All 2 Richard Thomson contributions to the National Insurance Contributions (Increase of Thresholds) Act 2022

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Thu 24th Mar 2022
National Insurance Contributions (Increase of Thresholds) Bill
Commons Chamber

Committee stage: Committee of the whole House & Committee stage

National Insurance Contributions (Increase of Thresholds) Bill Debate

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Department: HM Treasury

National Insurance Contributions (Increase of Thresholds) Bill

Richard Thomson Excerpts
Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
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May I say what a pleasure it is to follow the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), whose speech I very much enjoyed? I hear the paeans to the Conservatives being the party of freedom and low taxes, so it will no doubt come as a shock to him that the Office for Budget Responsibility wrote yesterday that taxes will rise to their highest level as a share of national income

“since the late 1940s under Clement Attlee’s post-war Government.”

I know that the Conservatives love to compare themselves with previous Labour Governments, but I was not aware that they intended to compare themselves with that one. The big difference is that under Clement Attlee’s post-war Government, nobody could be in any doubt about the intention to raise living standards for all and to share the burden equitably. [Interruption.] I hear the comment, “The big difference was a pandemic”, but there was a big difference because of world war two as well, hence the “post-war” bit. However, I will gladly take an intervention once I have made a bit of progress.

The Scottish National party welcomes the Bill insofar as it goes. We are clearly in the midst of the worst cost of living crisis in living memory. Inflation is spiralling and is set to hit 8.7% later this year. Some of that is common to industrialised economies around the world, but let us be perfectly frank that other elements of it are entirely self-inflicted because of the Government’s choices. That resonates through people’s pocket books, with the OBR forecasting the sharpest fall in real earnings since the 1970s and the biggest hit to real household disposable income since records began in the 1950s. That is certainly not a record to be proud of.

The Chancellor had a golden opportunity yesterday to do something to ease the pressure on hard-working individuals and families, to help those on benefits and to give much-needed respite to businesses trying to trade their way back to health and prosperity. The circumstances were as auspicious as they ever could be. The Chancellor had headroom of approximately £30 billion that he could have worked within, as a consequence of increased tax revenues through fiscal drag and because of borrowing undershooting the forecast levels. There was the potential to make a significant difference for those who were feeling the pinch the greatest.

And what did we get? In the face of a 30p-a-litre rise in costs at the petrol and diesel pumps, there was a 5p cut in fuel duty, which barely takes the cost at the forecourts back to where the prices were last week. That offers no respite to the motorist or consumer or, indeed, to all of us, given that we are all affected by the price of goods that are transported on lorries or vans to the shops. Despite an admission that research and development funding was not having the effect that it ought to in driving growth, we had a promise just to spread that ever more thinly rather than focusing on where it could have the greatest effect.

On energy costs, we had a VAT cut on energy efficiency products, although, frankly, the mind boggles at how someone who is struggling to pay their existing utility bills will somehow find the money—VAT or not—to install solar panels, heat pumps or anything else that might be covered. We had the frankly paltry increase in the household support fund from £500 million to £1 billion. That is just one fifth of the impact of the 5p cut in fuel duty.

The blunt reality is that anyone who woke up yesterday morning worrying about how they would pay their energy bills will have woken up this morning confronted by exactly the same set of worries.

Alberto Costa Portrait Alberto Costa
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The SNP has been in uninterrupted governance of Scotland since 2007. During those 15 very long years, that nationalist Government have had many levers at their disposal relating to taxation regime relief and grants and other funds. Why have they not used those levers to assist people in Scotland, and why are SNP Members such as him instead complaining in this House about the UK Government’s moves?

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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I presume that the hon. Member is a supporter of the present constitutional set-up. I know that he sought election in Scotland before finding his present constituency, and in view of that he ought to be aware that only some powers are devolved, and the Scottish Government have limited fiscal powers. Those powers that they do have, however, they have used effectively. They have reduced taxes for about 54% of workers, and have also introduced benefits such as the Scottish child payment, which is doubling. They have used the limited powers at their disposal judiciously. If the hon. Member is patient, I may accept a further intervention from him when I come to other aspects of the deficiencies in that fiscal settlement.

James Daly Portrait James Daly
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The hon. Gentleman has made some points about the record of the Scottish National party Government. I hope he will correct me if I am wrong, but according to the Scottish Parliament Information Centre, over the three years up to 2021 Scots paid £900 million more in taxes than those in the rest of the UK, and would have paid exactly the same as those in the rest of the UK had their rates mirrored those of the UK. As a result of decisions by the Scottish Government over the last three years, Scots have been clobbered with £900 million worth of extra taxes. Is that correct?

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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As I have said, 54% of Scots are paying lower rates of tax than they would be paying if they lived elsewhere in the UK. Overall, the tax system has been reshaped to make it more progressive and, I would argue, more equitable. According to the Resolution Foundation, about 1.3 million people across the UK will be pushed into absolute poverty as a result of tax decisions made by this Government. I have to say that it is a bit rich to argue, as some Conservative Members wish to do, that the Scottish Government, on a budget that is determined in great part by political decisions taken in this place, should be dipping into the revenues that it has earmarked for essential public services in order to mitigate the impacts of poor choices made here.

The Scottish National party has been sharply critical of the national insurance rise since it was first announced, for straightforward reasons. We believed that it was a regressive tax. It hit the lowest earners the hardest. It was a tax on jobs, and therefore a tax on growth. It was rebranded as a “health and social care levy”, although the Government had no clear idea of how the money was to be spent within the NHS, and could not clarify the question of how any of it would be passported through to social care services in England. Moreover, as a result of its impact on people’s incomes, it would bake in inequality—both generational and geographical—for decades, mitigating social care costs for some but not for all.

The Bill removes some lower earners from the liability that the Chancellor has created, and we welcome that partial retreat. Realigning national insurance and income tax thresholds is broadly sensible, but I believe—I am happy to be corrected on this point—that it only takes us back to the status quo ante of 2010, when the Conservative Government first came to office. Paul Johnson, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, posed an important question in The Times this morning:

“Why promise to spend billions cutting the basic rate of income tax whilst going ahead with an increase in NI rates? That will make the tax system both less equitable and less efficient. It will increase the wedge between higher taxes on earnings and lower taxes on pensions and unearned incomes. And wouldn’t that money have been better spent sooner helping those most in need?”

I certainly cannot quibble with that.

Let us not be fooled: even though the thresholds are moving, this is still a tax increase. There has been no shortage of informed opinion telling the Chancellor that this was the wrong thing to do, but from a political point of view I am bound to say that he has made mugs of his Conservative colleagues—not just those who had to swallow the indignity of betraying a manifesto pledge at the last election, but those who have gone all out to stoutly defend the policy over the last few months.

The manner in which the Bill has come before us exposes the nonsense that this tax rise was ever in any way “hypothecated”. If the right way to fund the health and social care levy was through a hike in national insurance—and I do not believe it was—it cannot also be right to backtrack on the extent of that rise. It is also impossible to argue that it is hypothecated when we see no corresponding increase in the health budget in England.

Anthony Browne Portrait Anthony Browne (South Cambridgeshire) (Con)
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The hon. Member has described this as a tax increase, and obviously it will raise revenue, but does he accept that raising both the threshold and the rate of national insurance means that it is actually a tax cut for people earning less than about £40,000 a year and that only people earning more than that amount will be paying more tax? Overall, is that not the sort of outcome that we would want?

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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Raising the threshold will certainly take some people out of the scope of the measure that was previously announced, but overall, for those who are not in that category, this still represents a higher level of tax that they are paying to the state than would have been the case had it not gone ahead.

As with yesterday’s other announcements, notwith-standing the Chancellor’s conceit about being an instinctive tax-cutter, these measures are being paid for largely through fiscal drag. The other invidious element is the fact that state benefits are failing to keep pace with inflation. As the hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray) said earlier, only one in eight workers will see their tax bills fall by 2025 as a result of these measures, and as I said in my opening remarks, this will be the highest tax burden since Clement Attlee was Prime Minister.

Let me now turn to the Barnett formula. I think that the Bill exposes the fragilities and frailties of that funding settlement. The Scottish Parliament has limited tax and benefit powers, but much of its funding is contingent on policy decisions being taken first of all in this place, for England, before any corresponding resources are released for devolved Governments. We see the foibles and the fragility of that in the Bill, but we also saw it during the pandemic, when decisions had to be taken here before those corresponding resources were released. That, in my view, is not a good way of trying to run the country. We should be trying as far as possible to align policy with resources so that there is clear accountability in terms of decisions made and outcomes delivered, and the funding structures of the devolution settlement are not conducive to that.

In his statement, the Chancellor seemed to me to cut the figure of the pickpocket who expects some credit for returning half an hour later to hand back someone’s wallet after abstracting the cash and cards that were inside it. It is amazing that he should expect any gratitude for what he is doing. I do not believe that any responsible Government seeking to tackle some of the crises facing public services post pandemic would reach for national insurance as the best way to do it. If, as I fervently hope, a Scottish Government will one day have full powers over their finances, I do not believe that they will reach for that lever either.

We support this Bill, but it is very much an indictment of the Government’s priorities that we are here to discuss it at all.

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Alexander Stafford Portrait Alexander Stafford
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Of course, we all have to live within our means: we cannot just keep on spending money. It was right for us to spend £400 billion to save jobs, save lives, prop up our economy and make sure that people have jobs, but we need to pay that back, so unfortunately we cannot have huge, sweeping tax cuts, however much we might like to. The Government need to make and are making the tough but responsible choices.

I also feel we are in a parallel universe when I hear Opposition Members talking about being on the side of working people and saying that they would do more if they were in our shoes. My local council, Labour-run Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, is not only increasing council tax for hard-working people but doing so with the ninth-largest increase, in cash terms, in the entire country. That is despite the council having £58 million in reserve for rainy days. If this is not a rainy day, I do not know what is. Instead of increasing council tax by so much, the council should spend the money it has in reserves and lower council tax for hard-working people.

Let me turn to an even more ridiculous example. Last year, the Labour police and crime commissioner for South Yorkshire underspent his budget by £2 million. That is a big saving. What would a fiscally prudent person do? They could spend it on reopening the police stations on Maltby High Street or in Dinnington, as I advocate, or perhaps freeze or even cut the precept. But no: the precept for the South Yorkshire police and crime commissioner is increasing, despite that budget underspend. It is a parallel universe.

The Government are introducing tax cuts for hard-working people. We should emphasise that it is about the working people, because we want to put more money into people’s pockets. The Bill is a good, strong and stable measure, because it will look after people and put pounds in their pockets, where they matter. It is my fundamental belief, shared by my colleagues on the Conservative Benches, that if someone works hard, they will get the fruits of their labour—they will get out what they put in. Under this Bill, the more someone works, the more money they will get in their pocket, and more money in their pocket is better for them and their family, community and society. That is what the Bill does: it looks after people by putting more money in their pockets, because the individual knows best. That has been what goes on since time immemorial.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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According to the IFS, median earners on around £27,500 can expect to be around £400 worse off in 2022-23 than in this financial year, even after the increase to the national insurance floor. Are they getting back all that they put in? How do the hon. Gentleman’s comments square with the lived experience that people on median earnings will have in the forthcoming financial year?

Alexander Stafford Portrait Alexander Stafford
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that interesting point, but it is clear that 70% of working people are going to have a tax cut. In fact, not only is there a tax cut in the Bill, but we know that there will be an income tax cut in 2023-24. I hope the Scottish Government also reduce income tax, so that they too are on the side of hard-working people.

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James Daly Portrait James Daly (Bury North) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), who made a passionate speech. This has been an incredibly important debate, but the framing of the debate by the Opposition Front Bench was somewhat curious. The hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray) did not want to answer any questions from Members, including myself, on taxation issues that impact the cost of living for my constituents. Thankfully, the debate has been wide-ranging. If we are to discuss the impact of tax, we must look at it in every part of the country.

I listened to the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson). I often have to restrain myself from intervening on Members of the SNP, but today, I had to listen to the spokesperson for a party who has actually found a way of taxing the people of Scotland, their own citizens, to the sum of £900 million in extra taxes over the last three years for a net benefit of £170 million.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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I think the hon. Gentleman is confusing cause and effect with the complicated system for forecasting tax revenues and then balancing payments between the Treasury and the Scottish Government. Would he like to add that clarification to his remarks?

James Daly Portrait James Daly
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Absolutely not. The SNP has found a way of raising taxes that penalises their own citizens and raises less income.

I come back to Greater Manchester. I am proud to be the MP for Bury North. My constituents face a wide range of taxation issues. They will support the Government position and the policy announced yesterday on the increase in the national insurance threshold. Every single person in this debate has supported it. Indeed, the hon. Member for Gordon said, very curiously, that it was an indictment but he was going to support it. It is a good policy that will put more money in people’s pockets. It is a tax cut, especially for those on the lowest incomes, which is to be welcomed.

I want to consider this policy in the context of the largest self-employed sector in my constituency—taxi drivers. Taxi drivers will be hit completely by the taxes proposed for Andy Burnham’s clean air charging zone—at 493 square miles, it will be the world’s largest such zone. That tax—£10 for small vans and £60 for lorries—will hit all those who rely on certain types of motor transport to earn their living. How can that be right? I stand up here on a regular basis and ask Opposition Members to support me in asking for that charge—a cost that hard-working taxi drivers and others in my constituency face—to be removed, but there is silence. We have to look at the whole of the country, and at the policies put in place by politicians at different levels.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) talked about his experience of a local Labour authority. In Greater Manchester, we have council tax rises linked to incompetence. We have precepts that the Greater Manchester Mayor is levying on taxpayers in my area, even though he, as police and crime commissioner for Greater Manchester, has wasted millions on millions of pounds on a failed computer system. The decisions of politicians impact my constituents every day. I hope at some point Opposition politicians will join Conservatives in Greater Manchester in calling for the reduction of taxes on our constituents, for the benefit of those constituents.

We see a contrast. The Government are investing in my constituents and in hard-working people.

National Insurance Contributions (Increase of Thresholds) Bill Debate

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Department: HM Treasury

National Insurance Contributions (Increase of Thresholds) Bill

Richard Thomson Excerpts
Matt Rodda Portrait Matt Rodda
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I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate this afternoon. I would also like to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) for their new clauses, which I will speak to. I want to take this opportunity to talk about two groups of people, both of which are under real pressure due to the cost of living crisis. Those two groups are families in work, many of whom are on universal credit, and pensioners, many of whom have partners on universal credit.

First, I would like to give a bit of context. It is clear that we now face an unprecedented cost of living crisis due to soaring food and energy prices. Working families and pensioners are about to be confronted with the frightening prospect of the kind of cut to their standard of living not seen since the 1970s. Recent events in Ukraine have been shocking. However, the cost of living crisis predates Putin’s awful war and his vicious attack on the Ukrainian people. It was clear in the autumn that food and fuel prices were starting to rise steeply, but the Government have actually made matters worse despite those warning signs.

The Prime Minister and the Chancellor have made a series of choices that have made things worse. They decided to increase national insurance. They also decided to break the triple lock and failed to increase the state pension in line with inflation. To make matters even worse, they decided not to introduce a windfall tax, even when it was clear that such an approach would have provided cash to ease bills for families and pensioners. However, they did not have to take this damaging approach. They made a choice. They took the decision to act in this way, knowing full well the impact their policies would have. I contrast this with the approach set out by the shadow Chancellor, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), whose windfall tax proposals would have helped those struggling to get by with a payment of up to £600 per household. Sadly, people across the country will now pay the price for the choices made by the Government.

I suggest to those on the Treasury Bench that it is worth looking at what is being said about the spring statement in the media and by commentators. For example, the chief executive of the Resolution Foundation said that it was hard to make sense of the spring statement. With just a hint of irony, he said:

“This package only makes sense if your only test for policy choices was can you prove you’re a tax cutter and you’ve already announced a rise in national insurance”.

The FT was somewhat less diplomatic. It described the spring statement with these words:

“Chancellor builds war chest for 2024 but offers minimal help for families reeling from increasing household bills”.

These choices will all have a huge impact on local communities up and down the country. I have been thinking about many of my own residents in Reading and Woodley, such as people running small businesses, teaching assistants, nurses, IT consultants, residents who work in retail and manufacturing, and parents who are under real pressure to pay for the weekly shop. The Government’s policies will also hit those who are a little bit older, such as pensioners who are struggling with the high cost of heating in an area with many terraced houses that are difficult to insulate.

Even at this late stage, I ask the Chancellor and those on the Treasury Bench to reconsider their approach. There is no doubt that this country faces a real cost of living crisis. That has been clear since the autumn. The Chancellor and the Prime Minister had the opportunity to look at a number of policies, including a windfall tax on the energy companies, which would have offered up to £600 of much-needed help. Sadly, they chose to impose extra costs on families and pensioners at the worst possible time.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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The SNP is generally supportive of all the amendments that have been tabled, and I echo the comments of the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who made a number of points about the importance of understanding the intended purpose and impact of legislation before it takes effect. I made that point ad nauseam during the passage of two Finance Bills, but I keep returning to it because it is important that we understand what we are doing and that we avoid, as far as possible, the law of unintended consequences.

Quite apart from the evidence base they would provide for legislative scrutiny, the amendments might provide a corrective to the poor policy choices that Ministers have made in recent times.

James Murray Portrait James Murray
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As I said on Second Reading, we will support the Bill, but I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and my hon. Friends the Members for Reading East (Matt Rodda) and for Eltham (Clive Efford) for their important points about the impact the Bill will have. We recognise that raising the thresholds for national insurance contributions has benefits, and we welcome any help for people facing the Chancellor’s national insurance hike in April.

The explanatory notes explain that the increase to the primary thresholds for class 1 national insurance contributions and the lower profits limit for class 4 contributions will require changes to the systems of employers and HMRC, including those designed to facilitate pay-as-you-earn. The explanatory notes also explain that the Bill is being fast-tracked to give employers and HMRC as much time as possible to implement the changes, helping to make sure people are not overtaxed, and they confirm that the speed with which the Bill is going through Parliament means, unsurprisingly, there has been no consultation.

Although it is, of course, right to give employers and HMRC as much time as possible, the explanatory notes underline that the changes are being made very late in the day. Indeed, as we will come to later, the decision to implement this change from 6 July rather than 6 April reflects the last-minute nature of the Chancellor’s proposals. This approach to legislation does not inspire confidence that he is in control and has a well thought-through package to help people who are struggling to make ends meet. Indeed, it gives the impression of a Chancellor who has made the wrong choices and is now scrabbling at the eleventh hour to limit the damage.

Of course, according to the Chancellor, he only started work yesterday. He seemed proud to claim ahead of the spring statement that “the work starts today,” but the truth is that his choices have been hitting working people for far longer, and the Conservatives’ choices have been hitting our country for 12 years.

Clause 1 amends the Social Security (Contributions) Regulations 2001 to align the primary threshold for class 1 national insurance contributions with the income tax personal allowance. As I said, we support this measure as we recognise that raising the thresholds for national insurance contributions has benefits, and we welcome any help for people facing the Chancellor’s national insurance hike in April. However, this clause draws attention to the fact that the change to the primary threshold will not come into force until 6 July 2022. Indeed, subsection (4) explicitly states that the changes made to the primary threshold

“do not affect any liability to primary Class 1 contributions for any tax week commencing before that date”.

There will therefore be three months during which the Chancellor’s hike in national insurance will be in place, and hitting people’s pockets, and the changes to the primary threshold will not yet have taken effect. As I said a few moments ago, people looking at this will conclude that we have a Chancellor who knows he has made the wrong choices and is now scrambling around at the eleventh hour to limit the damage. So I wish to press the Minister on a few points about how and when the decision was taken to implement the threshold increase from July.

First, I have a simple question: when was a decision taken by the Chancellor to raise the threshold? Did he wake up on 23 March, the day he says was his first day of work, and make the decision then? Or had a policy decision been taken by the Treasury earlier, meaning that it could have been implemented earlier too? I realise the Minister may respond by trying to claim that announcements about changes to tax levels are made only at fiscal events, but that is not the case; the national insurance increase coming in April was announced by way of an unscheduled statement by the Prime Minister in September last year, and the arising legislation was pushed through Parliament in a day one week later.

If the Chancellor had decided to raise thresholds earlier this month, or even earlier this year, could his decision not have been announced and legislated for sooner? If that had been the case, these new thresholds could be in place from April, or at some point sooner than July, providing at least some extra help for people in the critical three months ahead when NI is being hiked and energy bills are set to soar. There are only two explanations possible for what has happened: either the Chancellor made the decision about thresholds only on the morning of 23 March, or he made it earlier, yet sat on it, when he could have acted to help people sooner. I would like the Minister to tell me which account is true. Given that the Bill introduces the threshold increase from 6 July, I would also be grateful if the Minister explained what consideration was given to backdating the increase to April. Is that an option that the Chancellor considered? If so, why was it discounted, and if it was not considered, why not?

Clause 2 raises the lower profits limit for class 4 contributions and ultimately aligns it with the income tax personal allowance. As before, we support this measure as we recognise that raising the thresholds for national insurance contributions has benefits, and we welcome any help for people facing the Chancellor’s NI tax hike in April. I note that the changes to the threshold for self-employed people’s class 4 contributions take effect in two stages. First, the lower profits limit is raised from £9,880 to £11,908 from April 2022, and then it is raised again to £12,570 in April 2023. The figure of £11,908 represents, as far as I can tell, a blended average for 2022-23 of the lower profits limit continuing at the level previously intended until July, and then being raised to £12,570 for the remaining months of the year. As with class 1 contributions, we will therefore have three months during which the Chancellor’s NI hike will be in place and hitting people’s pockets, yet the changes to the threshold will not yet have taken effect. I therefore ask the Minister again: are people missing out because the Chancellor made the decision about thresholds only on the morning of 23 March, or did he make that decision earlier, yet sat on it, when he could have acted to help people sooner?

Clause 3 gives the Treasury the power to make regulations to align the threshold for paying class 2 NICs with the lower profits limit. This clause also enables the Treasury to make sure that self-employed people with profits between the small profit threshold and the lower profits limit will continue to be able to build up NI credits but will not pay any class 2 national insurance contributions. As with the other changes in this Bill, we support this measure as we recognise the benefits of raising the thresholds. I would like, however, to press the Minister on two technical points that arise from clause 3. First, why are the changes to class 2 contributions to be made by way of regulations, rather than being implemented through this Bill? I note that clause 5(3) seems to make it clear that regulations arising from clause 3 will, as they would amend Acts of Parliament, have to be laid before and approved by a resolution of each House. Will the Minister explain why the detail on clause 3 will therefore be decided a later stage, and not with the class 1 and class 4 changes today? Secondly, clause 3(2)(b) makes it clear that the changes to class 2 contributions may be made to have retrospective provision from 6 April 2022. So why is it possible to backdate changes to class 2 contributions to April 2022, yet changes to class 1 and class 4 contributions can take effect only from July?

The remaining clauses include clause 4, which makes transitional and consequential provisions that are reasonable in the context of the Bill; clause 5, on which I have touched, relating to the making of regulations; and clause 6, on the short title. Before I close my speech, I should point out that nothing in those clauses addresses the secondary threshold for employers. We have warned since the national insurance hike was introduced that it would be a tax on working people and their jobs, yet none of the Bill’s clauses address the level at which employers will have to pay the raised rate of national insurance. We know from the Office of Budget Responsibility that this is not just an issue for employers who want to create jobs; the rise in employers’ national insurance contributions will also hit workers through a double whammy, as the increase is passed on by way of lower wages and higher prices.