25 January 2021
Jesse Norman responds to debate on Covid-19: Limited Company Directors

Jesse Norman, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, responds to an Adjournment Debate on the situation faced by small limited company directors as a result of the covid pandemic.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Jesse Norman) [V]

I congratulate the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on securing this debate, on his contribution, and on his tenacity and commitment in persisting with a debate on Burns night, when I am sure he has plenty of other distractions. I also thank the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for her contribution.

Let me start by assuring colleagues across the House that I absolutely recognise the difficulties faced by their constituents, and constituents across the country of MPs from every political party, who are company directors. However, as colleagues will no doubt be aware, this is not a simple matter to resolve, for reasons that I will outline.

More widely, I think colleagues will be aware of the support that the Government have provided to individuals and businesses throughout the pandemic and the guiding principles behind how that money has been distributed. At every stage of the crisis, we have sought to support as many people and businesses as we can as rapidly as possible. To that end, we have provided a wide-ranging package of financial support worth some £280 billion. Its measures include, notably, the furlough scheme, which has protected the jobs of almost 10 million workers, while the self-employment income support scheme has so far provided grants to almost 3 million people. Let me remind the House that those ineligible for assistance from one scheme may still be able to receive help from one of the many other sources of support that are in place. Businesses may be eligible for loans and cash grants, along with tax cuts and deferrals for firms in sectors that have been hardest hit by the pandemic. We are also providing extra help to the families and individuals worst affected by this crisis with a wide-ranging package of welfare measures worth over £7 billion.

The furlough and self-employment schemes have been designed with two overriding principles in mind: the need to target support at those who need it most, and the need to safeguard taxpayer funds against fraud, error and abuse. As the hon. Member for Midlothian has recognised, it is an obligation—a duty—on the Government to keep fraud, error and abuse to a minimum, and that is what we have sought to do. This approach has meant that the vast majority of those who have requested help have been able to obtain it, while the taxpayer has been protected.

But it is important to say that the Government recognise that some people do not qualify for either support scheme, and this group includes some company directors. Let me turn to the specific situation facing this group. Directors who pay themselves a salary through a PAYE scheme are eligible for the coronavirus job retention scheme—that is, the furlough scheme. However, as Members will be aware, and as the hon. Gentleman has acknowledged, many directors pay themselves in large part through dividends while taking a small salary. Directors can claim from the furlough scheme on their salary, but dividends are not covered by this scheme, nor by the self-employment income support scheme. This is because income from dividends is a return on investment in the company rather than wages. Under HMRC’s current reporting mechanisms, which it inherited from many years before this pandemic crisis struck us, and which have been designed to meet the needs of a tax system operating in normal times, it is not possible to distinguish between dividends derived from an individual’s own company and dividends from other sources.

According to some external estimates, there are just over 700,000 active company directors, so if HMRC was to provide financial support to the 3.3 million people who typically declare dividend income on their tax returns, more than three quarters of those grants could potentially go to unintended recipients. This would be an irresponsible and unfair use of taxpayer money. By the same token, to seek to identify directors by means of proxies and assumptions would be an extremely onerous, imperfect and almost certainly inequitable method.

The Government continue to work closely with a range of organisations to explore how these schemes can support directors better, as well as others who have found themselves ineligible for the main income support schemes. It is quite wrong to suggest that we have not engaged. Indeed, we welcome any proposal that constructively seeks to address gaps in support that may exist, but as we consider these options it is vital that we always bear in mind the need to protect taxpayers from fraud and abuse, which can escalate very rapidly once it is allowed to creep into the system.

Throughout the past few months, I and my colleagues in the Treasury have been exploring proposals from some of these organisations to see whether they can provide a viable solution to the gaps in coverage and, in particular, the issue facing directors. As has been mentioned by both hon. Members, these include the directors income support scheme, which has been suggested by the Federation of Small Businesses and others. I am very grateful for the care and support that have gone into drawing up the proposal and ask the House to recognise that we take it extremely seriously. I have met its supporters. I and my officials have had detailed conversations about the scheme and have sought further information and ideas on critical areas and potential concerns. This continuing engagement has taken some weeks. At this time, however, although I and my officials by no means rely on the suggestion that the scheme intrinsically involves dividends—we recognise the construction of the scheme and the structure it represents; dividends are a means by which directors can be paid, but they are not intrinsic to the approach being taken in the scheme—I and my officials do not believe that as framed it overcomes the fundamental issues of protecting taxpayers’ money and safeguarding it against fraud and abuse.

I have raised those concerns with the FSB and the other members of the DISS group, and I and Treasury officials remain ready to engage with them on the issue. In addition, as the hon. Members mentioned, my team is reviewing the targeted income grant support just received, as proposed by the gaps in support all-party parliamentary group. As I have said, we very much remain open to other constructive suggestions.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion asked what was happening with Northern Ireland and whether the Government regarded the directors of small companies as less trustworthy than others. The answer to the latter question is of course not. We make no judgment about trustworthiness. This is a structural feature of concern about the nature of the support we seek to offer and how this particular scheme addresses that concern. As for her question about Northern Ireland, I cannot comment on that. The scheme has been proposed by Invest Northern Ireland under the Northern Ireland Executive and, as far as I am aware, it is not in any way connected to the HMRC scheme. We look to see how it will work and how it will address the needs that might exist and the concerns that might arise. We are not in a position to replicate the scheme in England and Wales, for the reasons I have described.

As this crisis has evolved, we have continued to adapt and refine the targeting of our support so that it can reach more people. Let me reiterate that our guiding principle has been to help as many people and businesses as possible through the pandemic. We have protected the livelihoods of many millions of people around the country and provided vital support to those who require it most.