Chair of the Treasury Committee Harriett Baldwin speaks in support of her amendments to the Finance Bill that would reverse the Government's proposal to abolish the Office of Tax Simplification or, if the Office is abolished, require the Treasury to report annually on tax simplification.
I rise to speak to new clause 2 and amendment 7, which were tabled in my name and those of all the other members of the cross-party Treasury Committee.
“Taxes are far too complex.”
Those are not my words but the words of the Chancellor of the Exchequer when he gave evidence to our Committee. The amendments to which I am speaking would give legislative effect to the recommendations of the report we published last week on the work of the Office of Tax Simplification. The report is on the Table, and I encourage all hon. and right hon. Members to read it.
Across the House, I think we can all agree that, regardless of the level of tax, the tax system itself has become far too complex. To give an example, as a result of the Committee’s current inquiry on tax reliefs, we have finally found out how many tax reliefs there are in the tax code—1,180. The unnecessary complexity in our tax code makes the tax system expensive and difficult for HMRC to administer, makes the tax system confusing and makes it difficult for taxpayers to understand the choices on offer and the consequences of those choices for their after-tax income.
A complex tax system can be hugely costly for taxpayers and for those responsible for compliance with the tax code. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury was kind enough to give evidence to our Committee on the VAT system last week, and she described it as the “most complex” part of the tax system. VAT creates a crippling compliance burden for small businesses and, as a result, there is a massive pile-up of companies just underneath that £85,000 turnover threshold. This shows that small, potentially dynamic, growing businesses—the engines of our economy—would rather stay under the threshold than deal with the VAT system.
Unfortunately, the VAT threshold is far from the only cliff edge in our tax and benefits systems. At worst, these cliff edges result in people being worse off for earning more money. In recent evidence to a joint session of the Treasury Committee and the Work and Pensions Committee, we heard how people can suddenly find themselves much worse off, after losing entitlements such as free school meals and council tax support, when they earn only a little more money. Indeed, next winter a person who earns an extra £1 will take home £900 less because they lose the cost of living support entitlement, which we reflected in a recent report. People would actually be better off by working less, or perhaps not working at all, and surely that is something we do not want to see in our tax and benefits systems.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point, but does she accept that complexity can lead to gaming of the system? It often feels as if the accountancy profession and tax planners are streets ahead of the Revenue, to the extent that we now have to have a general anti-avoidance measure so that, if they find something we do not like, they are not allowed to do it, even though it may be within the rules. That is a direct product of this complexity, which is creating a whole other industry around finding loopholes.
I agree with my right hon. Friend’s excellent point. Not only do the wealthiest get the best tax advice, but general financial advice has now become so expensive in this country that only 8% of our constituents can afford to pay for it.
I turn to the example of a young father of, say, three children who is doing well at work and who gets a promotion taking his income above £50,000 for the first time. We might think this would be unadulterated good news but, actually, the tax system will send him a message that this is perhaps not such a wise thing, because he will immediately go into the upper tax threshold and his marginal rate of tax will be 40%. He will get the extra 2 percentage point national insurance surcharge as well. If he has a student loan, 9% might be taken off the outstanding balance. And of course child benefit will start to taper. For a father of three children, that could mean a marginal withdrawal rate of a further 29%. Our potential go-getter would be left with only 20% of the pay rise he had been awarded, and this applies to the kind of people we want to encourage to take on pay rises and extra work because it is good for the economy.
I am ignorant about tax affairs, but trying to sort it out might make it even more complicated.
My right hon. Friend highlights that this is not an easy task. The point I am trying to make with my amendments, which I hope he will support, is that, by abolishing the Office of Tax Simplification, we lose not only a source of valuable advice on how to simplify the tax system but the message that we want to do so, which I know the Chancellor wants to convey.
Higher up the income scale, the £100,000 income bracket triggers the withdrawal of the very welcome steps we have taken on tax-free childcare and the personal allowance. This means that a family with two children in full-time childcare, if they happen to live in London, would be better off earning £99,999 than earning more than £150,000 because they would have a more than 100% withdrawal of extra earnings in that income bracket, which is very distorting. It provides disincentives to work, and we see that obstacle to economic growth reflected in the workforce numbers produced by the Office for National Statistics.
The Chancellor agrees that
“the tax system is overcomplicated and the trend of ever more complication must be reversed.”
It is surprising that, on coming to office, he chose not to reverse the abolition of the Office of Tax Simplification. It was established in 2010, and it was given a ringing endorsement by the Treasury in its 2021 statutory review. Disbanding the independent champion for simpler tax sits very uncomfortably with the Government’s insistence that tax simplification is a priority.
However, the most important factor in securing tax simplification in practice would be for the Chancellor to take on the personal responsibility for simplification that he pledged to take, which brings me to the Treasury Committee’s new clause 2. We have heard that, while the Treasury and HMRC focus on new taxes, the Office of Tax Simplification did important practical work seeking to simplify the existing tax system. We also heard in our evidence session that the Office of Tax Simplification did good work listening to taxpayers to understand how the complexity of the tax system works against them. The reports of the Office of Tax Simplification were published very transparently, unlike the private advice given to Ministers, and they facilitated parliamentary scrutiny of tax simplification efforts.
The Chancellor told us that he intends to be a Chancellor who makes “progress on tax simplification.” I welcome the simplification of the lifetime allowance, which the Opposition opposed earlier, but the Committee wants the ability to hold him accountable for that. Under new clause 2, the Treasury would report to the Committee annually on the Chancellor’s promise to simplify taxes.
I have genuinely enjoyed my hon. Friend’s contributions not just today but at earlier stages, and I enjoyed being grilled with the Committee’s very thoughtful questions last week. In the spirit of agreement and co-operation, would it meet with her and the Committee’s approval if I committed to write to the Committee once a tax year, including this tax year, on the subject of simplification? The Committee could look at that report, decide for itself how the Government of the day are doing and, of course, call Ministers to account before the Committee.
I thank the Financial Secretary for that intervention, which is very much in the spirit of what we are calling for in our new clause. Our report set out the sorts of things we would like to see. The report from the Treasury should be annual and it should include international comparisons, where available. It should also set out what the Treasury has done within that year to simplify taxes for our constituents and those who run businesses.
Let me add that we want to see real examples of simplification, as the tax code is so incredibly long and confusing. Just today, I was talking to people from some businesses that have found it impossible and extremely expensive to work their way through that tax code. As the Chairman of the Treasury Committee has set out, some concrete examples would be crucial in any report that came to the Committee.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention, which made me think immediately of the measures in this Bill on the increased rate of corporation tax. That in itself is controversial, but we now have these ladders between 19% and 25%. Our Committee would be interested to see the letter that the Financial Secretary has undertaken to write to us annually include an assessment of not only new measures such as that on the behaviour of businesses—I highlighted the impact of the VAT measures just now—but of the existing body of tax law. As with the simplification of the lifetime allowance, we must ensure that this Treasury and these Treasury Ministers focus relentlessly on how they can simplify the complexity and the behavioural signals that our tax system is sending, which are deterring people from entrepreneurialism, taking on extra work and earning higher incomes. With that, I am happy to have spoken to those two amendments.