Finance Bill – High income child benefit charge

Mark spoke at Committee Stage of the Finance Bill to express his deep concerns about the practical application of the proposed changes to child benefits. 

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I must confess that I support the principle behind the clause but share many of the concerns expressed by Cathy Jamieson about its practicality. However, I accept that there is an overriding need to reduce the vast fiscal deficit, and all of us who feel that way must look at the provisions, whether in the Budget or elsewhere, and support what is being done to try to get the deficit down.

Apart from everything else, it is a moral case: we cannot pass these huge debts on to the next generation. Even now, in an era that the Opposition have identified as one of austerity and savage cuts, the Government are borrowing £1 in every £5 they spend. There is an absolute crisis in the welfare state and we must wean ourselves off this huge amount of public expenditure at the earliest opportunity.

One of the most important areas to look at is that of universal benefits, particularly universal middle class benefits, which must be up for consideration. Housing benefit, which has been discussed, and child benefit are certainly important. I believe that wealthy pensioners should not get free TV licences, bus passes or winter fuel allowances, although I accept the political difficulty of that, given the promises made just before the general election. The Minister is an intelligent man and must realise that the practicalities of the system will make it an absolute nightmare. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun has made quite clear how she feels about it, but let us for once in politics be wise before the event, rather than after it.

Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire, Conservative) My hon. Friend talks about the practicalities of the system, but is he aware that there is no practical mechanism by which wealthy parents can opt out of the system if they do not want to claim child benefit?

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative) There will be by next January, because they will not qualify for it. The broader issue is that there is a risk that the proposal is potentially a penalty on aspiration for those who earn roughly between £50,000 and £60,000 a year. It is a disincentive for families with one parent who stays at home to look after children.

What of the broader tax incentives?

One of the reasons I am so keen on reducing the higher rate of tax to 45% is that I think there is a mass incentive in having lower rates of tax, yet the concern for those earning between £50,000 and £60,000 who have three children is that they will be paying a marginal rate, often of over 60%, which does not seem to be a sensible way forward. Those are the theoretical issues.

There are a number of major practical issues that the Minister will have to look at. This system will be incredibly difficult to implement. The reality is that many people now earn consulting income and do not know nine months into a year, let alone at the beginning, whether they will earn between £50,000 and £60,000. We will see some strange disincentives that will encourage people to arrange for invoices to go out just after the financial year, so that one year they earn £49,000 and the next they earn £80,000 or £90,000.

It strikes me that much of this will rely on IT systems, which have been a reputational nightmare for both HMRC and the Treasury. I think that this system will be very tough to administer. As has been mentioned, the implementation will be in January, rather than, as normal, at the beginning of the tax year, which will make for additional difficulty.

I want this to work. I think that all of us who want to see the deficit reduced want to see Budget measures working well for the Treasury and HMRC. My biggest concern is that we will end up returning to the House, perhaps in January or slightly later next year, at the beginning of the next tax year, recognising a system that is going to be discredited, not least because huge amounts of money will be uncollected and, if the schemes goes ahead, because large amounts will have to be repaid. We know—we can see—that there are huge practical difficulties, and, although I fully support the idea of getting the deficit down, I wonder why we cannot look at a simpler system that, for example, limits child benefit only to two or, perhaps, to three children. I am the father of two children, and I know the Minister is the father of three, but there is no particular self-interest here. We need a more straightforward and simple system; one that is easy to calculate and to understand.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland, Labour) One reason for not taking up the proposal is that one group in society which is most likely to be in child poverty is children in families with lots of children.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative) I accept that, but we are looking for a simple system—[ Interruption. ] No, the issue at stake is trying to find a straightforward and simple system that bears down on the idea of universality, which we should try to do if our welfare system is to retain any credit. I hope that even at this late stage the Minister will give some thought to the matter. I work on the basis that I want the measure to work, but nothing would undermine our tax system more than the benefit before us being undermined, as many of us fear, through the practical difficulties that are almost inevitable. Let us for once, as I say, be wise before the event.