Clause 346 - Abolition of the Office of Tax Simplification

Finance No. 2 Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 18th May 2023.

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Photo of Douglas Chapman Douglas Chapman Scottish National Party, Dunfermline and West Fife 4:00 pm, 18th May 2023

I beg to move amendment 2, in clause 346, page 264, line 31, at end insert—

“(9) This section shall not come into force until the Chancellor of the Exchequer has published—

(a) a response to the letter from the Chair of the House of Commons Treasury Committee, dated 2 March 2023, on the closure of the Office of Tax Simplification, and

(b) a statement of his assessment of the costs and benefits of abolishing it.”

This amendment would prevent the Office of Tax Simplification from being abolished until the Chancellor has replied to outstanding correspondence from the Treasury Committee on the subject, and published a cost/benefit analysis of the policy.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Clause stand part.

New clause 1—Reports to Treasury Committee on measures to simplify tax system—

(1) The Treasury must report to the Treasury Committee of the House of Commons on steps taken by the Treasury and HMRC to simplify the tax system in the absence of the Office of Tax Simplification.

(2) Reports under this section must include information on steps to—

(a) simplify existing taxes, tax reliefs and allowances,

(b) simplify new taxes, tax reliefs and allowances,

(c) engage with stakeholders to understand needs for tax simplification,

(d) develop metrics to measure performance on tax simplification, and performance against those metrics.

(3) A report under this section must be sent to the Committee before the end of each calendar year after the year in which section 346 (abolition of the Office of Tax Simplification) comes into force.”

This new clause would require the Treasury to report annually to the Treasury Committee on tax simplification if the Office of Tax Simplification is abolished.

Photo of Douglas Chapman Douglas Chapman Scottish National Party, Dunfermline and West Fife

I am sure that Members gathered here agree on the importance of data gathering, impartial analysis and evidence-based decision making. We can make informed decisions only if the facts are laid out in front of us in black and white. It would seem wise, then, that data be gathered on the costs and benefits of doing away with the Office of Tax Simplification before a final decision is made.

I will also be so bold as to point out that the recommendation to abolish the OTS came from a rather short-lived and now infamous Chancellor in his ironically named growth plan Budget of September 2022. Suffice it to say that the growth plan went down like a lead balloon after weeks of market turbulence, with unprecedented condemnation from the International Monetary Fund. That is not to mention the important—indeed, massive—£60 billion fiscal hole left in its wake. The then Chancellor and his Prime Minister swiftly exited stage left before more damage was done to the economy, our global reputation and citizens’ livelihoods.

Interestingly, of the many gung-ho announcements made in that growth plan, abolition of the OTS is one of the few that has not been reversed. When it comes to gathering evidence and data for making evidence-led decisions, and listening to experts and a broad group of stakeholders on tax simplification, we still have a long way to go, if this still seems to the Government to be a wise decision. One such expert is George Crozier, head of external relations at the Association of Taxation Technicians and the Chartered Institute of Taxation. He has argued that the OTS achieved a significant amount during its 12 years of existence and, with greater ministerial support for its proposals, could have achieved much more. Mr Crozier and the CIOT argue that among the OTS’s achievements since it was established in 2010 are the abolition of more than 40 unnecessary tax reliefs that were “clogging up” the tax system, as well as

“useful reforms to employee expenses and inheritance tax reporting,” which have all had a positive impact. In fact, the CIOT informs us that

“every Finance Act of the last decade has had measures in it which owe their genesis to the OTS, and which have made navigating the tax system easier for one group or another.”

Does the Minister not believe that is a good thing?

Importantly, the ATT believes that there are many benefits to maintaining independent advice to the Government on tax simplification; for example, the OTS drew directly and effectively on the skills and expertise of tax professionals, professional bodies and taxpayers when making its recommendations for simplification. The ATT believes that the OTS maintained that level of engagement only due to the trust and belief that the OTS would treat its comments and views impartially and fairly. The ATT’s concern is that without the perceived independence of the OTS, taxpayers and professionals will be more reluctant to come forward with relevant evidence and experience. Does the Minister not believe that relevant evidence and experience are good things?

If analysis leans in the direction of abolishing the OTS, it seems fair to back up calls from Mr Crozier and his colleagues to question the UK Government on how they will deliver the promise to embed tax simplification in the institutions of government. Will the Minister confirm that he will at least give the OTS a stay of execution until further evaluation is carried out, or will the OTS baby be thrown out with the bath water? In the run-up to an election, it may be popular with the public if the Government of the day were seen to be taking the thoughtful and sensible decision to retain the services of the OTS.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

New clause 1 is also part of this group. As a member of the Treasury Committee, which fairly collectively signed new clause 1, I will speak to the new clause, as well as to the Scottish National party amendment to clause 346.

It came out of the blue that the Office of Tax Simplification was to be abolished as part of the mini-Budget—the catastrophic event last September that created the worst of all events in the Treasury. Interesting times. As an ex-Treasury Minister, I can assure you, Mr Stringer, that boring times are the best; interesting times, when bond markets soar and pension funds teeter, are not the best. We were thrown into that situation with the mini-Budget, out of which came the sudden announcement that the Office of Tax Simplification would be abolished. The reason given for that abolition was that we would boost economic growth and simplify the tax system by having tax simplification in house. That is one of the more Orwellian reasons for abolishing something that I have heard. It was set up by a previous Conservative Chancellor, George Osborne; I can use his name because he is no longer a Member of this House and has gone on to other—I will not say better—things.

When the OTS was set up, the idea was to identify areas where complexities in the tax system for business and taxpayers could be reduced. We need only look at the thickness of this modest Bill to realise how complex financial legislation can be. This is the Finance (No. 2) Bill, and others will be along soon, I am sure. Yesterday, we had a hearing of the Treasury Committee on tax reliefs and cliff edges, and we were told that there were 1,180 tax reliefs in the system. Of them, 841 are structural, and 339 are non-structural, which apparently means that they are aimed at behaviour. That is a lot of tax reliefs. Every relief, whether for a good or a bad reason, creates a complexity. I am not arguing at all that tax systems should be completely simple—complexity is sometimes important and inherent to the way that a tax works—but as with all these things, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. It tends to go beyond complexity for a good reason and become complexity for complexity’s sake.

I do not know why—perhaps the Minister could enlighten us—it was suddenly decided that the Office of Tax Simplification was such a thorn in the side of the Treasury that it could be abolished forthwith without much notice, and that a job that has not really been done routinely in the Treasury could suddenly be done in house without any kind of preparation. When the Treasury Committee had staff from the Office of Tax Simplification give evidence in a hearing, they did not really know why it had been abolished, either. Nobody likes to be abolished. I cannot think that they were enamoured of the idea, but they were very diplomatic. They did not really have any confidence that the more systematic look at how taxes could be simplified over time would continue once the office had been abolished.

Could the Minister give us some insight as to why the abolition was announced? Why was it reconfirmed by the new Administration—one of the four that we have had in the last year—when they came into office that they would go ahead with the abolition? It is one of the few things that the previous Prime Minister and her Administration inaugurated that has survived the shake-up of the system.

The Institute for Government argues that the Office of Tax Simplification should not be abolished, but that if it is, it should be replaced with a body with a wider remit that can make extensive recommendations on tax administration beyond just simplification. It points to the utility of having an independent body that provides options for tax reform.

Our political structures are littered with huge, all-encompassing reviews, such as the Mirrlees review of the entire taxation system. They are always so controversial, but it is rare that their recommendations are implemented. Having a body that could undertake some of this work in smaller bites may help us to reduce the complexity of our system while not compromising on fairness.

If the Minister will not agree to these changes and give the OTS a reprieve, at least for a while, will she give us the details of how she and the Department plan to insource this important issue? If the Office of Tax Simplification ceases to exist, what guarantee can she give that this important work will continue, when there are so many other things for Treasury officials to do? Will the Minister confirm, just for my peace of mind, that the sudden abolition of the OTS was not as a result of it causing too many internal annoyances in the Treasury? It appears to have been pretty friendless. I wonder why that might be. Perhaps the Minister will give us some insight.

Photo of James Murray James Murray Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury) 4:15 pm, 18th May 2023

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey, who spoke to new clause 1. I will address some of the points she raised, as well as amendment 2 and clause 346.

As several Members have said, the Office of Tax Simplification was set up in July 2010. It was an independent office in the Treasury before being placed on a statutory footing by the Finance Act 2016. As we have heard, on 23 September last year, Kwasi Kwarteng announced that it would be abolished. He said:

“Instead of having a separate arms-length body oversee simplification, the government will embed tax simplification into the institutions of government.”

I will return to that quote in a moment.

As hon. and right hon. Members have said, the policy was announced during the tenure of the previous Prime Minister and is being continued under the current leadership. That makes the abolition of the OTS one of the few elements of the so-called growth plan of that premiership to survive. In an earlier sitting of this Bill Committee, I commented:

“There is at the very least something ironic about a Government who use one clause of a Finance Bill to implement a recommendation of the Office of Tax Simplification and another clause of the same Bill to abolish that institution.”––[Official Report, Finance (No. 2) Public Bill Committee, 16 May 2023; c. 47.]

As was mentioned, the Chartered Institute of Taxation has pointed out that almost every Finance Act of the last decade has included measures that owe their genesis to the OTS.

To return to the reason originally cited for abolishing the OTS, the right hon. Member for Spelthorne said that the Government wanted to

“embed tax simplification into the institutions of government.”

We therefore have great sympathy with amendment 2, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Aberdeen North and has been spoken to. It would at least require the Chancellor to publish an analysis of the cost and benefit of the policy. That has been entirely lacking so far.

If the Government press ahead with abolishing the OTS, it is important that they make clear how they will deliver on their commitment to tax simplification. As was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey, the Chartered Institute of Taxation sent a joint letter with the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group, the Association of Taxation Technicians, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, and the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury on 5 April. The letter covered identifying the characteristics of tax simplification; ensuring that someone is accountable for the delivery of tax simplification; including simplification declarations in tax information and impact notes; gaining external input on policy design and implementation; seeking feedback from a broad range of stakeholders; ensuring that HMRC and Treasury engagement groups have tax simplification as a standing objective; increasing awareness and improving guidance; allowing time for the development and integration of systems; and adopting a consistent approach across tax regimes.

I would be grateful if the Minister updated us on her response to the specific points set out by the Chartered Institute of Taxation. I also ask her again to set out clearly what costs and benefits, including the cost impact of any proposed new operational arrangements, she believes the abolition of the OTS will have, so that members of the Committee can consider this matter with all the relevant information to hand.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

For ease and convenience, I will speak to all the amendments and new clauses as well as clause 346. First, I thank the OTS

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

To clarify, we are debating new clause 1, clause 346 and amendment 2.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

Thank you, Mr Stringer

I thank the members of the Office for Tax Simplification for their contribution to the tax debate over the years. I had the pleasure of meeting some of them just after I was appointed. As I said to them at the time, although the OTS will longer exist once the Bill has passed, their expertise will none the less not be lost to the Government, and I very much look forward to working with its members in different ways over the coming months and years.

The closure of the OTS does not mean that simplifying tax is no longer a priority. In fact, I have set three criteria for tax policy across the Treasury and HMRC: for any document or proposal that I am given, officials must tell me, first, how it meets the expectation that it will make tax fairer; secondly, how it meets the expectation that it will make tax simpler; and, thirdly, how it meets the expectation that it will help to support growth. Having that in the document—I have said this many times, because it was a very early commitment that I put down—has really helped our discussion of those principles when forming tax policy.

As I have mentioned in Budget debates and so on, one of the tensions between those first two criteria is that to make a tax fairer, sometimes we end up making it more complicated—for example, when we talk about tapering schemes, as we are doing in the Bill more widely. We have a scheme whereby we are tapering the rise in corporation tax for businesses that have smaller profits. That makes it more complicated but also fairer, so there is sometimes a trade-off between the interests and wishes of those involved in administering tax or helping taxpayers. With the best will in the world, the OTS, as an arm’s length body set up to comment on simplification alone, could not help with those sorts of balancing acts, which is why the Chancellor has set a clear mandate for officials in the Treasury and HMRC to focus on simplicity in tax policy design as part of our decision-making process.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

There is clearly a difference between the accrued complexity across a particular tax from end to end, which can gather barnacles over time, and a ministerial decision on whether to opt explicitly for a bit more complexity to achieve fairness, which is not a design issue but a political choice. Surely the Office for Tax Simplification was good at looking at the former, while leaving decisions on the latter to those who ought to be making them: the Ministers in charge at the time.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

Of course, pretty much every decision that comes across my desk is political in nature. Officials have very much taken on board their responsibilities in this regard.

The hon. Member for Ealing North asked about a letter sent to me in April from important tax specialists and organisations. In fact, I met them last week to discuss that very letter. I wanted to meet the organisations to discuss, for example, how to make tax simpler for the lowest paid in society and how we can try to help tax agents to navigate their way around the tax system, because that will help not just taxpayers but also, importantly, HMRC. We really have begun to embed this in our decision-making process.

The reason we want to make this change is that people were concerned that there was a tendency to rely on the OTS to look at simplification because that was its job, and we wanted to bring it very much into the Treasury. Of course, that does not mean that there is never going to be any commentary or analysis or observations about simplicity. My goodness me, I do not think anyone could claim that the world of tax lacks analysis, commentary and often criticism—hopefully constructive—of the tax system. I do not perhaps have quite the same concerns about us being accountable for the political decisions we make.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

If I may, I will make some progress, because I want to deal with new clause 1 and amendment 2, which are important.

On new clause 1, the Chancellor committed to Select Committee colleagues that he is asking officials about tax simplification ahead of every Budget and fiscal event. That will mean that hon. Members will have the opportunity to scrutinise the Government’s progress. In the last Budget, we were able to bring forward measures such as the cash basis for business, which will help enormously by helping more than 4 million sole traders to calculate and pay their income tax. We also introduced the permanent £1 million limit to the annual investment allowance, which will simplify the tax treatment of capital expenditure for 99% of businesses. There are also other measures.

In relation to the point about measuring and metrics in simplification, the Government are genuinely considering how to develop a suite of metrics to measure progress on simplification, working with businesses and representative bodies to ensure that measures reflect the real-world experience of taxpayers.

On amendment 2, it is right that the Chancellor has responded to the Committee, having written on 20 March to explain the rationale for the decision. I hope that helps to answer some of the questions that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife may have had. I refer again to the point that simplification is a vital principle to bear in mind when looking at the tax system, but it is not the only one. As the hon. Member for Wallasey rightly says, I have to make political decisions on a host of matters.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

I agree about that and I am glad to hear that the Minister is making decisions on a host of issues, although politically we may not always have the same approach to them. She was talking about there being plenty of commentary on tax issues. There always is, but the point about the Office of Tax Simplification was that it was not doing it from a set stance. For example, one will get plenty of commentary from accountants about particular things, and it will tend to be mainly about the interests of the people who use accountants—their clients. That comes from a particular space, as a user of the tax system, or someone that helps comment or advise on the tax system. The Office of Tax Simplification could look at a tax from its start all the way through its process—look at what it was intended to do and whether it would be possible to administer it in a different way, for simplification purposes, without coming from a particular viewpoint. If the OTS goes, I do not think there is anybody out there now that will do that in a neutral way. As such, a lot of the commentary that one gets on the tax system comes from a very particular, interested place, which often gives a bigger voice to small groups of taxpayers than to larger numbers of taxpayers. Is the Minister not worried that by making this decision, she is going to lose objective oversight of a system that is not coming from a biased place, but is looking purely at the criterion of simplicity?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Financial Secretary to the Treasury 4:30 pm, 18th May 2023

That is a fair challenge. It is one that we will meet through the meetings that we are already having, and that I am personally having, with organisations to discuss simplification. Of course we will discuss other matters in the future as well, but that is the No. 1 issue I am raising with those organisations. Also, I am very lucky to be able to work in the Treasury with incredibly talented officials. They do not hold back from giving Ministers of any Government proper advice on the tax system and other parts of the economy, so through all of this—as well as mulling over how we are ourselves able to check the progress we are making, as I say—I am confident that we will be able to make real progress in this area.

Photo of Douglas Chapman Douglas Chapman Scottish National Party, Dunfermline and West Fife

On that point, I think the Labour party spokesperson, the hon. Member for Wallasey, was also alluding to the fact that it was that element of independence that really made the Office of Tax Simplification stand out from anything that can be provided in-house. That is the real danger of Government Departments, and Governments in general, marking their own homework. That is what it sounds very much like, and that is how it will be seen outside the bubble we inhabit here in Westminster. I sincerely ask the Minister to reconsider her stance and have a really long think about not making that decision just now, but instead doing a full evaluation of the benefits and value of the Office of Tax Simplification to see how it might be either enhanced or supported in future.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

Order. I remind Committee members of the point I made to the hon. Member for Blaydon earlier: interventions should be short. They are getting longer.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I do not feel there is anything I can add to what I have already said, but I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

In which case, I call the hon. Gentleman to respond to the debate, and ask him to tell me whether he wishes to push the amendment to a Division.

Photo of Douglas Chapman Douglas Chapman Scottish National Party, Dunfermline and West Fife

I think that the overall message we have heard today—certainly from Opposition Members—is that the Office of Tax Simplification should be retained, as it provides a very important independent view of the very complicated and complex system of tax takes and tax reliefs throughout the United Kingdom. I am hoping that that position will win support, and I am prepared to push it to a Division.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 2 Finance No. 2 Bill — Clause 346 - Abolition of the Office of Tax Simplification

Aye: 7 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 9.

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 346 ordered to stand part of the Bill.