Craig Mackinlay (South Thanet) (Con)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the high-income child benefit charge.
It is always a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
One might ask why I have brought this debate; it is a fairly obscure area of tax and benefits. I have done so out of the frustration felt by a number of constituents who face the high-income child benefit tax charge and its after-effects and, as a chartered accountant and chartered tax adviser, anything tax-related always rattles my bell. This is a topic of great interest on mumsnet.com and moneysavingexpert.com, which have covered the issue in some depth.
I suppose we must start at the beginning—always a good place to start. Why did we implement this high-income child benefit tax charge, when child benefit had been a universal benefit, enjoyed by all, for very many years? The issue was first raised in October 2010 by the then Chancellor, George Osborne, and it was one of the measures used to try to get some more savings for the Treasury after the simply appalling state of the nation’s affairs that we were left with after the 2010 election.
The legislation was first mooted in the 2012 Budget, and it came into effect on 7 January 2013. That in itself was a bizarre date to choose, and one might ask why it was not simply started on 6 April in the next available tax year, which might have made life a little simpler. I have not found figures for how much the clawback and the lack of take-up of child benefit have saved the Treasury, but I estimate it to be somewhere in the region of £2 billion to £3 billion a year—certainly a very useful amount to fill up the hole left by Labour in 2010.
The charge applies above an adjusted net income of £50,000. Adjusted net income is not the usual measure of what we anticipate to be our taxable profit or income; it is the gross income from all sources, less gift aid and pension contributions. It does not include personal allowance. In very simple terms, if a pay-as-you-earn employee has a gross income of £50,000 before personal allowance, they would start to feel the effects of the high-income child benefit tax charge.
The way it works is that there is a clawback of 1% of child benefit for each £100 of additional income over the £50,000, so by the time someone has an adjusted net income of £60,000, all that child benefit is tapered away. It sounds complicated even trying to lay it out in the simple terms that I have, but one thing that comes out of this is that it is a salutary lesson in how not to withdraw a universal benefit through the tax system. What we have on the statute book, which runs to many tens of pages of tax law, is the truly mad basis of trying to claw back a benefit. It is not related to overall family income, which many people describe as one of the real drawbacks of the system.
Let me give an example. Family income is recognised as the measure for most other Department for Work and Pensions benefits. For instance, there is no withdrawal of child benefit for a couple both earning £50,000—the high-income child benefit tax charge does not apply, even though the family income is a generous £100,000. In another family, in which only one parent is working and earning, say, £60,000, and the other is not working, there would be a full claw-back of the child benefit given. That makes life complicated for people on pay-as-you-earn, who can do nothing about their income, and there is also the issue of fairness. Family businesses, or people in sole trade, perhaps have a greater opportunity for sharing income, splitting income or indeed creating a partnership to split the income down to the golden £50,000, so that there is no loss of child benefit.
I feel that this situation has led to an inherent unfairness in the system, which is one of my concerns. My other concern is the means of collection, and there lies the problem that we have faced. People who recognise that they will not qualify for child benefit can choose simply to disclaim the benefit and not receive it at all. That has been on the rise over the years since the charge has been in place. In 2013, 397,000 people were not claiming the benefit, and the number has now increased to 516,000. That is due to two issues, one of which is fiscal drag—the level has not been raised since January 2013, which is something I will raise later.
Some people are happy and feel that it is to the family advantage to maintain their cash flow—get the money into their bank with the monthly receipt of child benefit, then simply pay it back at the end of the year. Some people do that. However, the real madness in the system—we should have tax systems that make things easier—is that the implementation of these measures forced 500,000 more people into the requirement to fill in a self-assessment tax return. It is a huge bureaucratic cost to taxpayers, and managing the system must also be a significant cost to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. It is the root of the problem of collection.
Many PAYE employees have had never had to touch the tax system or fill in a self-assessment return. Luckily for them, they have been merrily ignorant of anything to do with tax. It is all done at source by their employers—if they have no further complicated tax affairs, they need do no more. The current situation has been a particular hardship for these taxpayers. They might not have spotted the advertising that was fairly extensive at the time. They perhaps received less than £50,000 at the time, but over the years their income has crept over that figure due to wage rises and better business.
I have raised this issue for a couple of my constituents and pursued it with great vigour. I have argued with HMRC that the information about which PAYE employees would face this charge is well known to Government through the real-time information system of payroll that bigger employers have had to implement since April 2012, and was rolled out gradually over time to all employers, even the smaller ones, running a PAYE system. The information was available—primarily to the DWP, so that it can assess whether people in receipt of benefits should not be, but HMRC had access to the system.
I have failed to agree with HMRC’s stance on this. It claims that the arm of Government dealing with the DWP has got no relevance to their arm, which deals with tax. The data has not been shared, even though the arms of Government had the information at their fingertips and could have advised people that they were potentially falling foul of the system. In my arguments to HMRC on behalf of my constituents, I argued for extra-statutory concession A19, which is often used when HMRC makes a mistake—often with the elderly. I saw this very regularly when I was one of the volunteers for Tax Help for Older People in Kent. HMRC has had the information and applied the wrong code across different pensions. Three years later, an assessment turns up. Extra-statutory concession A19 makes HMRC give up that tax if it has been in receipt of information but has not used it properly.
Of the constituents who have been found not to have done what they should have done—registered to do a self-assessment return, possibly for the first time in their life—they have been, well, not happy, but comfortable enough, even given what ESC A19 says: that they should pay the money back. They are quite happy with that. However, many of these people have faced a tax-geared penalty under section 97 of, and schedule 24 to, the Finance Act 2007. That penalty has generally been at the lowest rate of 15% under the careless but prompted regime, under HMRC’s fines regime. However, they have also faced statutory interest, which is currently at 3.75%. Many people understand that, if they have been in receipt of child benefit for a few years and should not have been, they should pay it back, but they feel particularly aggrieved about a 15% penalty and the statutory interest.
I argued with HMRC, for my constituents, that the suspended penalty regime, under paragraphs 1 and 14 of schedule 24 to the Finance Act 2007, should be the equitable solution. This is a procedure by which HMRC, with discretion, is allowed to put those penalties on hold and effectively say, “If you are good taxpayers for the next couple of years, this will disappear”; the penalty is then discharged. HMRC responded to me with, I must say, an innovative obtuseness that I rarely see. It responded that schedule 41 of the Finance Act 2008 applies, as the taxpayer had failed to notify, in accordance with section 7 of the Taxes Management Act 1970. They had failed to notify, so that penalty suspension, which is allowed for other taxpayers, does not apply. The taxpayer is also in some difficulty should they wish to go to the first-tier tribunal as well, which would always result in failure on a statutory basis.
I think the pressure of mumsnet.com, moneysavingexpert.com and, hopefully, myself has made HMRC use a degree of discretion in its ability to interpret “carelessness”, which is always a vague term. My thought of carelessness might be different from yours, Mr Chairman. However, HMRC has gone back and reassessed many penalty assessments. Over the time of this new charge, there have been 97,405 penalties across 37,406 customers. As ever, thanks to the Library for pulling out that type of detail for me. The charge has raised £15 million of penalties, which is not a vast sum. A recent review—I think the Daily Mail was very much behind this, with pressure from some of its readers—shows that, of those 35,000 cases involving a failure to notify, a penalty of 15% had been charged because a reasonable excuse was not accepted. HMRC has actually recanted on that and allowed quite a number of thousands—6,000, I believe—of these penalties to be waived, with £1.8 million of penalty refunds.
As part of its work, HMRC has designed a helpful flow diagram showing two events for which penalties could be refunded. The first is for when income has increased from below £50,000 to above £50,000 since the start of the high-income child benefit tax regime, and the second is for when a taxpayer has started a new relationship, since the introduction of the charge, with a partner who is in receipt of child benefit. Those are the two cases for which HMRC has given in and agreed to the suspension of penalties, and that is to be very much applauded.
What do people do when they have a new child and make a claim? If they know that their income is over the limit, they may not bother at all—they might think, “We just won’t get involved.” For other families there is the CH2 form, which I will mention in more detail shortly. As I have laid out thus far, we have dragged half a million people into the self-assessment net. We have raised penalties under a system that I do not agree is reasonable on statutory grounds. We are learning a lesson: should we seek to withdraw universal benefits in some other field—that suggestion is not on the Conservative agenda, but it is raised from time to time, for example with winter fuel allowance—this has to be a salutary lesson in how never to use the tax system to withdraw benefits.
I will conclude by addressing five areas, which might take a little time. We have fiscal drag, because the thresholds at which the full benefit is withdrawn—namely £50,000 and £60,000—have applied unchanged for six years. We now find that as wages rise, more people are dragged annually into self-assessment. Since its inception in 2013, 370,000 more families have to fill in a self-assessment return.
I am very surprised that the House did not pick up at the time on the fact that the system completely blows away the independent status of taxation for couples. Even up to 1990, women were deemed to be the chattels of their husbands, and there was a single tax return. In 1990, that was thankfully blown away, having been overdue for a long time. I think the groundwork was laid by Geoffrey Howe and seen through by Lord Lamont. After that date, people were treated as they should be for tax: as individuals.
The system blows that away because one partner now needs to ask the other, “What do you earn, because I need to determine whether it is you or I who pays the high income child benefit tax charge?” The partner in receipt of the child benefit might not be the one paying the charge; it always falls on the higher earner. Whereas before there was decent independence and secrecy between partners should they so wish, that was blown away by the legislation, and I do not feel that could ever be right.
Subsequent tax legislation has also had an unusual and, I think, unforeseen impact, including, particularly, on buy-to-let property. At the start of my speech, I mentioned the concept of adjusted net income, which is income from PAYE, rents, dividends and whatever else one might receive. Changes to buy-to-let allowability of mortgage interest, however, have had an unforeseen impact. Years ago, rental income less expenses and mortgage interest would give a net figure, which would form the top end of the tax return and be part of the creation of the relevant net income. With the gradual restriction of the allowability of mortgage interest—I will not expand on whether that is right, wrong or indifferent—the tax return looks different. Net relevant income for rental purposes does not include the deduction for mortgage interest, which now comes at the bottom part of the tax return. Instantly, the net relevant income at the top part of the tax return is now bigger for many people with mortgage interest, even though the net effect for cash flow and everything else might be the same. There is now some relief for mortgage interest at the bottom part of the tax return, by way of a credit of tax.
I did not see the full shortcomings of that piece of legislation at the time, even though, at that Budget statement some years ago, I raised concerns about changing the whole deductibility regime, which is fundamental to tax. That legislation has caused another group of families, who are doing nothing particularly exotic, to be dragged into the high income child benefit tax charge, as their income has pitched into the £50,000-plus bracket because of the deductibility of mortgage interest, even though nothing has changed.
A real concern shared by all hon. Members in the Chamber is that of the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign. They have been active because they have an axe to grind and I think that many of us have sympathy with some of what they have to say. We are potentially building another problem for the future—thankfully, I might be long gone from this place before it has to be solved.
Earlier I described what people might do when they have a new baby. If they have earnings of more than £60,000, they might think, “I just can’t be bothered to fill in the form. I’m not going to get anything; why would I bother?” The CH2 form is not unreasonable or too complex—it is actually quite free flowing and easy to understand—but a lot of people do not bother at all.
The other choice they have, by filling in form CH2, is to take the child benefit and then pay it back annually through their self-assessment return, or to register for a nil award so that they are in receipt of child benefit but at nil value. That is really important for those who do not follow that route. They do not want the hassle of a self-assessment return, so they decide to do nothing. The partner in that relationship, who is perhaps not working, will not be building up a national insurance record, because if someone fills in form CH2 and decides not to take any child benefit, they will at least be crediting up a national insurance contribution under class 3. My concern is that people do not know that this is there for them and are saying, as many of us do, “I can’t be bothered to fill in another form. I don’t think I will get anything. I won’t do it.”
We are potentially building up a problem of people—let us be frank, it is probably predominantly women—who will find in the future that they do not have the national insurance record that they thought they had. When they get their DWP statement with details of the award they will receive with the new state pension some six months before retirement age, they will find it is rather less than they thought.
We have to ask ourselves why we have dragged 1.2 million families into the system—and that figure is rising, due to fiscal drag and the measures for buy-to-let property mortgage interest. It is worth mentioning the perversities in the whole tax calculation. I do not know how Parliament missed that. I was not here in 2013, but had I been I might have spotted it. It is an unusual situation, but when dealing with tax systems, I think it best to flex the edges to find out where the problems are.
This is an extreme case, but it is catered for on the gov.uk website: in 2019-20 a family with 10 children—there are not too many of those around—would be in receipt of £7,500 of child benefit. Anyone earning £50,000, including a self-employed person, would be in receipt of £7,500 in child benefit, but if they had the opportunity of a great new contract to get their income up to £60,000, under this system they would have to pay back that entire £7,500. In my view, tax lost—tax paid—and benefit lost are the same thing. What lands in someone’s bank account is the same thing, whether that is through losing benefit or paying more tax. In effect, therefore, for that extreme example of a family, there would be a 75% clawback charge, because they would pay back the £7,500 child benefit owing to that £10,000 in additional income.
That is not where the matter ends, of course. People who earn £50,000 are higher-rate taxpayers, paying 40% tax and, if employed, 2% national insurance. We therefore have the perversity, which I am sure is not always seen, of a 117% tax charge and benefit loss. For that extra £10,000, that taxpayer will actually be worse off by £11,700. There should not be such perversities in the tax system.
I like a debate to end with a solution, but there is no easy solution to this one—I grant the Financial Secretary that great problem. I would like to extend the penalty suspension to all, because I think HMRC has been rather obtuse about this one. If people start to do the right thing, past penalties should be suspended and, if they do the right thing for the following two years, those penalties should disappear.
The easier option would be to restore the universality of child benefit. Nothing is simpler than that—everyone gets it without means testing or complication—but the Government and the Treasury understandably want to claw back that benefit from people in receipt of higher income. A complicated solution—or, rather, a politically difficult one—would be to reduce the personal allowance for those with children. They would get their full child benefit but pay a little more in tax. At least that could be coded out—they need not worry about the self-assessment system—and for the PAYE taxpayer with simple affairs, things would be just as they are. However, that would be a difficult way to do it.
It would be simpler, perhaps, to make a higher universal child benefit payment, which this year is £20.70 for the first child and £13.70 for subsequent children, subject to the benefits cap. Any increased child benefit, however, should be made a taxable benefit. Therefore, through coding, the Government could claw back 20% from a basic rate taxpayer, and 40% from a 40% taxpayer. For those with complicated tax affairs, adding the layer of clawing back the high income child benefit tax charge is no great difficulty. Something similar happens already. The retired have a simple coding adjustment for private pensions to reflect the level of their state pension.
We need a new and elegant solution, and to learn the lesson that whenever Governments in future claw back benefit, they should not do it in this way, through the tax system. It has created bureaucracy and angst, and I am worried that normal, law-abiding taxpayers now feel that they have done something very wrong because of those levels of penalties. That is my appeal to the Financial Secretary.