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Child Benefit

Volume 545: debated on Tuesday 22 May 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Gauke.)

There is obviously a lot of interest in this important debate. I have the power to impose a time limit, but I will not do so from the outset—let us see how we get on. However, a little self-restraint by colleagues would be most appreciated.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I thank Gingerbread, the Child Poverty Action Group, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales and the House of Commons Library for producing excellent briefings for today’s debate.

Eleanor Rathbone, the great advocate for family allowances, which we now know as child benefit, entered politics in 1909. It is extraordinary that, more than a century later, we have once again had to secure a debate in Parliament to champion the basic principles of child benefit. There have been threats to child benefit before, but since 1945 when family allowances legislation was introduced—a watered-down version of the child support that Eleanor Rathbone and others had campaigned for—only the coalition Government have introduced legislation for the demise of the principle of universality that underpins child benefit.

Not everyone on the Government side is happy with the proposed changes, as demonstrated by the lack, bar one or two, of any Back Benchers on the Government side who wish to take part in this debate. In an earlier debate, the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) pointed out that the Government’s proposals ask those on higher incomes with families to contribute more, while those on higher incomes without children are not asked to contribute more. I do not see how that can be fair. I do not usually quote from the hon. Gentleman, especially in agreement, but he has hit the nail on the head.

I would like to concentrate on two issues: the destruction by the Government of the universal principle, and the unfairness and unworkability of the proposed changes. The principle long established and supported on a cross-party basis is that society as a whole should contribute towards the upbringing of children, because we all share in the benefits of a properly supported future generation. Arguing for family allowances, Eleanor Rathbone captured that exactly:

“Children are not simply a private luxury. They are an asset to the community”.

The logic of accepting that view is that in a properly functioning society transfers are made to families with children—not away from them to pay for tax cuts to millionaires.

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs recently put out a press statement on the proposed changes, which told us that the Government’s plans for changing child benefit are legal. I have been in the House for a number of years and I am not familiar with Government Departments telling us that policy changes are legal. I can only imagine that it must reflect a measure of concern about the Government’s incompetence that Departments have taken to doing so. My concern, however, is not about the legality of the proposed changes, but that they are wrong and should not happen.

The CPAG has summarised the benefits of child allowances. They achieve horizontal distribution between families, from those without children to those with children, life-cycle redistribution—most people have children at some point and we want to help whenever families are most pressed—and intergenerational redistribution, and they place a value on all children. For those reasons and many others, the benefit should be kept in its universal form. The changes are grossly unfair and probably unworkable.

The ICAEW has branded the legislation seriously flawed in principle and in practice. It points to many problems and I will highlight a few. HMRC will be using the tax system to claw back from one individual a benefit paid to the other, which could be extremely difficult as families in similar situations will be treated differently. Despite the introduction of the taper, the changes could still lead to a huge disincentive for individuals to earn more. The worst aspect of the proposed changes is that a family with a single earner who has an income of more than £60,000 is significantly worse off through the withdrawal of the benefit, while two-earner couples with incomes of up to £50,000 each will not lose the benefit.

My hon. Friend is making a great start to the debate. When meeting people in her constituency during the local elections, was my hon. Friend struck by how hard that unfair and unworkable aspect of the change is hitting them? One voter I met, who voted Conservative at the last election, said that he will never vote Conservative again because of the unfair nature of the changes. I spent a long time talking to him and he just could not believe that they were going to be introduced.

My hon. Friend has made an excellent intervention. The unfairness of the changes goes to the heart of the debate. I suspect that as more and more people wake up to what will happen to their child benefit next January, we will see an even greater public outcry.

The changes disadvantage single parents, and partnerships where one person has decided to stay at home. With changed family circumstances, it may be very difficult to claw back payments or decide who should pay them. Taxpayers could be penalised for failing to submit information that they have no access to, particularly if the relationship breaks down. The extra administration involved could place huge burdens on HMRC at a time of budget restraint, and particularly at a time of cuts in staffing levels. We are therefore left with a number of questions.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one problem is that it will be very difficult for HMRC and families to manage this process, given that family circumstances may change in the course of a year? What a person may believe at the beginning of the year is their child benefit entitlement or their tax liability could turn out to be different, leading to problems such as lump sums having to be paid back and the amount of time required by HMRC for administration.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The workability of the proposals will have to be reconsidered. We seem to be building into the system a number of problems for families. The Government could have learned from previous practice and not gone down this road.

We are left with a number of questions about the workability of the changes and the need for them, as well as questions about fairness. As late as 2009, the Chancellor was promising not to scrap child benefit. No doubt we will hear today that it has not been scrapped, but changed massively. More significantly, it has already been cut massively because of the lack of uprating with inflation. Therefore, child benefit and families with children have already been targeted for cuts, even without the cuts that have been made to tax credits.

Will my hon. Friend reflect on the fact that, in the run-up to the Budget, there was debate about child benefit and the coming changes to working tax credit, which affect some of the lowest-paid working couples in our society? The Government found enough time and energy to make some amendments on child benefit, but none to the proposals on tax credit.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. She is right. The overriding question is, why have the Government chosen to target cuts in respect of families, particularly those with children? None of us have received a satisfactory answer; perhaps the Minister will provide us with one.

The second question is, why are women being targeted again by this Government? It is not only families with children that are being targeted, but women—mostly women who are single parents—and it is more likely to be women who are put under pressure not to claim by their partners, so that their partner’s tax does not change. Whether or not that happens in reality, the Government should not even countenance the possibility. Women will suffer in terms of pension credits if they do not claim. This is a real mess and is just one more aspect of the omnishambles Budget that needs to be changed.

It took more than 70 years from Eleanor Rathbone’s entry into politics to get universal child benefit paid to the mother for all children. I hope that it does not take another 70 years for these appalling changes to child benefit to be reversed.

I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) on securing this debate, which follows up debates during the Budget, during Second Reading of the Finance Bill and on clause 8 of the Finance Bill, and a similar debate before the Budget in this Chamber, which I had the privilege of introducing.

As the hon. Lady said, we have never had a satisfactory answer to why, if it is necessary to find a greater contribution towards reducing the deficit from those on higher earnings, we are targeting people on higher earnings with children, rather than those who do not have children. If my hon. Friend the Minister wishes to intervene at this stage and give the definitive reply, I shall happily give way.

The hon. Lady mentioned loss of support among Conservatives. I am worried and do not wish the Conservatives to lose support, which is why I have put a lot of energy into trying to ensure that this legislation is improved. If the Opposition had just asked to look at clause 8 during the Finance Bill debate on the Floor of the House—we considered clause 8 and schedule 1—we could have discussed the principles and referred to schedule 1, and those privileged to serve on the Finance Bill Committee would then have been able to consider the schedule in more detail. It is now apparent, according to the report by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, that an enormous amount of detail needs line-by-line scrutiny. Sadly, as a consequence of the earlier debate, such scrutiny cannot now be delivered, given the structure of the Committee stage of the Finance Bill, because schedule 1 has already been considered. That is a problem. I shall not ascribe blame or responsibility for that, but it means that the Government do not have the benefit of detailed scrutiny of the workability of their proposals, or, as in this case, the lack of workability.

We have a real problem. I hope that the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson), will say what she thinks we can do to bring this issue back on Report in a form that finds favour not just with me and my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless)—two Conservative Back-Benchers. Incidentally, we happen to be men and it is all ladies on the Opposition Benches this morning. Let us see what we can bring about.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about clause 8 and schedule 1. We proposed to delete the schedule, as well as the clause, because it was a shambles. However, I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about Report. I am more than happy to consider what we can do together, because, of course, we want the Bill to come out of Committee better than it went in.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. On such issues, there is a slow fuse as far as members of the general public are concerned. They do not realise what the implications are until quite a long period has elapsed. We must look to people from outside the House—third parties, perhaps—to try to alert our constituents more to the full implications.

Has the hon. Gentleman seen the Asda Mumdex index—a panel of 4,000 mums—sent to Members of Parliament yesterday? The optimism figure on the future of their family finances dropped from zero to minus eight in February, and the latest research found that it has dropped to minus 16. The issue may be on a slow fuse, but people out there—certainly, women in families—are starting to understand that the future looks rather bleak.

I have not seen those figures, but they obviously speak for themselves. Despite that, I am not receiving as many angry letters from constituents as when, for example, I was the junior Minister dealing with the community charge. Let us recall that in 1987 the Government were elected with a specific manifesto commitment to introduce the community charge on the back of its success in Scotland. The proposal on child benefit that we are discussing today was not even in our manifesto. Indeed, it was expressly ruled out by comments made by both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer in their shadow positions before the general election.

As an aside, I am not so sure that, in 1987, the community charge was such a great success in Scotland. One thing that caused the eventual collapse of the community charge was not just its unfairness, but the sheer impracticality of collection, which had not properly been thought through. The operational issue was as important as anything else. It may be the same in this case.

The hon. Lady makes a good point. There are two issues running in parallel. One difficulty for those of us proposing the community charge was to explain how it was fair that a duke and a dustman should pay the same amount. That difficulty ran through the public debate. At the same time, we went into great detail about exemptions for particular groups of people and an administratively burdensome system of rebates, which created a lot of fresh cliff edges, with people feeling that they had been treated unfairly. I fear that that is exactly what is happening with this ill-conceived proposal.

The difference between the community charge and the abolition of the 10p tax rate by the previous Government and the present issue is that, at some point, taxpayers received a bill for a sum, making it clear that they had to pay it. The alternative, if this is not to become a slow-burn issue, is that come January, taxpayers will be unaware that they have to give up their child benefit or unaware of what their partner earns, so they will simply not pay or will be followed up by the Revenue and there will be mass non-compliance involving people who are unaware, or at least say that they are.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am grateful to him for reminding us about the 10p tax rate, because that introduces a bit of political balance into this debate. It is not just the coalition Government, or the previous Conservative Government, who can get on the wrong side of such issues, both in respect of the principle and of the detail. We need an answer to the question of why the single-parent earner on £60,000 loses the equivalent of all her child benefit, while next door the two-earner couple on up to £100,000, with their incomes spread equally between the earners, keep their child benefit. Will there be an answer to that question? Perhaps the Minister would like to intervene. Unless we get answers to those fundamental questions, it will be difficult for us to sell the concept to our constituents.

The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent contribution. Does he agree that the unfairness of the measure goes beyond income? It does not take account of the number of children in any household.

Of course it does not, because the whole thing is arbitrary. It is all based on the false premise that people on £20,000 or £30,000 a year are cross-subsidising those on higher incomes with children. I have had a letter published in The Daily Telegraph and the Minister has replied to my questions, but it is apparent from my hon. Friend’s answers that there is no cross-subsidy from a person on £20,000 a year to someone on £60,000 a year with however many children—that is a fallacy. I suspect that the policy is based on someone going to a focus group and asking, “Is it fair that someone on £20,000 should be subsidising a family on £60,000 with a whole lot of children?” Of course it would not be fair if it was true, but it is not true—it is a false premise and, on the basis of that, we have a policy that I fear will lose the Conservative party a large number of votes.

Let us not forget, however, that the origins of the policy lie not in the Conservative party but with the Liberal Democrats. Before the general election they were campaigning to interfere in that policy area. With the knowledge that the measure was originally proposed and supported by the Liberal Democrats, this is another example of an area in which the Prime Minister can feel free to make significant change if he wishes to respond to agitation on his Back Benches for a bigger Conservative element in Government policy. Officials have previously suggested that something should be done about taking child benefit away from those on higher earnings but my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley), who was a Treasury Minister, said that, after looking at it from all angles, we reached the conclusion that it could not be done fairly. So what are the present Government going to do? They are going to do it, and they are going to do it unfairly.

What worries me is that the measure will be administratively burdensome as well, costing more than £100 million in extra administration. We will be taking on tens of thousands of additional civil servants when the Government are saying that we want to simplify tax policy, reduce the size of the state bureaucracy and so on. There is no consistency, and I fear for my party.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) on securing this important debate and on her excellent speech. If the Minister was not already worried, he should be by now because, as anyone familiar with my hon. Friend knows, she is a tireless campaigner for her constituents and against injustice generally. I am sure that this debate will not be the last we hear from her on this issue.

I am also pleased to follow the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), who gave an excellent speech. It is great to see him on the right side, even if he was not on for the poll tax. That shows that with age comes wisdom; I am pleased that the wisdom of his longevity has brought him to the right side on this issue.

We are discussing a complete mess, created by the omnishambles of a Budget, that has been allowed by Ministers to carry on for way too long. If we were being generous, we might suggest that the idea had been sitting on Whitehall shelves for some years, repeatedly pitched by numerous Sir Humphreys and batted away by successive Ministers until a particularly out-of-touch set of Ministers was easily convinced. Once the idea was out there, those same Ministers were too afraid to perform yet another 180° U-turn, so they turned only 150° instead. That would be the scenario if we were being kind.

If we were being less generous, we might wonder whether those out-of-touch Ministers were driving the idea through themselves, despite officials briefing them fully on how ludicrously complex it would be to implement and on the unfairness it would create. Perhaps the Minister will tell us which of those scenarios is the more accurate.

Either way, the high-income child benefit charge—that is what it is called—is a ridiculously complicated idea that fails the basic test of fairness. It is ridiculously complicated because the proposal is to introduce a tax in January 2013 that will not be collected until the following financial year, meaning an affected family with three children will be landed with a bill of more than £600 in additional tax during that following tax year.

If the Government are so determined to drive the charge through, why can they not at least marry up its introduction with the start of collection? The situation is ridiculously complicated; the charge will create hundreds of thousands of new self-assessed taxpayers while HMRC centres around the country, including some in my area, are being thinned out or closed entirely. Can the Minister tell us how many more staff HMRC will need to cope effectively with the increased flurry of returns over the Christmas and new year period as a result of the change? The charge is ridiculously complicated because it seeks to claw back tax from individuals for a benefit paid to other individuals who are separate in the eyes of the taxman, leaving the system open to both fraud and genuine errors.

Worse than all those complications is the fact that the measure fails the test of fairness because, for hundreds of thousands of families, it will take away a benefit that is supposed to be universal, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham; when the benefit was brought in by Eleanor Rathbone, the principle was that it should be universal.

The evidence shows overwhelmingly that the benefit is used to meet the costs of looking after children, such as ensuring that they are well fed and have the clothes and uniforms that they need for school and the bus fare that they need to get there. Such things apply to all families. The charge fails the test of fairness because it will penalise children in single-earner families, as we heard from the hon. Member for Christchurch, while many in double-earner families who are much better off will continue to receive the benefit. It fails the test of fairness because it is yet another policy from this Tory-led Government, whose leader claimed he wanted to create the most family-friendly Government in history, that will directly hurt children and families. Among many other changes, the policy comes on top of huge cuts to Sure Start and early-years provision, the scrapping of extended free school meal eligibility and child trust funds, and a hike in VAT.

In addition, the proposed measure will take even more money out of our local economies when demand for goods and services is at rock bottom. The Treasury aims to claw back £1.5 billion from 1.2 million households, or an average of more than £1,200 from every family affected, just in the first year, with more families becoming liable as incomes creep up and the threshold remains static. That is £1.5 billion a year that will not be being spent in local shops and businesses on our struggling high streets.

My hon. Friend’s figures are useful, but apparently the vast bulk of child benefit is spent on clothes, books and food, which shows the areas where the measure will have an effect.

As I highlighted myself, those are the findings. That money is spent on our high street—on books, clothes and food; it is not put into trust funds or saved up. The majority of people, whether in two-earner or single-earner families, will be hurt by the proposal because they use the money for daily necessities and not for luxuries. That is £1.5 billion a year that will not be put to work improving the quality of life of any of the children in the affected families or preserving and creating jobs in my constituency or the constituencies of any other hon. Members.

Children did not cause the financial and economic situation, yet the Government seem intent on making them pay for it. At the same time, high fliers in the City, who might well have played a part in that situation, are rubbing their hands together in glee at the cuts to the top rate of tax. Those are not the actions of a Government who have their policies straight, or who understand the lives of hard-working families; the more the public see of the coalition Government’s choices, the more they realise how out of touch they are.

The Government will regret this ridiculous decision, just as our country will regret voting this incompetent shower of a Government into power. Thankfully, there will be a chance to undo that decision at the next election, and policies such as the child benefit charge will ensure that this incompetent Government serve no more than one term.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) on securing this extremely important debate. The more I listen to speeches from both sides of the Chamber, the more problems I see. I want to focus on the independent taxation of women.

Clause 8 of the Finance Bill introduces a tax charge on a child benefit recipient if they or their partner’s income is above £50,000. That is wholly objectionable from the perspective of equality for women. One person is being given a tax bill because another person has a high income. Nothing could be more unjust than that. The Government have said that they want to be family-friendly, but there is nothing family-friendly about this provision. Furthermore, the information-sharing requirements to make the system work will cut across the privacy that is intrinsic to independent taxation for men and women.

Treasury Ministers seem to have taken no account of the fact that people’s family circumstances may change during a year. Incomes may go up or down and, more seriously from the point of view of the independent taxation of men and women, partnerships may come together or, unfortunately, collapse. That will provide something else to argue about, and will be the cause of yet more disputes between partnerships particularly, as my hon. Friends have said, when the tax bill arrives months after the income has been secured by the other person in the partnership.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is surprising that the “most family-friendly Government ever” might want to disincentivise couples from forming households and relationships? If someone is considering moving in with a new partner and realises that his income is a bit higher so the child benefit will be taxed away, he might be discouraged from forming that new relationship.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The permutations and problems are too numerous to mention.

We raised our questions with the Minister during the debate in Committee on clause 8 on 19 April. I asked him specifically whether independent taxation for men and women could be maintained. He responded:

“Independent taxation will still apply, each partner will still have their own personal allowance and tax rate bands, and the amount of child benefit, even if it is received by the taxpayer’s partner, will not increase the amount of income liable to tax.”

That is absurd, because it is not what independent taxation means. He continued:

“Where there are two high earners in a household and they do not want to tell each other their incomes, there will be a mechanism whereby they can find out whether they have a higher or lower income but without the full details.”––[Official Report, Finance Public Bill Committee, 19 April 2012; c. 617.]

He then said, “my time is up”; he could not explain in any more detail, and we were dismissed. Since then, tax experts at the Chartered Institute of Taxation and the Institute of Chartered Accountants have examined the matter and identified exactly the same problem. The Minister should take account of what hon. Members say. Now that tax experts are saying the same thing, I hope that he has asked his officials to re-examine the matter and can tell us today that he has changed his mind.

When I was first elected in 2005, I had the great pleasure of serving on the Finance Bill Committee with the Minister. He was always telling us what Mrs Gauke thought about things; she is an accountant.

I want to hear from him today what Mrs Gauke thinks about the proposal, because I do not think that she can be happy with it.

This matter is serious. What the Minister said on 19 April shows that either he did not understand it or that he was misleading the House. In either case, I would like him to withdraw what he said then and apologise for it.

I am pleased to participate in this debate, and I congratulate all hon. Members who have spoken, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) on securing it, and the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), who has been a vocal and powerful advocate for families in the context of the Government’s proposals. I am pleased to see him here today.

I am sad—I suspect that the hon. Gentleman shares that sadness—to see a Conservative Government introducing this proposal. There have been threats to child benefit in past decades, but there has always been an alliance with strong Conservative voices that has stood up to protect against those threats and attacks. Conservative women have been particularly strong in their understanding of why the benefit matters so much to families—[Interruption.] As my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) pointed out, it is disappointing to see so few of them in the Chamber.

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s generous remarks. It was not only Conservative women who campaigned. She will recall that John Major made the matter a cause célèbre. He said that it was wrong to take away child benefit, and that it should remain as a universal benefit.

The hon. Gentleman is right. I hope to come on to the situation when John Major was Prime Minister, and some of the arguments then.

For the benefit of many hon. Members who do not seem to appreciate the underlying principles of universal child benefit, I want to put them on the record this morning. I am sorry that they are not in the Chamber to have the benefit of my exposition, but they can read it in the Official Report. As hon. Members have said, this benefit, which is important for families, is a mechanism that is redistributive horizontally and vertically, as my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham said. As other hon. Members have said, in practice that means that families with children receive extra help to meet the cost of raising their children because, as a society, we all share the benefit of those children making a future contribution to our communal well-being. It is right to provide that support universally, and to recognise that we all share in the social obligation to maintain those families.

Over its life, the benefit is redistributive, and it enables all families to manage the additional costs that they face when raising young children, and to plan their finances across their whole lifetime. Importantly, in practice—this has been alluded to—it is a benefit that has been paid mostly to mothers. The vast majority of child benefit is paid to mothers. Even in the richest families, it is the only source of independent income for many women, and it is essential that they have access to it to provide for and to meet the needs of their children.

As hon. Members have said, we know that that money is spent for the benefit of children, either directly on toys, books, activities, clothes, shoes and so on, or indirectly by paying down family debt, ensuring that basic household bills are covered. Things that are essential for children’s well-being are prioritised in all families, and one reason is the label it bears. There is good research evidence showing that because it is called “child benefit”, it is understood that it must be spent for the benefit of children, and that is what happens.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we are talking not only about the income received, mostly by women, but also about national insurance credits that build up to a pension? People may not be in the same relationship when they retire, but the risk is that women will make a credit-only claim and that they will lose out in the long term.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. If women come under pressure to forgo child benefit, rather than their partner seeing an increase in their tax bill—I believe that that will happen in some families—they will lose the benefit of their national insurance credits. That will have a lifetime impact on those women and their pension entitlement. We cannot wish to pursue a policy that risks making women poorer throughout their life.

This benefit is directed towards children and has been designed to follow a child and stay with them even if their family circumstances change. That is particularly important if a relationship breaks down, because a woman may have no other source of income at that point. It may be an acrimonious dispute in which she is struggling to extract money from her former partner, and child benefit is often the only source of income on which she can rely to get through that family breakdown and make the transition to single parenthood. When I was director of the National Council for One Parent Families, even women in relationships that were financially well off described to me how important child benefit had been at that moment of family change. If women start to forgo that benefit under pressure from a partner who later decides to leave the household altogether, I worry that we will disadvantage those women and their children, which is something that we will regret.

I am surprised by the Government’s approach because it introduces a policy that will act as a disincentive to work. Universal child benefit does not disadvantage those who move into paid employment, because the benefit remains. The incentive to increase income through more working hours or going for a promotion will be removed for some families, and I cannot understand why Ministers, who are often concerned to incentivise people to maximise their income from employment, wish to go down such a route. The Government have the right objective, but this policy seems particularly perverse.

As my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Christchurch have highlighted, the complexity that is being introduced into the system is completely at odds with the Government’s stated intention to simplify the tax system. Simplicity is not just an advantage in itself, but it means that payment is more reliable, and more likely to be accurate and more predictable. There is also much less stigma attached to the receipt of a simple universal flat-rate payment for all families.

One criticism is often levelled against the payment of child benefit to richer people, and it would probably have been made this morning had more hon. Members attended the debate—today there are mostly proponents of child benefit in the Chamber, which is perhaps why the point has not been raised. I want to put on record my response to those who ask why we are giving child benefit to people on higher incomes and asking those on lower incomes to help pay for that. The fact is that we do not—and should not—make the same argument when it comes to the national health service or our children’s education, and we do not make it for the tax system or say that higher earners should not receive the benefit of the recent increase in the tax threshold. As I am sure the hon. Member for Christchurch will remember, the higher rate of child benefit for the first child was intended to replace what had previously been the married couple’s tax allowance. It seems particularly perverse that we are now effectively seeking to tax a tax allowance, instead of understanding that in every other part of the tax system, such allowances stretch across the income spectrum. Now, we have decided to treat child benefit differently.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech and she has touched on the heart of the problem caused by the proposed changes. The Government are destroying the principle of universality that has underpinned this benefit for years. We should think of all children as being important to our community, and we all share in the benefits that children bring to society. To denigrate the principle of universality says something about the values of this Government. What will be next?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Her point about universality is fundamentally about the social glue, integration and the sense of communal interest in our children that universal benefits bring.

As others have said, these proposals are unjustifiable as a matter of principle, and unworkable in practice. Hon. Members have alluded to the difficulties of coping, both for families and for the Revenue, when family circumstances change. It may be complicated to pick out who has been a member of a household over the course of a year, or to state at what point they became one, so it may be difficult to assess at what point that should result in a tax liability.

Does my hon. Friend intend to refer to the breach of confidentiality in an individual’s tax affairs? That is a serious issue with couples. Years ago, my first piece of casework as a councillor involved a constituent who was being chased by bailiffs for his wife’s community charge. At the time, there were rules on joint liability for the community charge, and that caused huge problems between couples. It seems to me that we are back in the same territory.

I have no doubt that if one member of a household is liable for another household member’s income—which is what will happen—that will distort the balance of power, and in some cases compromise the safety of women in that relationship and lead to something that feels fundamentally irrational and unjust. Why is one member of the household being taxed for a benefit that is paid to another member of the household for the benefit of the children? If Ministers want a fairer and more justifiable taxation system, I suggest that they look at having a more progressive system overall. If they want to take more from the rich and have a more progressive system, they should not have begun by reducing the top rate of income tax, which seems to be the Chancellor’s preferred route.

I will conclude with a couple of questions for the Minister. Has he made an assessment of whether couples are likely to continue receiving child benefit and sweep it up at the end of the year in their tax return, or whether they are they more likely to forgo child benefit at the point of payment? In the latter case, what assessment has he made of the impact that that will have on children’s well-being and on family stability? May we see that impact assessment before any further steps are taken to introduce the proposed policy?

Will this measure be reversible? The Opposition are committed to universal child benefit, and I hope that the Government will consider this change as temporary. Will the changes to IT and the taxation system be reversible? What is the IT plan for this development? Could this policy be unwound, or are we stepping towards a major change in attitude to universal benefits from which it will be impossible to retreat? What advice has the Minister received—this is the point touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley)—on individual confidentiality in relation to tax affairs? How will one member of the household be advised about tax liability on a confidential basis without understanding the income of another member of the household, and can that be reconciled with the principle of tax confidentiality? Ministers seem confident that it can be reconciled, but Opposition Members have their doubts.

I do not intend to say very much in this debate. The reason why I did not seek to catch your eye before, Mr Streeter, was that I thought that I might have to leave. I will have to leave before I have the benefit of the Minister’s response and I apologise for that, but I am serving on the Finance Bill Committee.

I want, however, to say a little about the difficulties that can arise in relation to family structures and so on. As someone who was a family lawyer, I know how relationships can not only break up but re-form, and that may happen over a relatively short period. That is a practical aspect of this issue that I am not sure has been taken fully into account. As family lawyers, we used to joke that we achieved a higher rate of reconciliation than marriage guidance counsellors. People’s lives are not linear. They do not necessarily go straightforwardly through this process: “Oh, I’ve fallen out with my partner. Now we’re separating and that’s it.” It is very common for people to encounter a circumstance that leads to a break-up and then to reconcile. It may be a very serious situation. Even in cases of domestic violence, people reconcile. As a solicitor, I might sometimes have wished that they had not; nevertheless, they do so.

A relationship structure can change quite a lot, even in a single financial year. That is an additional layer of complication. It should not be assumed that just because people are paying higher rates of tax that relationship breakdowns do not happen, because that is far from the case. That is yet another practical issue that must be addressed.

The position could have been very different. Perhaps all Governments wonder how they arrived at certain decisions. If we look back at this one, it seemed to arise from what looked like a clever wheeze. It was announced at a party conference, which is never a good time to announce policy, because it is the headline of the day that is very much wanted. I suspect that the thinking was, “Ah! We can really get the Labour party here. We are going to take a benefit away from higher rate taxpayers and the Labour party won’t dare to oppose that, so we will have got them on the run.”

We said right from the beginning, as well as dealing with all the issues about fairness and the reason why child benefit and its predecessor, family allowance, were introduced in the first place, that there was a practical issue. Many of the practical criticisms were voiced at that time. This all dates back to October 2010. A year later, those practicalities had apparently not been thought through very carefully. Some amendments have now been brought into being—at the last gasp—but those changes produce yet more anomalies. They produce a marginal rate of tax for some families that is far higher than presumably anyone would think was desirable for people who are in the middle ranges of income. Some families will face marginal tax rates of 50% to 60% because of how the changes take place and particularly the tapering. That has been introduced to try to make things a bit better, but arguably may make things a whole lot worse, because it introduces a whole new level of complexity.

Hon. Members have mentioned not just the community charge but the ill-fated and, in my view, ill-thought-out 10p tax rate abolition proposal. I have said this before and I know that many of my colleagues have. I was not in this place at the time, but as party members and activists, we have a view on these things and we thought, “Oh no, this is not good.”

Is not the point about the 10p tax rate debacle—I think we would all accept that that is what it was—that when the outcome of that policy was made obvious, the Labour Government of the day reversed most of the adverse consequences of the policy? We see no indication from the current Government that they will do the same.

I agree. The point that I was making was that, sometimes, what looks like a clever idea to start with quickly unravels into something that is much more difficult. The slight amendments that were made to the current proposal before it was introduced into the Budget, far from addressing the issues, are making the whole thing even more complicated. Not much time seems to have been given to work these things through. Some campaigners are suggesting to the Government that it is not too late. If they are still minded to implement this proposal in some way, shape or form—I hope that they will not want to—they should at the very least not go ahead with it starting from January of next year, given that it has been so poorly thought out and the implications and problems have not yet been fully resolved. To put a hold on it and perhaps come back if they think that they have solved those problems—ideally, they would not come back with it at all—would be sensible at this stage. I urge the Minister to give that very serious consideration.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. It has also been a pleasure to listen to passionate and well-thought-out and well-delivered speeches from hon. Members who feel very strongly about this issue. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods), who brought it to Westminster Hall this morning to give us slightly more time to debate it than we had on the Floor of the House. I remember that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) pointed out then that we had 52 minutes to debate both the clause and the schedule. I heard what he said earlier today and I responded at that time, but I will say again that if we can find ways, across the Chamber, to ensure further scrutiny on Report of both the clause and the very important points in the schedule, that will be very helpful. I would certainly be more than willing to lend our support to see how we can do that.

As well as welcoming the contributions this morning, would my hon. Friend agree that perhaps the Minister should be concerned that not a single hon. Member has turned up to support his proposals?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I was not going to point out that the Minister seems to be on his own this morning. I am sure that none the less he is very capable of dealing with the questions that have come up and will receive inspiration from various sources in order to do so. However, I will take the opportunity to repeat gently the advice that I tried to give the Minister during the discussion on the Floor of the House: “When you’re in a hole, it’s better to stop digging and find a ladder to get yourself out of that hole.” At that time, we were suggesting that we would be willing to work with the Government to see what could be done to mitigate the worst outcomes of this flawed policy, and that offer still stands.

If I were the hon. Lady, I would take comfort from the fact that there are no Back Benchers here, because it shows that notwithstanding the very powerful Conservative Whips Office, they have not been able to dragoon anyone into coming here to support the Government’s policy today.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It is not for me to interpret what the Conservative Whips Office is able to do to deliver people to the debate and ensure that they turn up. None the less, we have heard some very powerful speeches, not least from the hon. Gentleman himself.

Perhaps we should also note, especially as the idea for the policy appears to have come from Liberal Democrat members of the coalition, that there are no Liberal Democrats here at all to defend their ridiculous policy.

I thank my hon. Friend for putting that on the record. I am sure that note will duly be taken.

I want to use this opportunity to explain how we have got to the position we are in and what we need to do to resolve the problems. It is worth remembering that when the plans were announced, a single-income household earning just over £43,000 would have lost all the benefit, but a dual-income household on £84,000 would have kept all of it. The 2012 Budget increased the threshold for the withdrawal of child benefit to those earning £50,000 or more from 2013-14. That might have gone some way towards solving the problem for some families—the estimate was that about 750,000 might be in a better position—but it does not get away from the essential point that the principle of universality is fundamental to child benefit, as my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham and other hon. Members have said.

We heard powerful speeches from my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and others about why the principle is important and why we must do everything we possibly can to defend it. Child benefit is supposed to be about providing families, particularly mothers, with a dependable source of income for the benefit of the children and which a mother knows she will get irrespective of what goes on in the family. As we have heard, research from Child Poverty Action Group and others shows that the money is by and large spent on the day-to-day necessities for children.

I do not want to take us off-track, but the hon. Member for Christchurch mentioned the community charge. He was a junior Minister when it was introduced, as he explained, and I was a young mum. I spent many a wet Saturday campaigning against the introduction of the community charge in Scotland. If anything at that time politicised me and many other women, it was the unfairness of what the Government were doing. I do not say that to be critical of the hon. Gentleman—he has been very helpful this morning—but simply to say that when put in front of Ministers, sometimes issues look like a wonderful wheeze on the basis of the paperwork that the Government have produced, but it is when we look at the impact on people’s lives that such policies begin to fall apart. That is what is happening here.

I want to say a few words about the other issues raised in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham spoke not only about the principles of child benefit and the unworkability of the proposals, but about their legality. She made a powerful statement: these changes are wrong and they should not happen. That is absolutely right and it is the position that we are coming from this morning.

My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) mentioned workability and the fact that the proposals were far too complex. She critically identified the real impact on real families. A family with three kids could find itself with a bill of £600 at the end of the year. That might not seem to be a big deal when someone is writing it in a policy proposal, but for many families that £600 bill will mean the difference between being able to buy necessary items for their kids and not being able to do so. Being asked to pay such a bill suddenly can throw a household budget out for months.

I thank my hon. Friend for her generosity in giving way again. Does she agree that we need clarification from the Minister? If a parent who is entitled to child benefit throughout the year receives a bonus from an employer at the end of the tax year that takes them over the threshold, what will happen to the family?

My hon. Friend makes another useful point. We raised that issue with the Minister on the Floor of the House. Many people, because they get a bonus at work or because they are self-employed, will find at the end of the year that they have earned either more or less than they anticipated. Many self-employed people are not earning huge sums of money, so such issues are critical to them.

My hon. Friend is being most generous. A back-dated pay increase is another circumstance that must be quite common.

I have a further serious example. I have a constituent who from time to time works with his firm in Afghanistan. His firm pays him a bonus because of the difficulties of working in a theatre like that. There must be hundreds, if not thousands, of people who get that sort of payment.

My hon. Friends have given very practical, real-life examples of the kind of circumstances in which people may feel penalised for doing particular types of work or for taking on additional risks and responsibilities. A thing that we hoped that we could persuade the Government to do, if nothing else, was not to implement the changes straight away, and perhaps the Minister could come back on that point. If they are intent on doing this—the Opposition believe that they would be wrong to do so, and I hope that they will pull back—at the very least would they be prepared to pause, produce a report and look at the circumstances in which people would be adversely affected?

My hon. Friends the Members for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) and for Stretford and Urmston raised the tax implications, and my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Fiona O’Donnell) mentioned national insurance contributions. The main concern around those is that when organisations such as the Institute of Chartered Accountants and others that deal with tax issues day to day say that the principles are wrong, it is of serious concern. The Minister has to say whether taxing an individual in respect of money that was paid to someone else is not a fundamental change in how individual taxation is dealt with. I will give him the opportunity to intervene if he wishes, but perhaps he prefers to answer in his speech. Such organisations have looked at the proposals and raised serious concerns. It is a shift and could open opportunities in other ways for similar proposals to be brought in, which would be extremely concerning for the reasons that other hon. Members have set out.

Until I heard the Minister’s earlier comment, I was not aware that his wife was a lawyer. I am sure that she has some views about how, rather than defending the policy, the Government now seem to be relying on describing it as absolutely legal, as was identified earlier. None the less, there are questions about how they arrived at that position. When the regulations to justify the legality of this were introduced in Parliament, were they discussed in relation to child benefit or any other benefit issues? Was it ever anticipated that those regulations would be used in such a context? Could he deal with that issue in his response? If he cannot answer today, I have tabled a parliamentary question that I hope he will answer in due course.

I want to give the Minister time to respond, so I will speed up. I have made those points because the report from the Institute of Chartered Accountants identified the issue of HMRC using the tax system to claw back a benefit from one individual that was paid to another. The tax system is based on individuals and the benefit system is based on households, so that undermines the principle of taxation. I have not seen anything from the Minister that describes how a household will be interpreted in the tax regulations. Families in similar financial situations could be treated quite differently, which undermines the policy of fairness. Changed family circumstances could, as we have heard, make it difficult or impossible to calculate the clawback, or determine who should pay it; and, indeed, we have heard examples showing that if family circumstances change during the year someone will be presented with a tax bill at the end of it, leading to greater uncertainty about family budgets.

There has also been concern about collecting the charge through PAYE coding. The report by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales states that it could lead to delays of up to three years, and undermine the efficiency of the whole system, because any coding adjustment is an estimate, and it would be necessary to re-estimate the code repeatedly. We are no longer just dealing with the principle of child benefit; we are dealing with a fundamental change to the taxation system. That should be scrutinised further. I hope that the Minister will be able to give some responses to the issues that have been raised this morning. Will he also address the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian—she raised, it, indeed, on the Floor of the House—and others about women who might forgo the opportunity to claim child benefit, but would not receive credits for their national insurance contributions? That is a serious matter that has not been addressed.

Is it not critical that women should understand at this stage that that is a possible outcome of the changes? People have already started writing to me on the issue, and the Government need to take action.

It is an important point. I want to put another couple of related questions to the Minister. In the budget for dealing with the consequences, a certain amount of money was put aside for marketing. I raised with the Minister on the Floor of the House the issues of what information is available, and how to assess who is likely to be caught by the circumstances. I would like to hear exactly how the Minister intends to communicate to the individuals involved—to get the information out, and get the advice to those likely to be affected. How will he ensure that people do not make damaging decisions at a point in their lives when it may be easier to do that, without looking at the longer-term consequences? We all know that there are situations—we heard examples in the debate—in which an individual in a household may feel under pressure to do something that is not particularly to their advantage.

I hope that the Minister will be able to deal with the points I have made. I will finish by returning to the point about section 18(2)(a) of the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Act 2005, which the Government have cited, arguing that it makes the use of the tax system legal in the present context. The understanding of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants is that that use of the provision is a last resort in the giving of one partner’s information to another. ACCA suggests that only where taxpayers who must talk to one another to make the system work correctly do not do so should the section be brought into play. How will the Government assess when to use it and breach confidentiality? There are serious issues about what information about one partner will be given to another. Will it be only “Your partner is in a higher tax band”, or will it be detailed information? I do not think we have had an answer to that.

I hope the Minister can give us the information this morning. It is worth noting that earlier in the week the Institute of Chartered Accountants warned that the new tax would be an “operational disaster”. Surely that should be of concern to the Minister, and should mean that we get answers this morning, and that the Government think again.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) on securing the debate, and thank all the hon. Members who have contributed. A number of factual questions have been asked about the operation of the policy on child benefit, and I shall deal with as many as possible.

The changes that we announced at Budget 2012 ensure a balance between reducing the cost to the Exchequer of child benefit and ensuring that those on low incomes will not be affected. I must put the measure in context; it is the consequence of the state of the public finances that the Government inherited. We have to make decisions because of the Budget deficit that we inherited—the largest in our modern history. It is, unfortunately, the British people who will have to pay for the debt left to us by the previous Administration.

I follow the Minister’s argument about the need to reduce the deficit, but will he acknowledge that that is no excuse for a bad policy that even Members on his own side acknowledge is intrinsically unfair?

It is because of the state of the public finances that we must take difficult decisions. I will strongly defend the policy, but I must make the point to hon. Members who oppose it that it is helping us to reduce the deficit by £1.8 billion. If we do not find that sum in the way in question, we will need to find it somewhere else, or borrow more. That is the decision that we all face.

I understand, although I do not agree with, the point that the Minister makes, but why is he singling out to bear the burden those families in higher-rate tax brackets who have children, rather than equivalent-income families with no children?

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) made that point. The reason is that child benefit is essentially the only item of welfare spending that goes to households with individuals who earn more than £60,000 a year. I understand the argument that the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend are making: let us keep on spending and raise taxes. That is a tax and spend approach. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) speaks for her party on that; I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch does not for ours.

I am confident of speaking for my party when I assert our absolute commitment to the universal payment of child benefit.

I think the corollary of that is being in favour of increasing the rate of tax on higher earners, but the hon. Lady did not quite make that explicit.

I could understand my hon. Friend’s argument if what he were now introducing were not a tax, but it will be a tax rather than a reduction in benefit, will it not?

As my hon. Friend knows, the Office for National Statistics will make an assessment of whether the measure constitutes a tax increase or a spending cut. However, child benefit is spent on households with people who earn more than £60,000.

I will, but I am conscious that we have got into the political knockabout before I have tried to address some of the concerns that were raised, which I hope to do.

It is just a brief point. The Minister correctly referred to the ONS. When will that assessment be made, and when will we be told what it decides?

If memory serves, the ONS will make that assessment after the policy has come into effect, in January 2013.

As I said, we face a large deficit and seek to reduce it in a way that is both fair and reasonable. It is only right and proper to ask those with the broadest shoulders to bear the greatest burden; because of this measure and others announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the Budget, that will be the case. Considering the universality of child benefit was never our first choice, but that is the position in which we have been left.

I recognise that many are concerned about the change. Some argue that child benefit must be sacrosanct. However, it is not fair that an individual who earns £15,000, £20,000 or £30,000 should be paying for benefits for those earning £80,000, £90,000 or £100,000. When Government need to raise revenue, it makes sense for them to turn to a measure with a broad base because significant numbers of recipients will not be reliant on the additional payment they receive. Child benefit is just that sort of payment.

The steps that we are taking will raise £1.8 billion for the Exchequer by 2014-15. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in 2010 that we would seek to withdraw child benefit from higher-rate taxpayers. We have always said that we would consider the ways in which to implement the measure, but we made it clear that a new complicated means test is not a sensible way forward. Instead, we should look to the existing systems and processes to ensure that we can achieve our goal.

Let me turn to the changes that we are introducing.

The Minister thinks that we do not have a new complicated means test, but does he not accept that we have a new complicated tax test—and that from a Government who want to simplify the tax system?

The alternative method, which would have been to do this on household income, would mean applying the tax credit system to all 8 million child benefit recipients. That would widely expand the tax credit system and impose a burden on a far greater number of people.

We propose to withdraw the financial gain from child benefit from those families where one partner has income of more than £60,000, and reduce the gains where one partner has income of more than £50,000. By applying a tax charge on those on high incomes using existing processes, we are doing it in the most efficient and pragmatic way. The charge will apply to an individual in receipt of child benefit, or their partner, where they are married or in a civil partnership, or living as if they are married or in a civil partnership. I hope that that answers the point about what a household is. It uses the current definitions of partners within social security legislation, and means that other adults living within the household do not affect the liability.

It will remain the case that two earners just below the threshold will not have their child benefit withdrawn. To introduce a new means test for family income would be complicated, costly and confusing—the very things that we wish to avoid. We would need to assess all of the 8 million households receiving child benefit, and we would need to do so each year.

Let me turn to the mechanics behind the changes that we are introducing. First, the changes will not affect those receiving child benefit who have income under £50,000, or whose partner does. That will mean that 85% of families receiving child benefit need not be troubled by the changes—85% means more than 7 million families. Where an individual or their partner has income of more than £50,000, the charge will be tapered depending on their income. The equivalent of 1% of the child benefit award will be charged for every £100 increase over £50,000 in adjusted net income. That means that child benefit is fully withdrawn at an income of £60,000. Furthermore, the thresholds between which the taper operates are not dependent on the number of children.

Those affected—around 1.2 million taxpayers—will declare their liability through the income tax self-assessment process, though just over half are already within the SA system. Although we recognise that the charge will bring some taxpayers into self-assessment for the first time, using self-assessment means that the tax can be calculated on the basis of the amount of child benefit received, and the taxpayer’s actual income. That is preferable to including an estimate in a taxpayer’s PAYE code, only to discover an underpayment or overpayment of tax at the year end as actual income proves to be different from estimated income. Even as small a change as £100 will change the amount of tax due for an individual on the taper. As a third of taxpayers affected will benefit from a reduced liability as they are on the taper, using PAYE rather than self-assessment would generate large numbers of under and overpayments.

The changes will take effect from 7 January 2013, with individuals affected including information relating to the charge for the first time in their self-assessment returns for the tax year 2012-13. The first payments of the charge will be due by 31 January 2014 if a taxpayer chooses to pay in a lump sum. Otherwise, the amount due for 2012-13 will be collected through the tax code in 2014-15.

I have a quick point. The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants is concerned that there will be further confusion over the fact that although the new scheme starts in January, the tax year does not start until April. How does the Minister answer that criticism?

Initially, we said that the scheme would be introduced from 1 January 2013—actually, it is from 7 January because that is the first day on which child benefit is payable. Such a time scale is perfectly operational, and there is no reason why we cannot run it from that particular point. Obviously, were we to delay the introduction of the scheme until April, there would be a cost to the Exchequer.

The introduction of the taper means that the vast majority of taxpayers with income between £50,000 and £60,000 will still gain from taking on extra work or getting a pay increase, even if it does take them over the £50,000 threshold.

A taxpayer or their partner would need to receive child benefit for at least eight children before the tax due on their additional income equalled the amount of income itself. Equally, an individual’s income may reduce so that they are no longer liable to the charge. That may also mean that tax due in respect of previous years can no longer be collected through the tax code. In such cases, HMRC will use its usual debt management processes.

Let me address the issue of opting out, which has been raised by a number of hon. Members. We are enabling individuals to opt out of receiving child benefit. Understandably, the point has been raised about state pensions and so on. Let me be clear. National insurance credits, which protect a person’s future entitlement to basic state pension and the state second pension, will remain available to all those who take time out of work to bring up children. The protection is given to anyone claiming child benefit for a child under the age of 12, even if they do not receive any payment or if they or their partner has to pay the new tax charge. The introduction of the tax charge will not affect a person’s right to claim child benefit. Child benefit will remain available to be claimed by anyone responsible for the child.

Parents and carers will have two options to safeguard their state pension, and they will be made clear on the child benefit claim form. First, they can claim child benefit and receive the payments. If liable, they or their partner can pay the new charge. Alternatively, they can submit a claim form for child benefit to establish their entitlement for state pension purposes, but choose not to receive the actual payments. That means that neither they nor their partner will be liable to pay the new charge, but the national insurance credits will still be received.

As for compliance, our approach means that we can use the current HMRC systems. That reduces the cost of implementation both for HMRC and the individuals affected. HMRC will use existing penalty regimes for those who choose not to tell it that they are liable to the new charge or who declare the wrong amount on their self-assessment return.

In the interests of time, let me turn to the issue of taxpayer confidentiality that the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) raised. We have some disagreement over the meaning of independent taxation. It is about individual allowances and assessment of own income. In the 1980s, it replaced the system whereby a husband declared his wife’s income on his return, which increased his income. I understand the concern over taxpayer confidentiality. Information that should be shared between partners relates to whether child benefit is being claimed and which of the partners should have the tax charge—in other words, which tax partner is earning the most income.

The mechanisms in place will provide the minimum of information. Partners who may not be talking to each other can discover who is earning the most, but not the full details and whether or not child benefit is being claimed and for how many children. That is the extent of the information that needs to be shared, and HMRC is developing a process that enables it to share limited information with an ex-partner.

As I have already said, the Government have had to make difficult decisions. To continue to provide child benefit, we must do so in a sustainable manner. The current cost to the Exchequer for those recipients less in need is too high. To pay almost £2 billion to higher-rate taxpayers does not represent good value for money in these challenging times. We also recognise that we must withdraw child benefit to higher earners in a fair manner. The increase of the threshold to £50,000 and the introduction of the taper ensure that we are taking this action only in relation to those who can most afford it.