pandemic, emergency measures were needed, but as the pandemic has gone on the need for emergency measures has lessened. I would be grateful if the Minister assured us that a clear and transparent framework for establishing what constitutes “emergency”, “disaster” and “temporary” will be published, and when. If not, why not?

I am sure that we agree that this is a matter of effective policy rather than politics. As I have said, the context in which the clause has been introduced is uncontroversial, but I would be grateful if the Minister addressed this ambiguity and assessed whether the measure could be applied in a manner that deviates from its stated intention.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

I agree very much with what the Labour Front-Bench spokesman has said. Clause 98 is very wide-ranging, and vague in a lot of ways. It is important to understand its scope, because one person’s definition of a disaster or emergency might be quite different from another’s. It is important that we define that slightly more than is the case in the clause, which states that the regulations

“may only specify a disaster or emergency which the Treasury considers to be of national significance.”

That could be a lot of things, depending on how the Treasury considers it.

I wonder whether the Minister, in looking at the clause, has taken into account the findings of the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office on the Government’s lack of financial preparedness, specifically coming into the pandemic. There was a lot of talk about medical preparedness, stockpiling and things like that, but both the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee found that there was no preparedness in the Treasury for a pandemic or national emergency of this type.

It would be useful to know what further work, in addition to clause 98, Treasury officials are putting in place to ensure that, should something like this occur in future, the box of learning from this pandemic can be taken off the shelf and easily applied, without having to make a load of new provisions and regulations, so that things are ready to go, and we do not have to scratch around, trying to figure out what happened last time. Another pandemic may occur in five years or 50 years—we do not know. Certainly, our hope in the SNP is that we will not be here in 50 years, if not five, but it would be useful to know what provisions are being considered in the Treasury to ensure that the learning from this pandemic sits very tightly with this clause and can be applied very easily.

Photo of Lucy Frazer Lucy Frazer The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I thank hon. Members for their contributions. Both the hon. Member for Ealing North and the hon. Member for Glasgow Central asked us to be more prescriptive in the legislation—to define the circumstances in which there would be a disaster or emergency—but we are bringing in this legislation precisely because we did not have the flexibility that we needed when we went into this pandemic. Therefore we do not want to tightly define the circumstances. We are bringing in this legislation to ensure that we have the tools at our disposal to exercise the necessary powers should an event like the one we have been through and hopefully are at the end of occur.

The hon. Member for Ealing North asked about the time period. As I pointed out, there is a span of two tax years for the essence of the proposals to be effective. As he will have seen throughout the pandemic, the Government have responded appropriately: they have brought in measures, withdrawn them and brought in measures again—I am thinking of furlough and the support and grants given through local authorities. There has been flexibility in the provision of support within the confines of the legislation empowering it.

The hon. Member for Glasgow Central talked about lack of financial preparedness from the Treasury. The Chancellor’s response to the pandemic has been recognised by a number of international financial institutions as including some of the most effective measures put in place in Europe and across the globe. The measures that the Chancellor has put in place have avoided significant unemployment—when we went into the pandemic we expected 12% unemployment, but it is much less than that. Two million fewer people are unemployed than we originally expected.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury) 10:15 am, 11th January 2022

My point was not about the reaction to the pandemic but preparedness. All the systems had to be put in place suddenly and with little planning. There has been significant fraud in many of the schemes as a result of the lack of tight planning. They were reactive emergency measures. Does the Minister agree that it would have been much better for all those things to have been set out clearly, so they could be taken off the shelf should they be needed? Instead, they were reactive measures that had not been planned ahead of time.

Photo of Lucy Frazer Lucy Frazer The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

The hon. Lady is right to say that a number of measures were reactive, but they were brought it at extremely quick pace and were effective pretty much immediately. She makes a valid point about learning; I know the Treasury is learning and has learned throughout the pandemic. The schemes we put in place at the outset have been refined, including the self-employment income support scheme, the furlough schemes and the coronavirus job retention scheme.

The hon. Lady mentioned the level of fraud; as the pandemic went on and the measures were refined, fraud reduced. She makes a valuable point about learning, and I am sure all Departments are learning. We do not want to be in this position again, which is precisely why we are bringing forward this legislation, to ensure that we are ready for any other emergency that should come our way.

Photo of James Murray James Murray Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury)

For the avoidance of doubt, I would like to clarify the point I raised with the Minister earlier. I was not seeking to ask the Government to be entirely prescriptive about what an emergency or disaster is; I merely asked them to publish a clear and transparent framework for establishing what constitutes “emergency”, “disaster” and “temporary”. If the Minister is saying that the Government will refuse to publish a clear and transparent framework for establishing the meaning of those words, will she confirm that it will remain at the sole discretion of the Treasury, based on unpublished guidance or frameworks, as to what constitutes “emergency”, “disaster” and “temporary”?

Photo of Lucy Frazer Lucy Frazer The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

The hon. Member is being a little unfair in his categorisation of what would happen and what we are seeking. That has not been defined in legislation because it is very hard to predict, and we do not want to limit severely the opportunities to exercise that power. The hon. Member has seen how the Treasury would react by the way it has reacted. That should give him some comfort.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 98 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.