National Insurance Contributions (Reduction in Rates) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 4:05 pm ar 12 Rhagfyr 2023.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Sikka Lord Sikka Llafur 4:05, 12 Rhagfyr 2023

My Lords, in the era of never-ending real wage cuts, high inflation, high taxes, high interest rates and the cost of living crisis, any help for hard-pressed households is welcome, but that cannot hide the Government’s sleight of hand. Let us remember that last year the Government were prepared to increase the national insurance contribution rate for employees from 12% to 13.25%. They did not really feel that there was any need to help the poorest then. Now that they are doing incredibly badly in the opinion polls, some bribes are obviously coming out and this 2p cut is just one example.

Of course, people will not be fooled by the bribes; they will remember what the Government have done to them. Since March 2021, the income tax personal allowance and thresholds have been frozen and will remain frozen until 2027-28 or maybe even beyond. In 2022, the UK had a tax-to-GDP ratio of 35.3% compared to the OECD average of 34%, and it is going to get worse because of fiscal drag: millions more people are going to be paying income tax and national insurance contributions because of that.

Since March 2022, the threshold for national insurance contributions has also been frozen. Due to the impact of inflation on VAT, higher duties, income tax and national insurance, the additional tax yield is expected to be around £57 billion in 2027-28. This shows that the Government’s claim that they are handing things back to the people is really a work of fiction. The cut in the main rate of national insurance for employees from 12% to 10% and changes in rates for the self-employed will hand back, according to the OBR, £2.2 billion in 2023-24 and £9.4 billion in 2024-25, rising to £10 billion in £2028-29. That is a total of nearly £50 billion.

What are the Government going to collect through national insurance contributions for the same period? According to the OBR, despite the cut in the rate, they will collect £62 billion—£12 billion more than the cut they are handing back. That is all because of fiscal drag. Can the Minister explain why the cut in the national insurance contribution rate does not fully wipe out the increase in revenues from the contributions? Whichever way anyone looks at it, this cut is part of an impression management exercise. It is a small part of the additional taxes that the Government have already collected and will continue to collect.

In line with their usual practice, the Government are handing a lower amount of the national insurance cut to the less well-off and more to the rich. The annual median wage for an employee is £29,669, so a median-wage earner will get a cut of just £341 a year. Those earning more will collect far more. The median earners will still pay a higher proportion of their income in national insurance contributions than wealthier individuals: the Resolution Foundation concluded that the Budget favoured the richest 20% of earners. It will be interesting to see whether the Minister wants to deny that.

As people in London and the south-east of England tend to have higher wages, they will collect a bigger national insurance cut compared to the rest of the country. Due to the Government’s failure to address regional disparities, inequalities will now be widened. In the last tax year, 21 million adults had a taxable income of less than £12,570 and, as a result, were not liable to pay any national insurance contributions. Due to fiscal drag, that number is now around 19 million. The national insurance cut delivers zero benefit to 19 million adults, the majority of whom are women. This includes families who have been robbed of nearly £3,000 a year by the Government’s two-child benefit cap. As usual, the poorest are invisible to the Government. Can the Minister please explain the impact of the national insurance cut on regional and gender inequalities?

The national insurance cut provides little comfort to most families. Savings for median earners are immediately wiped out by the higher price of food, energy, transport, interest rates, mortgage payments, rents and council tax—there is no benefit. The Resolution Foundation estimates that, due to sluggish economic growth, persistent inflation and higher taxes, the average household will be £1,900 a year poorer by January 2025, compared to December 2019—that is a real legacy of the Government. There is no redistribution or levelling up; nothing in the Bill matches that.

The Government could have helped the 19 million adults receiving zero benefit from the national insurance cut by abolishing VAT on domestic fuel, or by cutting the standard rate of VAT, but they chose not to do that. The cost could have been met by clawing back the benefit of the 2% national insurance cut from the richest individuals—for example, by making the national insurance contribution rate more progressive for individuals on higher incomes. Patriotic Millionaires have urged the Government to tax them more, but the Government do not even want to do what the rich are urging them to—possibly because those rich people are not in the Conservative Party.

In case the Minister is tempted to say that the Government have helped the poor by increasing benefits, I remind her that the real value of benefits has fallen since 2010. The Government could have addressed the anomalies in the national insurance contribution laws. For example, there is no economic or moral reason for exempting capital gains, dividends and investment income from national insurance payments. The individuals enjoying exemptions use the National Health Service and social care system, but do not pay anything towards them. If a rich person with capital gains has an accident, a taxpayer-funded ambulance and the NHS would come to the rescue, so why do they not pay national insurance contributions? What is the moral and economic justification? The Government could have raised billions of pounds by eliminating that anomaly.

The Government could also have hit the tax avoidance industry. I know many accountants who are busy converting incomes to capital gains so that certain individuals not only pay tax at a lower rate but dodge national insurance contributions. The Government have done absolutely nothing to deal with that. Of course, getting rid of the tax avoidance industry helps with economic efficiency as well, but again the Government are oblivious to that. Can the Minister explain why investment income in the hands of comparatively few people continues to be exempt from national insurance payments? What is the justification for this? If she wishes, I would be delighted to participate in any debate that she might wish to call on this.