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House of Lords Hansard
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National Insurance Contributions (Termination Awards and Sporting Testimonials) Bill
26 June 2019
Volume 798

Second Reading

Moved by

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That the Bill be now read a second time.

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My Lords, it is a pleasure to open this short Second Reading debate on the National Insurance Contributions (Termination Awards and Sporting Testimonials) Bill. This is a small but important Bill that aims to bring the national insurance contributions, NICs, and tax treatment of termination awards and sporting testimonials into closer alignment. The rules determining the income tax treatment of termination awards and sporting testimonials were legislated for in the Finance Acts 2016 and 2017. Implementation of the measures in this Bill, announced at Budget 2018, will replicate these rules in NICs legislation.

The Bill has been expected for some time. Both measures were first announced at the Budget 2015, consulted on and published in draft in 2016. They were subsequently confirmed at Budget 2018, so they are expected by those affected and have been subject to much scrutiny. Together, they mean that a 13.8% class 1A employer NICs charge will be applied to income derived from any termination award over £30,000 or sporting testimonial over £100,000 that is already subject to income tax.

Let me give more detail on termination awards. Between 2013 and 2014, the Office of Tax Simplification reviewed the tax treatment of employee benefits and expenses. The OTS published an interim report in August 2013 identifying termination awards as a priority area. It found that relatively few employers and employees properly understood the regime and it recommended reform. The Government announced at Budget 2016 that they would implement the reforms of the tax and NICs treatment of termination awards and, shortly after this, they published draft legislation.

The reforms to the income tax treatment of termination awards were legislated for in the Finance (No. 2) Act 2017 and took effect from April 2018. The Government confirmed at Budget 2018 that the associated reforms to NICs legislation would be in place for April 2020. However, the fact that termination awards are currently subject to different income tax and NICs treatment has created confusion. Moreover, the current misalignment incentivises well-advised employers to disguise final payments as compensatory termination awards that benefit from a NICs exemption.

The Bill will place a 13.8% class 1A employer NICs charge on income derived from termination awards on amounts over £30,000. However, I assure noble Lords that employee NICs payments will remain entirely exempt. Employees will not face any additional liability as a result of these changes. Only around 1% of the workforce will receive a termination award in any given year, and of these around 80% will be unaffected by the Bill. This measure will raise around £200 million per annum for the Exchequer and make a useful contribution to public finances.

Finally on termination awards, it might be helpful if I address one of the main points raised during Report in the other place. Opposition Members proposed a new clause that would have required the Government to report every two years on the impact of the changes to termination awards on the number and size of awards, as well as any effect on specified groups with protected characteristics. As the Exchequer Secretary explained, the Government had already assessed the impact of the policy in compliance with our duties under the Equality Act 2010 and the conclusions were published as part of the tax information and impact note. No groups are explicitly targeted by the policy, which affects all groups identically in legal terms. Our assessment found no disproportionate impact on any of the groups specified in the proposed new clause. It is also worth noting that since 2017, if not further back, the Government have received no representations from stakeholders regarding any disproportionate impact on protected groups, despite our consulting extensively in 2015 and legislating for changes to the income tax treatment of termination awards in 2017.

I turn to the second measure in the Bill: aligning the class 1A employer NICs treatment of income from sporting testimonials with the income tax treatment. A sporting testimonial is a one-off event, or a series of related events, held on behalf of sportspersons who have played for a certain club for a long time. This often takes the form of an exhibition match involving famous players from the past and present. The testimonial can be used to raise money for the sportsperson before retirement, or sometimes to raise money for charity.

The relevant income tax changes came into force from April 2017. The rules governing sporting testimonials are now changing to give clarity to the NICs treatment. Currently, where a sporting testimonial is non-contractual or non-customary, it can be organised by a third party rather than the employer, to raise money without it being subject to NICs. Where the employer arranges the testimonial, if it is part of the contract or there was an expectation that the sportsperson would be entitled to one, the testimonial is already subject to income tax and NICs.

From April 2020, any income derived from non-contractual and non-customary testimonials arranged by third parties exceeding the £100,000 threshold will be subject to a class 1A employer NICs charge of 13.8%. I will say a few words about the £100,000 threshold. Some noble Lords may be aware that the Government consulted extensively on the proposals for reform, the draft legislation, guidance, and the threshold. Following this consultation, the Government increased the tax-free threshold from £50,000 to a very generous £100,000.

These types of testimonials will not be subject to employee NICs to ensure that the sportsperson is not adversely affected. I also emphasise that the Government expect the impact on charitable donations to be minimal, since donations made from sporting testimonials via payroll giving, operated by independent sporting testimonial committees, will not be subject to any income tax or NICs at all. I also reassure noble Lords that the vast majority of sporting testimonials will be unaffected by the Bill. HMRC estimates that there are only around 220 testimonials each year, with an average taking of around £72,000.

In conclusion, although this is a small Bill, it is nevertheless important and necessary. By bringing the national insurance and tax treatment of termination awards and sporting testimonials into closer alignment, the Bill simplifies the tax system, reduces the incentives for manipulation and raises important revenue for our public services. I commend it to the House.

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My Lords, I will speak briefly in support of the Bill. It would be poor form not to, since the Bill has its origins in George Osborne’s last Budget, when I was his Permanent Secretary.

In many ways, it is a textbook piece of tax legislation. It originated from a proposal from the Office of Tax Simplification and reflects extensive consultation. I recognise that increasing tax on redundancy payments will not satisfy all, but if they are subject to income tax, it follows logically that they should be subject to national insurance. Who knows? A higher tax charge might deter unnecessary redundancies.

Nearly every Government I worked for at the Treasury looked at bringing income tax and national insurance closer together. I remember a review in the mid-1990s, encouraged by the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, which I suspect was led by the noble Lord, Lord Young, as Financial Secretary to the Treasury. However radical their initial intentions though, Governments tend to shy away from wholesale reform, understandably scared off by the number of winners and, more importantly, losers. The difference in assessment periods and tax base of national insurance and income tax is problematic. National insurance is assessed weekly; income tax is assessed annually. National insurance is payable only on earnings; income tax is payable on savings and rental income too. Income tax includes a number of reliefs, not least on pension contributions; national insurance does not. National insurance provides pension entitlement; income tax does not. National insurance is not payable by employees over the pension age; sadly, income tax is payable until you die. The income tax system is progressive, marginal rates increasing with income; national insurance is not. Indeed, once earnings go above the upper earnings limit, the employee’s marginal rate falls from 12% to 2%.

Therefore, although there would be substantial administrative gains if income tax and national insurance were brought together, and the tax system would become altogether simpler and more intelligible for citizens, Governments generally conclude that full alignment is altogether too difficult. Indeed, I wonder how much Governments really want it. National insurance rates have almost doubled during my working life, while successive Governments have taken credit for reducing the basic rate of income tax from 33% to 20%.

All that said, it is still possible to create greater alignment. The Bill represents a small step in that direction. I would be grateful if the Minister would confirm that the Government remain committed to finding further ways of bringing income tax and national insurance closer together. It is right in principle that sporting testimonials and large redundancy payments are subject to income tax. If that is the case, they should also be subject to national insurance.

It is a pity that only employers’ national insurance contributions—class 1A—are being applied. There is a strong case for applying employee national insurance contributions as well. No doubt the Government will argue that there are precedents for exempting certain types of employment income from class 1. For example, benefits in kind, such as a company cars, are subject to class 1A but not class 1. I encourage the Government to look at this again at some point in the future. The national insurance system should not discriminate between different forms of remuneration. Potentially, it would bring in some useful additional revenue, which, to judge by the spending commitments of the candidates to be the next leader of the Conservative Party, will be needed.

In seeking greater alignment between national insurance and income tax, I encourage the Government to keep two areas in their sights. The first is self-employed earnings, where the Office of Tax Simplification recommended abolishing class 2 and raising class 4. Sensibly, the Chancellor came forward with a proposal on this in 2017, but he was forced by a strange coalition of Brexiteers and the official opposition to withdraw it. At some point, maybe many years hence, a Government will be elected with a rather more compliant majority than exists today. At that point, I hope Treasury Ministers will have another go at simplifying the system and creating greater alignment between employee and self-employed national insurance.

Secondly, by bringing the starting point for income tax and national insurance closer together, Gordon Brown achieved broad alignment in the early 2000s. For the rest of that decade, the annualised lower earnings threshold was maintained in line with the income tax personal allowance. The coalition Government chose to prioritise increases in the income tax allowance. The national insurance threshold has been left behind. At some point, I hope the Government will seek to close the gap. I am encouraged that both candidates in the Conservative Party leadership election have advocated a rise, although they have not yet said how they propose to fund it. I know closing the gap fully would be very expensive, but if in future the Government have the resources to cut taxes, I hope they will make this a priority. Meanwhile, I strongly support the Bill and wish it safe passage.

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My Lords, I intend to be very brief on the Bill and I certainly will not oppose it, but I want to pick up a couple of issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Macpherson, from a slightly different angle. I follow the logic of keeping national insurance contributions so that, essentially, they track the pattern of income tax—though I am delighted by the Minister’s assurance that this is not mission creep and we will not very shortly see coming down the track an attempt to apply a national insurance tax on the employee. We are looking at employees at a fairly critical and difficult phase of their lives. That is one thing you can be fairly sure of when somebody’s employment ends, especially when it is an unexpected redundancy. That is the issue I want to raise.

Our tax system deals very badly with earnings that spike in one particular year. To give a redundancy example, somebody who is made redundant in one year and receives a substantial payment might then not be employed for the next three years. It makes you question whether applying the taxes we do was appropriate in the way that it was attached to that redundancy payment. We do not do things such as income averaging, which other countries use. As we look at the whole world of work and how it is changing—with changes in how people are employed and paid, and the mixed and portfolio lifestyles they have—we need to step back and look again at how we track both income tax and NICs. I have no problem bringing them into alignment if that can be workable, though the transition looks absolutely terrifying and near impossible. At some point, however, we have to look much more fundamentally at whether these systems actually work with the way people work and earn their living today.

With that exemption, and taking the Minister entirely at his word that there will be no move to suddenly apply NICs to the employee, I support this legislation. The Minister was kind enough to meet us earlier and clarified a couple of questions in his opening statement, but I want to know whether there is any further information on one issue: do we have any evidence that this was being abused? Logically, one could work out how it could be abused, but I am not quite sure how much evidence there is that anyone was abusing it. That is rather an interesting question when we look at this legislation today.

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My Lords, before I begin, I should like to thank the Minister and his team for the briefings they have held on this Bill. Early engagement is always useful, particularly when dealing with technical taxation measures. In particular, his team’s and his own thoroughness is such that I do not expect to have to bring forward any probing amendments; the concept of the Bill has been battered into my brain sufficiently.

Second Reading is normally a time for us to come together and debate the lofty ambitions of the Government of the day. Clearly, the role of your Lordships’ House is somewhat constrained when it comes to matters of finance. However, noble Lords ordinarily enjoy the opportunity to make speeches on wide-ranging aspects of the UK economy. But as has become conventional in these somewhat unconventional times, Ministers have found themselves scrambling for any legislation that can bulk out the timetable and survive a fractured House of Commons. So, having dealt with the fate of 19 individual animals—as important as they are—just last week, your Lordships’ House now finds itself discussing the mirroring of current income tax arrangements for termination awards and proceeds from sporting testimonials for national insurance purposes.

I understand from those who follow such things that I achieved notoriety in the stand-up routine of the Times journalist Matt Chorley when I used his catchphrase, “This is not normal”, in a debate in February. However, we find ourselves in the longest parliamentary Session by sitting days since the English Civil War while the Government scrape the barrel for things to do. This truly is not normal. We on these Benches would prefer to be dealing with more pressing tax matters. That includes taking action to crack down on the tax avoidance and evasion that prevents much-needed extra spending on public services.

Nevertheless, while the Bill before us lacks ambition, we must diligently carry out our work and consider the implications of these changes to the tax code. The genesis of the Bill was a wide-ranging review by the Office of Tax Simplification in 2013. The first set of recommendations, to make relevant payments subject to income tax, were legislated for several years ago. Now, as the Minister explained, we are legislating to levy class 1A employers’ NICs charges on the same payments. While the OTS has a noble aim, the matters under consideration today provide a reminder of why tax is often anything but simple.

On termination payments, we have concerns that the introduction of additional employer NICs may act as a disincentive to responsible employers who want to top up statutory redundancy payments in recognition of an employee’s contribution to the firm. I am grateful to Treasury officials who have listened to this concern in meetings and I accept their argument that the number of cases is likely to be small. However, I hope that the Minister can provide reassurance that the Government will reflect on this point when reviewing the impact of the legislation in due course.

While the definition of a termination payment is beyond the scope of the Bill, as helpfully laid out in a letter from the Minister on 24 June, I hope consideration will be given to how future tax changes can encourage employers to properly look after those employees whom they have to let go.

I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify how different forms of termination payment, whether below or above the £30,000 threshold, are treated for the purposes of determining eligibility for, and the calculation of, social security benefits such as universal credit.

In a meeting with the Minister and his officials, we also discussed the potential for errors to be made when the new regime takes effect in 2020. I was reassured that responsibility for any miscalculations will lie ultimately with the employer and that individuals will not be pursued by HMRC to recoup any sum from which the correct deduction has not been made. I would be grateful if the Minister could put this on the record and confirm that this differs from the situation with regard to income tax, whereby shortfalls in tax due can be recouped in the usual way.

Turning to sporting testimonials, I understand that the Minister will provide further clarity on the types of event to which the Bill extends; that is, providing a plain English explanation of “non-contractual, non-customary”. The policy note on GOV.UK notes that the impact of this change is “negligible”. It notes that around 220 testimonial committees are established each year, but that only a small number will be impacted by the measure. It further acknowledges that there will be a cost and additional administrative burden for testimonial committees as a result of the policy change. Given that the Exchequer will gain little, I return to my previous observation that tax simplification, while desirable, should not be prioritised over other, more fundamental issues in the tax system or wider UK economy.

A concern raised by my colleagues in the Commons related to the Bill’s impact on charitable donations arising from testimonials. A number of sports men and women who are financially secure choose to use their testimonial to support charities, including their own foundations. However, introducing a new NICs charge will reduce the funds passed on to those organisations. Can the Minister clarify what guidance will be made available to committees to ensure that charitable donations resulting from testimonials are treated in a tax-efficient manner? As in the case of redundancy payments, it would be a shame if an unintended consequence of this measure was to introduce additional barriers to what we all recognise as generous and responsible behaviour.

Finally, as the Bill progressed through the Commons, my colleagues probed what steps the Treasury will take to review its impact. We may choose to pursue this as the Bill progresses here, particularly in relation to my concerns about charities. We look forward to continuing our engagement with the Minister and his officials, and hope that the Government will take appropriate steps to address the concerns raised. I also note that the more interesting elements of the Bill, frankly, sit in the income tax legislation to which it cross-refers. Therefore, it would be inappropriate for this House to address the fundamental concept of the Bill, which is to use the essence of the tax legislation as the basis on which it functions. We are not likely to pursue any amendments to that end.

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My Lords, this has been a short but interesting debate, and I am grateful for all the contributions made. The noble Lord, Lord Macpherson, claimed paternity for this reform and emphasised the logic of what is contained in the Bill. He reminded us of the different characteristics of national insurance and income tax and raised some broader issues about alignment. I can confirm that we will continue to look for opportunities for alignment, as he suggested. He wanted to extend the measure to employee NICs, which I think would qualify as mission creep in the vocabulary of the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer. We have no plans to charge employee NICs on termination awards, or indeed on testimonials. We think that the changes in the Bill strike the right balance between simplification and keeping taxes associated with redundancy at a reasonable level.

The noble Baroness asked about abuse. HMRC has evidence that a minority of well-advised employers have been manipulating the rules to minimise their NICs liability, which is a further reason for seeking to bring in this alignment. She made an interesting point about averaging: namely, that if you get a lump-sum redundancy or testimonial and no other income for a period, you should be allowed to spread it over a number of years. I would be misleading her if I said that that was likely to happen, but it is an interesting suggestion which we shall take on board and see whether there is an opportunity to spread the receipts.

I am grateful for the kind words of the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, about Treasury officials. He raised concerns that the Bill would result in smaller termination awards being made to employees unfortunate enough to lose their jobs. Noble Lords will know that no individual, on termination of his or her employment, will face an additional NICs liability as a result of the Bill. The class 1A employer NICs liability is a liability on the employer. On his question, as I think I said earlier, only 1% of employees receive a termination award each year, and of these only 20% will be affected by the Bill—but it is entirely up to businesses how any additional NICs liability is accounted for.

The noble Lord asked for reassurance that responsibility for any miscalculations of class 1A employer NICs or income tax will lie with the employer. I am happy to confirm that position for national insurance. In the case of any underdeduction or underpayment of PAYE income tax by an employer, HMRC is obliged to recover in the first instance from the employer. However, in some circumstances, for example where the employer made an innocent error or the employee knew that insufficient tax had been paid, HMRC may transfer the PAYE income tax to the employee at a later point.

The noble Lord asked how different forms of termination payment were treated for the purpose of determining eligibility for, and the calculation of, social security benefits such as universal credit. I can reassure him that the changes being introduced in the Bill do not affect the interaction of termination payments and universal credit. Termination payments in the form of redundancy pay are treated as capital rather than earnings and are therefore disregarded as income for universal credit purposes. However, if that payment results in someone having more than £16,000 in savings, they would no longer be eligible for universal credit. Termination payments in the form of payments in lieu of notice—PILONs—are treated as earnings for universal credit.

None the less, the Bill will not negatively affect a household’s universal credit entitlement, because earnings for universal credit are considered net of income tax and NICs. This is fair, as the purpose of a termination award or sporting testimonial is to ensure that the individual unfortunate enough to lose their job receives a lump sum, a large part of which is tax free, to cover the costs associated with retraining and finding a new job.

With regard to sporting testimonials, the noble Lord raised a concern that the new NICs charge could reduce donations to charitable organisations. I am happy to reassure him that, because testimonial committees are required to operate PAYE on income from testimonials in excess of £100,000, any charitable donations can be made through payroll giving without incurring any income tax or NICs liability at all. HMRC will ensure that the published guidance will make this clear prior to implementation.

I also assure the noble Lord that, although we have received no indication that the current guidance is causing any practical difficulties and this Bill does not make any changes that would supersede it, we will continually update our guidance in response to the issues raised during the passage of the Bill. This will include some practical examples of non-contractual and non-customary sporting testimonials to ease understanding, in response to the issue just raised by the noble Lord.

The noble Lord also asked what steps the Treasury would take to review the impact of the measures in the Bill. Again, I reassure him that the Treasury will continue to keep these issues under review once the measures in the Bill are in force. In the published tax information and impact notes for the measures in the Bill, the Government set out their commitment to review the policy through communication with taxpayer groups affected by the measure. We are also committed to carrying out post-legislative scrutiny three to five years after the Bill becomes an Act.

I say to the noble Lord and to all other noble Lords who have taken part in this debate that we are of course happy to have further informal discussions before the remaining stages of the Bill if any noble Lords would find that helpful. I am grateful for the opportunity to explain the issues that have arisen today and for the support of noble Lords for the Bill, and I am delighted to commend it to the House.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.