My Lords, it is a pleasure to open this debate on the National Insurance Contributions (Rate Ceilings) Bill before us today. The Bill implements the Government’s manifesto commitment that pledged not to increase the main rate of 12% and the additional rate of 2% for employees’ class 1 national insurance contributions, and the employer rate of 13.8%. The Bill also places a ceiling on the employee upper earnings limit. This is part of a wider package of measures designed to provide businesses with the certainty that they need to invest with confidence, and also to help deliver the low and competitive rates of taxation to underpin our growing economy.
Noble Lords will be aware of the Government’s strong record of significantly reducing the burden of national insurance. At Budget 2011, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a £21 a week above inflation increase in the employers’ national insurance contributions threshold; in 2014, the Government introduced the employment allowance to support businesses and charities across the UK, reducing the national insurance bills of over 1 million employers by up to £2,000 a year. The employment allowance allows employers to deduct up to £2,000 a year from the total of employer national insurance contributions that would otherwise be due to be paid to HMRC. Around 450,000 businesses and charities will not have to pay any employer national insurance contributions at all.
The Government are now going further. Noble Lords will recall that, as part of the summer Budget, the Chancellor announced that the employment allowance would be increased to £3,000 from next April. From April of this year, the vast majority of employers with workers under the age of 21 were lifted out of employer national insurance contributions. This move has supported over 1.5 million jobs for young people. Noble Lords may be aware that in a further move to support young people in employment, from April of next year the Government will abolish employer national insurance contributions for all apprentices under the age of 25. It is through these reforms that the Government are improving skills, increasing employment and delivering on their long-term economic plan.
I turn to the contents of this Bill. Noble Lords will be aware of the Government’s election commitment not to increase the main rates of income tax, value added tax or national insurance. The Finance Bill contained legislation to deliver that commitment for income tax and value added tax; this Bill delivers on the commitment for national insurance contributions. First, the Bill sets a ceiling on the rates of class 1 national insurance contributions paid by employees and employers. Secondly, it enshrines in law the existing convention that the level of the upper earnings limit for national insurance contributions will not exceed the level of the higher rate threshold for income tax. Both the ceiling on the rates of class 1 national insurance contributions paid by employees and employers and the ceiling on the upper earnings limit come into force on Royal Assent of this Bill, and will apply until the start of the first tax year following the next general election.
The Bill provides much-needed certainty for employers and employees that a ceiling is being placed on the main and additional class 1 national insurance contributions primary percentage paid by employees at a rate of 12% and 2% respectively; sets a ceiling on the employer class 1 national insurance contributions secondary percentage rate of 13.8%; and ensures that the upper earnings limit will not exceed the higher rate threshold for income tax. Furthermore, it is possible to increase the main rate of employee national insurance contributions and employer national insurance contributions by 0.25% each tax year through secondary legislation. So this legislation helps to make it clear that this will not happen. This means that businesses can make investment decisions, confident in the knowledge that this Government will not change the ceilings on the employee and employer national insurance contribution rates for the duration of this Parliament.
In summary, the Government have already taken action to reduce significantly the burden of national insurance contributions on most employers across the UK. The Bill supplements that work. It demonstrates the Government’s overarching commitment to provide certainty on tax rates for the duration of this Parliament. In doing so, it delivers on the Conservative manifesto pledge to maintain low and competitive rates of taxation by preventing the main and additional rates of national insurance contributions paid by employees and employers from being increased above their current levels. This is an important Bill and I commend it to the House.
My Lords, I shall be very brief, because the debate on this Bill flows, in effect, into the Finance Bill debate which will follow shortly on its heels. My party is pleased that there will be an increase in the national insurance employment allowance —a policy we fought hard for, and eventually achieved. It will now go up to £3,000; that is welcome news. We are also pleased that national insurance contributions applicable to young apprentices will be removed.
We have no problem with the Government’s policy that in the next Parliament they do not intend to increase national insurance contributions. What, frankly, we find silly, is the requirement that that be put into legislation. Surely a Government can control themselves well enough to enforce their own policy without putting up a legislative hurdle.
I shall speak more extensively on the Finance Bill, but I have to say now that the translation into legislation is far less serious with national insurance contributions, because they are rarely the tool that needs to be used in a crisis to cope with the unexpected and deal with events that can turn unfortunate for the economy. When we debate the Finance Bill we shall be talking about the related charter for fiscal responsibility, whereby the Government are putting handcuffs on themselves to make themselves impotent in the face of an oncoming crisis. That is one of the silliest and most arrogant measures that I have seen a Government introduce recently. However, there is very little concern about the Bill before us and its contents.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the Bill and I look forward to working with her on what I believe is the first piece of legislation she has taken the lead on since entering your Lordships’ House. As the Minister has just outlined, the Bill will implement the Conservative manifesto commitment to cap the main rates of national insurance contributions at their current levels for the duration of this Parliament.
This is one-third of the so called triple lock—a promise not to raise VAT, income tax or national insurance contributions which the Conservatives gave during the election campaign. The Bill provides for the NICs element of that pledge. Such a measure has to remain separate from the Finance Bill, on which the VAT and income tax locks will be debated, because statutory provisions regarding NICs cannot be included in the annual Finance Bill.
Let me start by saying that we wholeheartedly support the principle of not raising taxes for working people, so we are not opposing the Bill. Indeed, Labour was the first to commit to not increasing national insurance contributions. However, we do question the necessity of implementing that commitment in primary legislation, and are concerned that this, when taken as part of the triple lock, could present a significant challenge for the Government if the economic outlook changes.
Clause 1 will prevent class 1 national insurance contributions payable by employees at the main primary percentage from exceeding 12%, and for earnings above £815 a week, cap the additional primary percentage at 2%. This was a Conservative and Labour commitment at the election. As we progress to Committee, we would appreciate it if the Minister updated the House about the investigation being undertaken by the Office of Tax Simplification into national insurance contributions and their alignment with income tax.
Clause 2 freezes the rate of employer national insurance contributions by setting the maximum secondary percentage payable by employers at 13.8%. By doing this it also fixes the class 1A and 1B contributions. The Chancellor's spending plans are predicated on a forecast rise in revenue yield from NICs, so he has placed a great deal of confidence in economic forecasting. I am sure that during consideration of the Bill, we will debate what contingencies are in place if these forecasts are wrong and the potential impact that could have on public services. I look forward to the Minister’s responses.
Clause 3 links the upper earnings limit to the highest rate of income tax threshold by setting out that it should not exceed the weekly equivalent of the proposed higher-rate threshold for that tax year. In practice, this means employees stop paying national insurance contributions at the 12% rate when their income reaches the higher income rate tax threshold for that tax year.
What is particularly interesting about these three short clauses, beyond their technical detail, is the manner in which they have been introduced, which is so telling of this Government and their approach to policy-making. They argued during the passage of the Bill in the other place that the legislation is required to ensure that the market has confidence in the Government to keep their election promises. Can the Minister tell us why the Chancellor thinks the electorate and business will not simply trust his word? Perhaps it is because the Government promised not to raise VAT before the last election—and then proceeded to do the opposite by raising it to 20%. Indeed, in the last Parliament the Chancellor raised tax 24 times despite his claims to be promoting a low-tax, high-wage economy. Let me reaffirm that we do not want to see taxes raised for working people, so we will not oppose the Bill. However, it is difficult to regard it as little more than a gimmick that could have troubling consequences.
The response to the decision to legislate on this issue was remarkably consistent. The Financial Times leader of 29 April summed it up well when it said:
“Arguably the silliest idea yet came this week when David Cameron proposed an act of parliament that would make it illegal for a future Tory government to raise various taxes to close the deficit: VAT, income tax, and national insurance. Even after five years of tough spending measures, the UK fiscal deficit is still high. Removing the option of tapping revenue streams that in aggregate raise more than £350 bn for the Exchequer would make the challenge needlessly hard”.
The summer Budget, which included significant revenue-raising measures that will amount to significant tax rises for millions of people, demonstrated decisively that this was nothing more than a political stunt.
Commenting on the Budget, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies said:
“The figures are quite clear—this was a tax-raising budget”.
Tax policy measures in the Budget are expected to raise £5.1 billion by 2017-18, rising to £6.5 billion in 2020-21. So the notion that taxes on working people are being protected is an illusion.
The Government are still increasing the amount they get from tax revenues under the guise of the triple tax lock. Crucially, it could also limit the pace at which the Chancellor could act if an unexpected event arose. If the Minister does not believe this, he should listen to his noble friend Lord Lawson, who said:
“I don’t think it is a good idea … nobody knows what the economic conditions are going to be like … nobody knows what world conditions are going to be like … this was clearly done for electoral purposes not for good government”.
National insurance contributions, together with VAT and income tax, are the three largest revenue raisers for any Chancellor, so it is surprising that the Government feel the need to tie their hands in this way. The Chancellor is taking an incredible gamble that seems to be based on nothing other than the hope that no further unexpected events will occur over the course of this Parliament. If the economic outlook does change, the Chancellor will have to do more than be in listening mode—he will have to act. We are concerned that this Bill makes it harder to do that.
Then I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their support for the policy of this Bill, and also for supporting the £3,000 employment allowance and the abolition of national insurance contributions for apprentices.
Before I address the specific points raised by the noble Lords, it is important to put the Bill within the context of the significant action that the Government have already taken to reduce the burden of class 1 national insurance contributions on earnings and employment. These measures have all been strongly welcomed by business and have contributed to the current record levels of employment. I also emphasise that from April next year the Government will abolish employer class 1 national insurance contributions for apprentices under the age of 25, as I have said. Apprenticeships are at the heart of the Government’s drive to equip people of all ages with the skills most valued by employers. This is a very important move. It will help employers who provide apprenticeships to young people and provide a significant boost to youth employment rates more generally.
The Bill before us today introduces the final aspect of the Government’s five-year tax lock. This is further testament to the Government’s commitment to provide certainty on tax rates for the duration of this Parliament, and it delivers on the commitment to lower levels of taxation that was made in the Conservative manifesto.
On the question from the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, as to whether the taxes announced in the summer Budget have breached this lock, that is not the case. The Government have been clear that the tax lock will not prevent future changes to the tax system to make it fairer or to deal with avoidance—those were the measures in the Budget. Furthermore, the Government remain committed to lowering taxes and supporting hard-working people through increases in the personal allowance.
The noble Lord also asked about an update on the measures being considered by the Office of Tax Simplification. The Government are committed to simplifying tax and to transparency. The overall aim of the project is to build on earlier work undertaken in this area, to understand the steps that would be needed to achieve closer alignment of the taxes and the costs, benefits and impact of each step. The terms of reference were published on 21 July, and the Office of Tax Simplification will publish a final report ahead of Budget 2016.
As regards whether this Bill is a gimmick, I do not believe that it is. This was a Conservative manifesto pledge and, as I have said, there is the ability in secondary legislation to increase national insurance rates by 0.25% each year on class 1. This will give an added element of certainly to businesses and employees as to the maximum rates of national insurance that they might face.
The noble Baroness and the noble Lord are right that there could be circumstances in which tax revenues fall short and some contingency planning is required. However, future funding of contributory benefits, should national insurance contribution receipts prove insufficient, is a matter for the Chancellor, and that decision would need to be made at the relevant fiscal event based on the latest projections available at the time and taking into account the National Insurance Contributions (Rate Ceilings) Bill that we are introducing. Indeed, as the noble Baroness indicated, if there were an economic emergency, it would not normally be the economic policy of choice to increase national insurance contribution rates. The aim of this Government is to continue to drive growth and to create 2 million more jobs during this Parliament.
I think the noble Baroness is saying that I suggested that the Government had broken the triple lock in the summer Budget. I was not suggesting that they broke the triple lock but that the summer Budget had very significant tax increases—of the order of £4 billion-plus. I hope that she is not disagreeing with that assessment. If she is, perhaps she will write to me and set out the logic behind her disagreement.
I was not assuming that the noble Lord was talking about the triple lock. Indeed, the Government are absolutely committed to the triple lock. I was talking about some of the other measures that do not breach this commitment.
I am grateful for the opportunity to explain the issues we have debated today. There are clearly a number of points that we might debate at greater length when the Bill moves to Committee. I commend the Bill and ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
Bill read a second time.