Clause 1 - Zero-rate contributions for employees at freeport tax sites: Great Britain

National Insurance Contributions Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 9:25 am ar 22 Mehefin 2021.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

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

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 5—Freeport zero-rate relief: review of incomes and wages—

(1) The Government must conduct a review of the impact of sections 1 to 5 of this Act on income and wage ranges at all freeport tax sites.

(2) The review must assess—

(a) the average income and wage ranges of jobs in respect of which employers have claimed the secondary Class 1 relief introduced by section 1 of this Act; and

(b) for each freeport, how the incomes provided by these jobs compare to average median incomes across the local authority areas in which the freeport is located.

(3) The review must be commenced by 31 October 2022.

(4) The review must be published and laid before Parliament by 31 January 2023.

This new clause will require the Government to evaluate the wages of the jobs created as a result of the employers’ relief introduced by this Bill.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

It is a great pleasure to be able to address these important clauses in a small but important Bill, and I thank all colleagues for joining us today.

Part I of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 stipulates that secondary class 1 national insurance contributions be calculated at a standard rate of 13.8% on earnings above the secondary threshold—currently about £8,700 a year. Part I also provides for other rates of secondary class 1 NICs—the zero rate for 21-year-olds or apprentices under 25, for example—that can be applied up to an upper secondary threshold.

Clause 1 introduces a new zero rate of secondary class 1 national insurance contributions on earnings up to a new upper secondary threshold in Great Britain. The standard rate of NICs, 13.8%, in most cases will apply above that threshold. The threshold will be set through regulations at £25,000 per annum.

Clause 1 provides employers that meet the conditions set out in clause 2, which we will shortly debate, with access to this relief where they have a secondary class 1 liability. An employer may qualify for various rates of secondary national insurance contributions. Clause 1 therefore stipulates that an employer must elect to apply the freeport relief if they wish to utilise this zero rate. By applying the rate, their status as a secondary contributor remains even if, as a result of this relief, an employer has no secondary class 1 liability. The relief will be administered through pay-as-you-earn and real-time information returns by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. This approach has been welcomed by stakeholders.

New clause 5, if I may say so, recapitulates much of what the Government have already done. I remind the Committee that the Government have already published a decision-making note that clearly sets out how sustainable economic growth and regeneration are prioritised in the freeports assessment process. We will also be publishing costings of the freeports programme at the next fiscal event, in line with conventional practice. Those costings will undergo the usual scrutiny from the Office for Budget Responsibility.

It is also important to say that the Government are already taking the necessary steps to gather the information required to review the programme effectively. Before funding is allocated and tax sites are designated, each freeport will need to pass a business case process, which includes assessing how effectively tax sites can be monitored. Freeports will need to collect data on reliefs and their realised outcomes, which will include monitoring the effectiveness of tax reliefs, and the Government will continue to publish information relating to HMRC through its annual report and accounts. It is important to note that the Government have already committed to keeping this measure under review as new information becomes available. The publicly available tax information and impact note also commits the Government to keeping the scheme under review through communication with taxpayers’ groups.

The Government reject the proposal in new clause 5 because a report that focused exclusively on just one aspect of the policy would not do justice, however valuable its focus, to the whole, which includes other important aspects over and above wages, such as changes to customs rules, Government infrastructure spending and planning reform. I therefore ask that the Committee reject new clause 5.

I am sure that Committee members will not wish to delay the investment associated with clause 1, which introduces a zero rate of secondary class 1 national insurance contributions that employers can apply when they meet the conditions specified in clause 2. For that reason, and with the reassurances that I have given, I urge the Committee to agree that clause 1 stand part of the Bill.

Photo of James Murray James Murray Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury)

Thank you, Ms Nokes, for the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Opposition. We begin by considering the clauses that relate to freeports. In March 2021, the Chancellor announced that eight freeports would be created in England—East Midlands Airport, Felixstowe-Harwich, Humber, Liverpool City Region, Plymouth and South Devon, Solent, Thames, and Teesside—and we understand that discussions continue around further freeports in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Clause 1 will introduce a new secondary class 1 national insurance contributions relief for freeport employers. It provides for that relief to apply when secondary class 1 NICs are due from an employer other than a public authority when the conditions set out in clause 2 are met. Clause 1(2)(a) states that the rate for the relief is 0% and applies up to the upper secondary threshold; subsection (2)(b) states that for earnings above the upper secondary threshold, the secondary percentage—currently 13.8%—applies. Subsection (3) states that the upper secondary threshold, or the prescribed equivalent, will be set by statutory instrument under a power established by clause 8.

As the Financial Secretary may remember, we discussed on Second Reading the fact that the upper secondary threshold for freeport employees would, according to a policy paper published by the Government on 12 May, be set at £25,000 for 2022-23. As I pointed out at the time:

“That is substantially less than the equivalent thresholds for employers’ relief for under-21s and apprentices, which is £50,270 in 2021-22…this means that employers do not need to pay any NICs for under-21s and apprentices earning up to just over £50,000 a year, but they will have to pay contributions for freeport employees next year if they earn more than £25,000.”—[Official Report, 4 June 2021; Vol. 697, c. 49.]

In response to my question about the Government’s rationale for picking the figure of £25,000 for employees of freeports, the Exchequer Secretary said:

“The answer is that, unlike other NICs reliefs that are available to employers nationally and generally are targeted at specific groups of employees with particular characteristics, businesses operating in a freeport are likely to be able to claim the relief on almost all of their new hires. To balance generosity of support with the need to consider the public finances, this broader eligibility has been balanced by limiting the amount of salary that can be relieved. We have chosen to set this limit at £25,000 per annum, which is approximately the average salary in the UK.”—[Official Report, 14 June 2021; Vol. 697, c. 69.]

I would like to take this opportunity to understand the Exchequer Secretary’s response a bit more. I would therefore be grateful if the Financial Secretary let us know the specific source of the data that says that £25,000 is approximately the average salary in the UK. I ask this because according to the Office for National Statistics the median income in all the local authority areas where the eight freeport sites are located is greater than £25,000, with the figures ranging from £25,200 in Kingston upon Hull, within the Humber freeport, to £33,200 in Thurrock, within the Thames freeport.

We would like to take this opportunity to press further on this point, which is why we have tabled new clause 5. We want to understand if the Government are concerned that making the threshold for the NIC relief in freeports £25,000 might create an incentive for employers to create posts paid less than £25,000, rather than higher paid posts, which could in turn create the risk of salaries being bunched below the threshold, thereby undermining salary progression.

New clause 5 requires the Government to conduct a review, after this policy has been in place for six months, to assess the average income and wage range of jobs in respect of which employers have claimed the secondary class 1 relief introduced by clause 1, and for each freeport to assess how incomes provided by these jobs compare with the average median income across the local authority area in which the freeport is located.

I would be grateful if, for clarity, the Minister let us know the precise statistical source of the figure of £25,000 for the average UK salary. Will the Government support the review we propose, which would assess the average incomes of jobs created by this employers’ relief? If not, does he think that setting the threshold for the relief at £25,000 risks creating an incentive for employers to create posts that are paid less—even just less—than £25,000, rather than higher paid positions?

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I saw that he raised the issue on Second Reading and, if I may say so, it potentially reflects a slight misunderstanding.

As the Exchequer Secretary said, the decision has been taken to set the rate at £25,000, roughly the national average earnings. That is different from median earnings. I do not think it is right to suggest that the threshold has been set at a level that is approximate, because it is designed to be comprehensible and readily understandable. To make it more precise might affect that.

The overall generosity of the package of support that is being given to freeports, and the range of potential employees to which this applies, is very creditable to the Government, because it shows the intensity and strength of the intent to make the freeports policy work. This is an important part of that policy, but only one part of a set of policies that are designed to increase the attractiveness of freeports for growth and for employment as well.

The way in which this measure has been structured is focused towards longer-term employment, as the relief runs for three years, and therefore it allows the employment rights associated with longer-term employment to be vested in those employees. From that point of view, it reflects a commitment by the Government to create high-quality and stable longer-term employment.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.