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Child Benefit

Volume 540: debated on Tuesday 21 February 2012

The purpose of this short debate is to use the force of argument to put further pressure on the Government to abandon their policy of taking child benefit away from children who have a parent who is a higher rate taxpayer. I also wish to address the alternative approaches if the Government wish to raise even more money from higher rate taxpayers.

Last Thursday, the lead in The Daily Telegraph was, “Penalty for paying off student loan early is lifted.” The following words were attributed to a Downing street source:

“This is hopefully good news for tens of thousands of families, as well as many Conservative MPs who had raised concerns about the penalties.”

I congratulate and thank the Prime Minister for having responded to those concerns, which I and many others had expressed on that issue. I hope a similar response will be forthcoming to the even greater and more widespread concerns that are the subject of this short debate.

I recognise that a substantive response may have to wait until the Chancellor’s Budget speech next month. I can assure him that all MPs will be raising their papers if he is able to use similar phraseology about good news for families and Conservative MPs. One essential difference between the two issues is that the removal of child benefit from higher rate taxpayers is something that concerns many more MPs, not just Conservative MPs but MPs right across the house. Many more families are affected as well—anything between 1.5 million and 1.8 million families with, collectively, about 3 million children.

There are relatively few political issues on which, over the generations, there has been a cross-party consensus. One issue is the support for the principle of a universal, non-taxable cash payment for families with children. That is now known as child benefit, which was initially introduced in 1977. Child benefit replaced child tax allowances, which dated back to 1909, and family allowances, which were introduced following the Beveridge report in 1946.

Beveridge regarded a universal system of children’s allowances as a fundamental plank of the welfare state, providing

“help to parents in meeting their responsibilities, and as an acceptance of new responsibilities by the community.”

Beveridge did not support the means-testing of children’s allowances any more than he supported means-testing for access to NHS services.

When child benefit was introduced by the Labour Government, it enjoyed all-party support. Indeed, its introduction proceeded despite the desperate financial crisis at that time, in 1976-77, when this country was under the cosh of the IMF—the IMF was effectively running the Treasury. No politician at that time made the argument that the Chancellor of the Exchequer did in the House on 20 October 2010. He said:

“The debts of the last Labour Government, and the need to ensure that the better-off in society also make a fair contribution, make this choice”—

the removal of child benefit for families with a higher rate taxpayer—

“unavoidable.”—[Official Report, 20 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 959.]

We have afforded universal benefits for children in families from 1976 to the present day. The state has grown in size since then. Why are we talking about removing this universal benefit at this stage? In my submission, it is avoidable, and must be avoided.

To emphasise just how far the Government are now proposing to go to destroy the previous consensus, it is worth noting that the Child Poverty Action Group, which supports universal child benefit, says:

“Those with children have higher costs than those without and they need additional support at whatever level of income they live on.”

Margaret Thatcher’s Government described child benefit as simple, well understood and popular. Indeed, it has a take-up rate of over 97%.

There was no hint at the last general election that the consensus would be broken. Conservative party policy was set in stone. Indeed, the Prime Minister, as Leader of the Opposition, made this boast:

“I want the next Government to be the most family friendly Government we’ve ever had in this country.”

At a public meeting in Bolton on 5 March 2010, he said that he would not “change child benefit”. He was undoubtedly taking a leaf out of the then shadow Chancellor’s book who addressed the matter at the Conservative party conference on 6 October 2009. He said:

“We will preserve child benefit”.

The early decisions of the coalition Government announced in the June 2010 Budget were consistent with those promises. In his Budget speech, the Chancellor said that

“we have decided to freeze child benefit for the next three years. This is a tough decision, but I believe that it strikes the right balance between keeping intact this popular universal benefit, while ensuring that everyone across the income scale makes a contribution to helping our country reduce its debts.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 173.]

I will not give way. I want to put my points on record, and it is a very short debate. If I have time later on, I will take some interventions.

The Prime Minister and his predecessors have so frequently professed their support for “hard-working families” that the expression has become a political cliché. How extraordinary, therefore, that the Government are still persisting with a policy that will undermine those hard-working families, especially those families in the squeezed middle. What families could be more hard working than those 55,000 or 60,000 single parent families where the lone parent works long hours in a demanding job to earn more than £43,000 a year, thereby qualifying as a higher rate taxpayer and a victim of this policy? Such families also often have very high child care costs. In the league table of hard-working families, they are closely followed by two-parent families where the breadwinner supports a spouse who cannot work, whether because of disability, long-term sickness or the need to support a child who is disabled or sick.

A family in the last category came to my constituency surgery in autumn 2010 and impressed on me the utter folly of the Government’s proposals. I then engaged in correspondence with the Treasury. On 18 January 2011, the Exchequer Secretary responded to my letter of 16 October—the fact that it took three months to get a response indicates something—in which I had specifically asked the Chancellor about the impact of his policy on those in receipt of carer’s allowance. My constituent’s wife earns slightly above the higher rate threshold, while he stays at home to look after his two children, one of whom has Down’s syndrome. The point that I wished the Chancellor to address was my constituents’ concern that in households where, through circumstance rather than choice, only one parent is able to work, the higher rate tax payer is normally compensating for the lack of earning capacity of the other. As my constituents said:

“This penalises families of those who live the true spirit of social responsibility each and every day.”

After a three-month delay, I received my reply; I had hoped for a better response. It merely asserted that the policy is tough but fair and that affected families are within the top 20% of the income distribution of all families. I immediately wrote back asking my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary to address specifically how the impact of the proposals on families such as that of my constituent could be regarded as fair. I am sorry to say that it was another three months—on 12 April—before my hon. Friend replied. He said:

“Inevitably, introducing a simple change to a universal system can create some difficult cases and it would unfortunately be difficult to create an exception for families where one partner is a carer.”

He repeated the assertion that the Government believed the policy to be fair, but how can it be fair to target such families, by asking them to make a greater contribution to reducing the deficit, while exempting families with earnings of up to £84,000 a year that are spread equally between both parents?

Fewer than one in 10 of the families from whom child benefit is to be taken away contain two higher rate taxpayers; I think that the number is 130,000 families. Almost all the remainder, therefore, will or may be in a weaker position to bear such a loss of benefit than those households with two persons earning up to £84,000 a year between them.

When I corresponded with the Treasury, the threshold for higher rate tax was £43,876. Since then, despite rising inflation—there has been a 3.1% increase in the retail prices index in the last year—the starting rate for higher rate tax has been reduced by £1,400, while the threshold for 2013-14 is still unspecified. Therefore, even more families will be affected by this change than was originally envisaged.

The policy that we are discussing today has never been properly thought through. By all accounts, it was included in the Chancellor’s speech at the 2010 party conference at the last minute, after an earlier plan to announce the withdrawal of child benefit from all children over the age of 16 was scrapped. That is why the early estimate of the contribution that this policy will make towards reducing the deficit was £1 billion. That early estimate was wrong, but in typical Treasury fashion the Government now say that anyone who opposes the withdrawal of child benefit must come up with an alternative means of producing £2.4 billion a year to go towards deficit reduction.

It is worth reminding ourselves that families are already contributing to the reduction of the deficit through the freezing of child benefit. That policy alone will save about £1 billion in 2013-14 and the total contribution that it will make during the three-year freeze is about £3 billion. In addition, many of the families who are affected by withdrawal of child benefit will lose £550 a year in basic child tax credit from this April onwards.

In responding to this debate, I expect the Minister to argue that he is in pre-Budget purdah and that he will treat what I have said as a representation, but I want him to say specifically why the Government’s proposal to increase the tax burden on hard-working families is not being defined as a tax increase but as an expenditure reduction. We know that the Chancellor has always been keen to present his deficit reduction plan in terms of achieving a fair balance between Government expenditure reductions and tax increases. Without getting into an argument about the extent to which the original target of expenditure reductions has been missed, I must ask: is it not disingenuous to regard the withdrawal of child benefit in terms other than a tax increase? After all, the antecedents of child benefit lie in the concept that there should be a higher tax allowance for those with dependent children than for those without dependent children. In essence, the Government’s policy is to remove that tax allowance and thereby increase the tax burden.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful case. Does he share my inclination to believe that the Government might be able to extricate themselves from the set of powerful problems that he describes through some combination of a transferrable child tax allowance and the universal credit system?

My hon. Friend makes a really good point. Many of us thought, because we went into a general election committed to having transferrable tax allowances and to promoting family values, that those allowances would be implemented. Although there was provision in the coalition agreement for the Liberal Democrats to abstain or vote against those allowances, it was expected that the Conservatives would introduce them and that the House would have an opportunity to judge them.

A lot of the difficulties that have been brought about as a result of the analysis of the proposal to remove child benefit come from the fact that we have abandoned the idea of using the tax system to say, “Well, if you’ve got two equivalent families, one with three or four children and the other without any children then the costs of the family with children must be greater than those of the family without children, and therefore there should be a greater tax allowance for the family with children than for the family without children.” That is the basic principle. We could have restored it or indeed enhanced it by having transferrable tax allowances, which was a commitment in our manifesto.

What depresses me, however, is that in the 16 months since October 2010, when the original proposal was made by the Chancellor, nothing seems to have been done to take forward those issues and to try to find a fair solution. Obviously, implementing something like transferrable tax allowances would take some time; we would need to have draft legislation and any such allowances probably could not be implemented by January 2013, when the Government have committed themselves to impose this burden on higher rate taxpaying families.

The Government have missed a big opportunity on transferrable tax allowances, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will have time to explain why that happened—because, as I have said, introducing those allowances was a Government policy that had been announced—and also why the Government recently reconfirmed that they have no intention whatsoever of proceeding with transferrable tax allowances.

I will give my hon. Friend the Minister some time to respond to this debate, but I should like to make some other points. I think that the Liberal Democrats are rather in favour of the policy of withdrawing child benefit from higher rate taxpayers, because they want to remove as many tax benefits from higher rate taxpayers as possible. But of course the Liberal Democrats would also like that policy to be dressed up as an expenditure reduction, because that expenditure reduction would be balanced with a tax increase and therefore there could be an additional tax increase on top of removing child benefit from higher rate taxpayers. That would also take the pressure off finding genuine reductions in expenditure, which would be achieved by reducing the size of the state.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can address that issue in his response to the debate, because there is a real definitional problem here. The way that the Government are proposing to introduce this tax penalty on higher rate taxpayers with children is effectively to require the family to declare whether or not the taxpayer or their partner are in receipt of child benefit, and then the taxpayer would be taxed 100% on that child benefit. Surely, that is a tax increase rather than an expenditure reduction.

As a contribution to this debate, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has produced a devastating but none the less very useful report, and I hope that some of the issues identified in that report, which my hon. Friend the Minister will probably have been studying closely since it was published about a fortnight ago, will be addressed in his response to this debate.

Why do the Government want higher rate taxpayers with children to make a greater contribution towards deficit reduction than higher rate taxpayers without children? Surely, it would be fairer if all higher rate taxpayers contributed equally towards deficit reduction. Any changes in the higher rate tax band needed to achieve that aim would be simple, fair, easy to collect and difficult to avoid. In other words, they would meet all the original objectives of a good tax, unlike the Government’s current proposals, which, as I have said, have been the subject of withering criticism from the IFS. In its report, the IFS estimates that £90 million of the supposed yield from this new policy would be uncollectable, that £60 million would be lost through non-compliance, that £280 million would leak through what is described as tax planning and that, in addition, there would be administrative costs and a need for extra Inland Revenue staff. There has not been a defined estimate of those additional administrative and staff costs, but a rough estimate of at least £130 million has been proposed.

Could anyone think of a more absurd and ludicrous policy to introduce than this one? It increases the complexity of the tax system; it adds to the demand for more civil servants in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to examine the changes that will be made; it encourages people to fiddle their arrangements; and it exacerbates the problem of what happens when people live together during a year without declaring it. The Government were committed to reducing the couple penalty, but this proposal will actually exacerbate it. I do not think that there is anything commendable or sensible about this policy, and there are alternatives to it.

I asked the Library if it would be possible to come up with an alternative. I do not take this view myself, but if one thought that the way to deal with this issue was to say, “If there are two higher rate taxpayers in a family, they should forfeit their child benefit”, that change would affect only 130,000 families. It would not generate much income, but it would apply to those 130,000 families who definitely have a joint income that is greater than the £84,000 to which I referred earlier.

I asked the expert in the Library whether it would be possible to have a system whereby people could claim relief against loss of child benefit by certifying that the total gross income of their household did not exceed £85,000. The answer was that, in principle, that would be possible, but that it would require joint filing for households with at least one higher rate taxpayer. One presumes that having made a return at the end of the year showing total joint income was no more than £85,000, child benefit would not be withdrawn from that household.

There are ways of generating some income in the context of this policy, but I do not think it is worth the candle, because it cuts across the dearly and long-held principle that we should have a universal benefit for families with children.

Thank you, Mr Dobbin. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on securing the debate.

Government policy towards higher rate taxpayers and welfare go to the very heart of the challenge to tackle the tough economic circumstances that we face today. It is right and fair that we support hard-working families through these difficult times, and it is vital to ensure that all parts of society contribute to tackling the economic legacy that the Government have inherited.

When we came to government, we had been through the deepest recession since the war. We inherited an economy crippled by the biggest financial crisis in almost 100 years and the largest budget deficit in our modern history. Tackling that deficit is the vital precondition of sustainable growth. Only by tackling the deficit can we provide the certainty, stability and low interest rates that are critical to our recovery and renewing our prosperity across the country. Cutting the deficit is a vital precondition of growth. It has meant that we have had to make some very difficult choices to tackle the profligacy of the previous Government and target spending where it is most effective.

The Government believe that the welfare system must remain fair and affordable while protecting the most vulnerable, and that work must pay. To achieve that, we have had to make tough decisions such as raising the state pension age to 67 between April 2026 and April 2028, not going ahead with the planned £110 above inflation increase to the child element of the child tax credit, and not uprating the couple and lone parent elements of the working tax credit in 2012-13. Those are tough decisions to make, but we have sought to make sure that they are fair across income distribution. That is why the Government have, for the first time, undertaken and published a distributional analysis of the impacts of the autumn statement 2011 and previous fiscal events.

After combining the impact of tax, tax credit and benefit and public service spending changes introduced at the autumn statement 2011 and previous fiscal events, the analysis demonstrates that the top 20% of households will make the greatest contribution towards reducing the deficit as a percentage of their income and benefits in kind from public services. It is fair that higher rate taxpayers, who are better off, make a greater contribution to those savings. We are committed to the same approach as we reform child benefits.

Let me start by saying that we fully understand how important child benefit is to millions of families across the country. For many families, it provides a vital income boost to parent income, recognising the extra costs that they face compared with non-parents. Currently, child benefit is paid to around 7.5 million people, around 95% of whom are women, in respect of 13 million children and young people. Child benefit is paid at a rate of £20.30 a week for the first child and £13.40 for each subsequent child. It is a substantial income boost to families, but it also comes at a substantial cost to the Exchequer. Child benefit already makes up around 7% of total social security and tax credits spending, and each year those spending levels rise.

Furthermore, we already pay more than £2 billion pounds a year in child benefit to higher rate taxpayers. At a time when we face constrained resources, we have to focus the resources that we have where they are needed the most.

If that is so, why was that not said by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the June 2010 Budget? Why did he say that he was going to freeze child benefit? Why did he not say what my hon. Friend is now saying? It seems that the Government—perhaps because of the minority party in the coalition—have now shifted their ground and are reneging on a pre-election promise not to interfere with child benefit.

As I said earlier, we were conscious that we had to take difficult decisions in the run-up to the comprehensive spending review in October 2010. We had to come up with spending decisions that would enable the Government to have plans that met fiscal targets. In the process of preparing for the spending review, tough decisions had to be made. When faced with the various options, the Chancellor decided that it was necessary to look again at child benefit and to ensure that that spending was targeted as best as possible.

Given the need to target child benefit as well as possible, can the Minister tell us how much child benefit is being paid for children resident outside the United Kingdom—for instance, in Poland and Lithuania? Would it not be appropriate to tackle that issue before dealing with the 40% taxpayer?

I have a great deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend’s concern. I may or may not be able to furnish him with the numbers that he has asked for. None the less, we have looked at that issue on several occasions. He will not be surprised to learn that we are constrained by European regulations relating to social security payments, which means that we are not able to address his concern in the way that he would like. European economic area nationals can claim child benefit and tax credits as long as they meet the relevant conditions. That is the constraint, I am afraid. There is not the easy choice that he seeks.

I am conscious that I have three minutes left and I have barely begun to deal with the various points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, who secured this debate.

We recognise that most higher rate taxpayers are not super-rich. But, as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has said,

“a system that taxes working people at high rates only to give it back in child benefit is very difficult to justify at a time like this.”

He went on to say:

“We simply cannot ask those earning just £15,000 or £30,000 to go on paying the child benefit of those earning £50,000 or £100,000.”

The debts of the previous Government have to be addressed. Consequently, we have had to make difficult choices. By removing child benefit from higher rate taxpayers, the Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that we will save £2.5 billion a year. The savings mean we can continue to direct child benefit support to where it is needed most, supporting millions of families, and millions of children from birth until the time when they leave full-time education at the age of 18 or even 19.

I will give way, but we are eating into the time of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch.

I want to touch on the transferable tax allowance, which has already been mentioned. I have written to the Treasury about it, and it is a way of bringing fairness back into the system. Will the Minister respond to that?

I am grateful, because I want to respond directly on that point. The Government, as stated in the coalition agreement, want to recognise marriage in the tax system. We remain committed to that and we will introduce proposals at an appropriate time, as is consistent with the coalition agreement. We remain committed to what is in the coalition agreement.

No, I mean within this Parliament, which I assume does not mean what my hon. Friend suggests.

I appreciate that there are a number of concerns about how this policy will be implemented and how it will impact on hard-working families. We have been clear that the reform needs to be as simple as possible. That is why we have sought to withdraw child benefit from households with the higher rate taxpayer and not pursue a complex means-testing regime that would require Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to contact 7.8 million households in receipt of child benefit.

From a customer perspective, this delivery option does not place a burden on all child benefit claimants and it limits the impact on households containing a higher rate taxpayer. The Chancellor and I will be working closely with our officials to scrutinise the available options as to how we will implement this policy and find a sensible way forward. Plans for implementation will be set out in the next few months.