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National Insurance Contributions (Reduction in Rates) (No. 2) Bill

Volume 747: debated on Wednesday 13 March 2024

Proceedings resumed (Order, this day)

Considered in Committee (Order, this day)

[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]

I remind Members that in Committee of the whole House they should not address the Chair as Deputy Speaker. They should please use our names when addressing the Chair. Madam Chair, Chair, Madam Chairman or Mr Chairman are also acceptable—I think I have been called all of those at some stage.

Clause 1

Reduction in rates

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

With this it will be convenient to consider clauses 2 and 3 stand part. I will take the selected new clauses as a separate debate after the clause stand debates.

I outlined the purpose of the Bill in my earlier speech. It is a short and clear Bill with a very clear purpose. It is our desire to move quickly in order for the changes to take effect from 6 April 2024. I sense Members’ desire to move quickly in cutting people’s taxes, and I will detain the Committee no longer.

I fear that my speech may be marginally longer than the Minister’s, but I can assure you, Mr Chair, that it will not be too lengthy, because, as I made clear on Second Reading, we will support the national insurance reductions that the clauses in the Bill seek to deliver.

Clause 1 seeks to reduce national insurance contributions by reducing the main rates of employee class 1 and self-employed class 4 contributions, as well as the reduced rate that applies to a historic group of married women and widows. Clause 2 seeks to amend the calculation of annual maximum contributions and is effectively consequential on clause 1. Clause 3 sets out that the Bill will come into force on 6 April.

I would like the Minister to answer a couple of questions when he responds. Will he set out what conversations he has had with employers and payroll software developers about whether they will be ready to implement the provisions in this Bill from the start of the next financial year? I think I heard the Exchequer Secretary, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies), say on Second Reading that he was confident that a majority of employees would receive this tax cut at the beginning of the financial year, but is the Minister confident that every relevant employee will indeed receive the cut to national insurance in their first pay cheque of financial year 2024-25?

More widely, we support what this simple Bill seeks to achieve, so we will support all three clauses being approved by this Committee of the whole House.

Thank you very much, Mr Chair—hopefully that is an acceptable form of address to use. I want to speak about the Bill in general and some of our concerns about it. The reality is that this is the wrong measure at the wrong time, as I said on Second Reading.

Earlier, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) spoke about her concerns about the SNP’s policies on oil and gas. She says that we are not putting workers first. Unfortunately, the Labour party’s plans for green investment in energy mean that 100,000 jobs will be lost in Scotland, which is very clearly not putting workers first—unless it is only workers in England who count—given that the money will go on nuclear power.

On the details of this Bill, the reality is that public services are creaking and really struggling. I have spoken to the Electoral Commission, which is concerned about whether it will even be able to deliver elections properly, given that mandatory voter ID has been introduced. The commission was able to co-opt people from other areas in order to ensure that all the recent by-elections were run properly. Will the Minister make it absolutely clear that if there is a general election this year—which there almost has to be; there certainly has to be one in the coming financial year—local authorities will have enough money and people to be able to deliver and service those elections? Will they have enough resources to be able to do that?

The 2022 autumn statement allocated more money to the NHS for 2024-25 than this Budget allocates, so it is a bit of a cheek for any Conservative Member to stand up and say that the Government are putting more money into the NHS. They are putting less money into the NHS than they proposed in autumn 2022. The consequentials that arise from the increase this year are actually less than the in-year consequentials that the Scottish Government had for the NHS in this current year, so it is a very minor increase, because it only works out to in-year terms—[Interruption.] Does the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott) want to intervene? It is ridiculous for the Government to say, “This extra money is going into the NHS” when it is demonstrably less than they intended to spend on the NHS back in autumn 2022.

The Bill is going to make changes to the national insurance rates, and those changes will disproportionately impact higher earners. The Minister was slightly disingenuous when he said that the changes represent a higher percentage for people on lower incomes. Yes, but that is significantly less money. A band 2 worker in the NHS will be getting a £341 reduction in their national insurance rate. An MP in this House will get four times that. How is it fair that somebody in this House who is, in the main, not struggling to make ends meet will get £1,300 when someone working in the NHS will get only £300?

NHS workers have seen exactly the same increase in their energy bills as we have. They have seen exactly the same increase in council tax—actually, no, they have seen a much higher increase in their council tax bills if they live in England compared with those who live in Scotland. They have seen the same 25% hike in food prices. Given that those on lower incomes spend more money on food proportionately than those on higher incomes, that 25% inflation in food prices disproportionately hits families who are earning less. Therefore, we need to give even more to those families, rather than saying, “Well, it’s a higher percentage of your income so you’re okay. You’ll be fine with £340, but those people who are earning 85 grand a year standing in the House of Commons deserve £1,300.”

The hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) made a very good speech on this change, and as he said, it is the essence of trickle-down economics in action. The Government are hoping that if rich people get richer and inequality increases, those people at the bottom of the pile will somehow magically get richer as well. There are much better ways to do this. One of the worst things about this whole situation—apart from the fact that Labour Members are unwilling to oppose it—is the decimation of public services that will result from it. The fact is that we have had 14 years of austerity and that is set to continue. People are going to lose out on vital services. The NHS is absolutely vital. Every one of us has had some sort of interaction with the NHS, yet the Government are setting themselves up for decades of pay battles with staff members because they will be unable to give the pay uplift that people deserve. They are setting us up for the decimation of those services.

I mentioned in my Budget speech last week that £1 billion-worth of cuts have been made by local councils to arts funding. That means children cannot access arts education, cannot go to a local theatre with reduced-price tickets from their local council, and cannot access all these extra things. People are struggling to access the most basic services because local authorities are creaking at the seams, yet the UK Government’s priorities are to allow a 4.99% increase in council tax and to ensure that higher earners get £1,300 whereas those on the minimum wage of £11.44 an hour who work 20 hours a week see absolutely no benefit.

I probably will not respond to everything we have heard today, as we thoroughly addressed many of the issues in the Budget debate.

In response to the new comments, I assure the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) that we always ensure that the democratic process is adequately funded. She is dismissive of the £2.45 billion increase in NHS spending that was outlined in the Budget, but it is a significant amount and, as she is aware, it is a real-terms increase. I agree with the hon. Lady on the importance of arts, culture and the other areas she mentioned, which is precisely why the Budget had measures to extend tax reliefs.

My opposite number, the hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray), asked about the logistics of implementing and executing the tax change. We understand the impact of policy changes, and I put on record how grateful we are for all those who have implemented and executed the recent changes so speedily and effectively. Employees whose employer is unable to make changes in time, and who have left their employment, may request a refund from HMRC. The Government are confident that the majority of software developers will be able to make changes to their payroll software in time for 6 April.

On the new clauses, we have outlined the policy today. The impact of any changes to policy would, of course, be subject to the usual public scrutiny of costs, including from the OBR. It is therefore not necessary to produce a report at this stage. The OBR’s “Economic and fiscal outlook” publication for the spring 2024 Budget includes an analysis of the impacts of threshold freezes, including on the number of people brought into paying tax. It is therefore not necessary to produce an additional report at this stage, so we do not believe new clause 1 is necessary.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 2 and 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause 1

Review of the effects of reducing employee and self-employed NIC contributions to zero

“(1) The Treasury must publish before the end of the parliamentary session in which this Act is passed an analysis of the effect of —

(a) replacing “8%” with “0%” in section 1(1) of this Act,

(b) replacing “1.85%” with “0%” in section 1(2) of this Act, and

(c) replacing “6%” with “0%” in section 1(3) of this Act.

(2) The analysis in subsection (1) must set out the expected impact of the changes in subsection (1)(a) to (c) on total receipts to the National Insurance Fund in each of the financial years from 2024/25 to 2028/29.

(3) The Treasury must request the Government Actuary to make an assessment of the consequences for the Consolidated Fund in each of the financial years from 2024/25 to 2028/29 of shortfalls in the National Insurance Fund that would result from a zero rate for employee and self-employed national insurance contributions.”—(James Murray.)

This new clause would require the Government, before the end of the current parliamentary session, to set out what the impact would be on total receipts from national insurance and overall public finances of reducing national insurance contributions for employees and self-employed people to zero.

Brought up, and read the First time.

With this it will be convenient to consider new clause 2—Review of effects of frozen thresholds

“The Treasury must lay before the House of Commons within three months of the passing of this Act a report which sets out its forecasts of the change to the number of people paying national insurance contributions as a result of the thresholds for payment of national insurance remaining frozen over the period 2023/24 to 2027/28, rather than rising in line with CPI.”

As I made clear in the previous debate, we support the national insurance reductions that the Bill seeks to deliver. However, the Chancellor followed the announcement of these reductions in last week’s Budget speech by pulling a rabbit out of his hat that, frankly, left us shocked and deeply concerned.

The Chancellor closed his Budget statement by committing the Conservative party to an unfunded £46 billion tax plan. It is quite incredible, and it tells us everything we need to know about the state of the Conservative party that he would use his last Budget before the general election to promise a plan that leaves a £46 billion hole in the public finances, that puts family finances at risk, and that raises the prospect of higher tax bills for pensioners across the country.

People across Britain are still paying the price for the reckless and unfunded tax plans in the disastrous mini-Budget, so it beggars belief that the very top of the Conservative party—the Prime Minister and the Chancellor —now want to go into the general election with an unfunded tax plan even greater than we saw in the autumn of 2022. We know just how damaging and irresponsible the Conservatives’ unfunded tax plans are for the British economy and for families across the country. Yet for a week now, and in Parliament today, Ministers from the Prime Minister down have been unable to say how this £46 billion tax plan will be funded.

People deserve answers. Are the Conservatives planning to increase taxes, including on Britain’s 8 million taxpaying pensioners? Are they planning to increase borrowing? Are they planning to cut our vital public services to pay for their £46 billion black hole? Ministers are refusing to answer, so our new clause 1 will force them to do so.

New clause 1 would therefore require the Treasury to come clean and set out the impact of the Conservatives’ plan to reduce national insurance contributions for employees and self-employed people to zero. It would force the Treasury to be honest about the impact of their plan on total receipts from national insurance, and the impact that would have on overall public finances. It would compel the Government to set out how they would fund the black hole that their plan creates. I urge Members in all parts of the House to support our new clause, including Conservative Members—if they want to prove that they can put country before party; and fiscal responsibility ahead of loyalty to their weak Prime Minister. This vote matters because the public deserve answers on the Conservatives’ £46 billion unfunded tax plan.

No, I am going to make some progress.

The public deserve to know whether the Prime Minister’s commitment to abolish national insurance means tax hikes for pensioners, even higher borrowing, cuts to important public services, or all of the above.

I hate reading and I probably will not be able to read this out either, because my eyes are not good. The shadow Minister talked about what the Chancellor said at the end of the Budget, so let me tell him that he said the following about any further cut:

“When it is responsible, when it can be achieved without increasing borrowing and when it can be delivered without compromising high-quality public services”. —[Official Report, 6 March 2024; Vol. 746, c. 851-52.]

So what problem does the shadow Minister have with cutting taxes on working people?

The problem we have with the Chancellor’s announcement is that he has said that in the next Parliament he wants to abolish NI contributions. [Interruption.] The Prime Minister said that on the Saturday following the Budget. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor have again and again, in emails to party members and in interviews with media outlets, made it clear that that is what they want to do. I appreciate that some Treasury Ministers have been flip-flopping a bit when they have been out on their media rounds and have not entirely been able to toe the party line. But going into the general election, I would listen to what the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are saying, and if they are saying that they want to abolish NI and create a £46 billion black hole in the public finances, they should stand up here and defend that to the people of Great Britain today.

The reckless way in which the Conservatives announced their unfunded tax plan and then refused to give any more details exposes the risk of five more years of them in power. It is clear the Conservatives will happily gamble with the public finances and yet again leave working people being forced to pay the price. As they have been unwilling to explain how their plan will be funded, we will today vote to force the Government to come clean on the impact of their £46 billion tax plan on the state of public finances.

I am very interested in this and am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I am struggling to understand whether he is for or against the proposed cut in NI. It would be helpful if he would be clear on that. It sounds as though he is saying that the Opposition do not support it, but if that is the case, why would they not have come through the Lobby with us in opposing it?

I am happy to provide clarification for the hon. Gentleman. We have had an extended debate about this today, where we have made it clear on several occasions that we support the Government’s cut in NI, because we believe that the tax burden on working people is too high and we want to see it come down. What we do not support is an unfunded £46 billion tax plan that the Chancellor has committed the Conservative party to. That is the subject of our new clause that we are debating now, and I look forward to his joining us in voting for it in a few moments.

My hon. Friend is making an important point, not least because, to all intents and purposes, the Chancellor’s ambition is to abolish NI altogether. That unfunded tax cut requires a 6% increase in income tax just for us to stand still, unless something is going to give. Do national insurance qualifying years not count towards how much state pension someone is entitled to get? So how do we recalculate one’s entitlement to state pension if the qualifying years do not exist because NI does not exist?

I thank my hon. Friend for that important intervention, setting out just some of the problems created by this reckless plan that the Conservatives have put out into the public domain and are refusing to explain or withdraw.

We know that if the Chancellor’s proposal to merge national insurance and income tax were to be followed, it would push up income tax by 6.5%, meaning pensioners would pay, on average, £800 more a year. My hon. Friend also makes important points about the impact of the plan on eligibility to the basic state pension. Again, Members on the Government Front Bench have not answered those questions. They had nothing to say on any of those points, which are concerning people across the country, when they responded earlier.

We have tabled new clause 1 because it will force the Government to come clean about these issues. Ministers are refusing to stand at the Dispatch Box to explain how they will fund their £46 billion black hole or to withdraw their policy entirely. New clause 1 will force them to set that out. Because they have been unwilling to explain how they will fund their plan, we will force them to come clean on its impact on public finances.

Not only is there concern about where the funding would come from, but in the Treasury Committee just now the Chancellor refused to rule out increasing income tax in order to fund the abolition of NI contributions. The House of Commons Library has said that merging NICs and income tax would require an 8% increase in the basic and higher rates of income tax. What will that do for the long-term future of the UK economy?

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing us that update from the Treasury Committee about what the Chancellor has been saying. Again, we can see the Chancellor being reckless by talking about merging national insurance with income tax without having a second thought for what impact that would have on hard-pressed taxpayers, particularly pensioners. Pensioners do not currently pay national insurance on their earnings and would be hit by a tax increase as a result of national insurance and income tax being merged. That is another example of how reckless these plans are, and how reckless it is for Treasury Ministers to refuse to stand up and explain how their plans would be funded.

The public deserves to know. If Ministers vote against our new clause or they refuse to come clean, then the British people will have it confirmed, yet again, that the Conservatives cannot be trusted with the economy, public finances or the finances of households across our country.

Thank you for calling me, Mr Evans—surely it is long overdue that it should be Sir Nigel, but we will go with Mr Evans for today.

I stand to move new clause 2 in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney). Hon. Members will see that the effect of new clause 2 would be fairly short in its compass. It would compel the Treasury to report to this House its forecasts of the change to the number of people who are set to pay national insurance contributions as a result of the thresholds for payment remaining frozen until 2028, instead of increasing in line with the consumer prices index, which would be the case otherwise. The Chancellor and other Ministers have spoken today about the pride the Government take in what they are doing. In the interests of transparency, the Government should have no difficulty accepting new clause 2. I am sure it is merely an inadvertent omission that those measures are not part of the Bill already.

It is apparent that comments made by the Chancellor, the Prime Minister and others about the idea of abolishing national insurance altogether have started a debate, as we have seen this afternoon. It is a substantial commitment to make—£46 billion—and we do not yet know where that money would come from. That is maybe not the novelty that it used to be, certainly before the mini-Budget. However, it offers us an opportunity to think a little bit about the nature of national insurance as a tax, because it is quite distinct in its composition and operation.

In practical terms, functionally, national insurance is more or less like any other tax, in as much as money is paid into the Exchequer and fills the coffers, and then is spent as the Government or Governments see fit—in relation to health, policing, transport, Ministers’ legal fees or whatever else it is going to be.

As a matter of intent and purpose, however, national insurance is identifiably different from the other taxes we pay. More than any other levy, it is the symbol of our shared obligations—what we owe each other as a society and as communities in support throughout our lives. The point of national insurance is that we pool and share resources geographically and generationally. We pay our stamp on each payslip, trusting that, when the time comes for us to retire, someone else will continue to pay taxes that will fund our pensions.

Let us remember that the roots of this tax are in Lloyd George’s Budget, and that the introduction of national insurance came with the introduction of the pension. That is why we have the legacy of the link between national insurance and pensions, which was pointed out by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) in an intervention. That is significant. These are matters that must be clarified before we undertake a change of this sort.

At the heart of any healthy liberal democratic society, there is the idea that we have lasting obligations to one another. We have obligations to those we know, to those we do not know, to generations that are older than us, and to those who are yet to be born. We can be bound by policies with which we disagree, and sometimes we must pay taxes for things that we dislike or that we feel we do not need. That is the system in which the national insurance contribution has a demonstrably significant and different impact than other taxes. It is part of the tapestry of government and public life in this country.

This is perhaps just pulling at a thread, but the Minister and, indeed, people in all parts of the House would be well advised to consider exactly what they may be unravelling by pulling at this thread. Full transparency from the Government on the effect of freezing national insurance contributions in the way that has been proposed should be an important part of this debate as it proceeds.

Thank you very much. Can someone from the Liberal Democrats inform the Chair who their tellers will be, as their amendment has been selected for a separate Division?

As I mentioned earlier, the impact of policy and any changes to policy will be subject to the usual public scrutiny, including from the OBR on costs. It is therefore not necessary to produce additional reports. I will not play into the hands of the Opposition today by commenting further on their scaremongering. I refer the shadow Minister to the answer that I gave earlier, which I thought was quite clear. I am sorry that he is incapable of understanding the difference between an ambition and a policy, but the rest of the House seems to understand it. Hopefully, he will catch up at some point.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

New Clause 2

Review of effects of frozen thresholds

“The Treasury must lay before the House of Commons within three months of the passing of this Act a report which sets out its forecasts of the change to the number of people paying national insurance contributions as a result of the thresholds for payment of national insurance remaining frozen over the period 2023/24 to 2027/28, rather than rising in line with CPI.”—(Mr Carmichael.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Bill, not amended in the Committee, considered.

Third Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I am grateful to all right hon. and hon. Members who have participated throughout the Bill’s passage today, and to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the other Deputy Speakers for skilfully guiding us through the process. I also thank all the Clerks, all stakeholders and all the officials for their work on bringing the Bill to the Floor and delivering tax cuts to the people of the United Kingdom. I commend the Bill to the House.

As I have made clear throughout the Bill’s consideration, Labour supports the national insurance reductions that it seeks to deliver. I am disappointed, however, that Conservative MPs voted to block our new clause. Since the Chancellor announced the Conservatives’ plan to abolish national insurance contributions last week, Ministers have refused again and again—including today—to say how that will be funded or what impact it will have. We believe people deserve to know what impact the Conservatives’ £46 billion unfunded tax plan will have on pensioners and their pensions, on public services and on the health of our economy. Our new clause would have required the Government to come clean and be honest with the British public. Instead, Ministers have decided to vote against us and stick to their reckless and irresponsible unfunded tax plan.

It is still not clear how this reckless commitment to abolishing national insurance will be funded or what impact it will have on pensioners, pensions, public services, borrowing or the state of our economy. But what is clearer than ever is that the Conservatives are the party of reckless, irresponsible, unfunded tax plans that threaten our economy, our public services and the finances of households across the country. Only Labour will bring stability and the responsible approach our economy needs and only a general election will give the British people the chance to vote for change.

We do not support this change. This cut disproportionately benefits those earning the most. We in the SNP recognise the value that the public sector provides. We believe it should be properly funded to deliver our vital public services, and we do not believe that they can cope with more cuts on the back of 14 years of austerity and the trials of Brexit and the pandemic. We want excellent public services for all, and we are not scared to make that absolutely clear.

Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Bill read the Third time and passed.