Jesse Norman, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, answers MPs’ questions to the Treasury on the Loan Charge.
Loan Charge: Bankruptcy
1. What recent estimate he has made of the number of people subject to the loan charge who have been declared bankrupt. (903235)
I call the Minister.
Good morning to you, Mr Speaker. It is great to be in a Chamber that is 100% full strength after so many months. If I may make a personal note without undue deference, Mr Speaker, I will say that I thoroughly appreciated your remarks about standards within the Chamber.
To date, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has not initiated insolvency proceedings against any taxpayer for a loan charge debt. No estimate can be provided for the number of people who have fallen into debt or who have been declared bankrupt and are subject to the loan charge because, where debts arise, HMRC is not always the only creditor. Some individuals are declared bankrupt as a result of a non-HMRC debt and some may choose to enter insolvency themselves based on their overall financial position.
We know that there are many, many thousands of nurses, social workers and other public sector workers who have been caught up in the loan charge. They took work via agencies that basically told them, “Sign here or you don’t get the work.” Checking to see whether they would be liable for the loan charge was not an option. Last week, the Yorkshire Post reported that a number of former services personnel had been affected and that one is feeling suicidal as a direct result. What does the Minister say to this veteran and the thousands of other public servants whose lives have been turned upside down by this retrospective taxation?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Taxation is often a difficult matter for the relatively small number of individuals who may be affected by particular pressures. Of course the Government recognise and understand that, but it is nevertheless the case—it is indeed a foundational principle of the tax system—that people should be responsible for their own tax returns. If I may, I would like to refer the hon. Lady to the very wise words of the former shadow Chancellor, the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds), who said in 2018 that
“we would obviously welcome tightening in the area of disguised remuneration schemes…We are concerned that the measures in the Bill do not go far enough…There should be no excuse”—
these are her words—
“for people not to be aware of the situation”.––[Official Report, Finance (No. 2) Public Bill Committee, 9 January 2018; c. 30.]
I am afraid that she was right about that.
The Conservative Government’s approach to the loan charge means that ordinary people who are victims of mis-selling are suffering financial ruin and personal harm. Ministers will have heard some harrowing accounts of people pushed to the very brink and worse, some even tragically taking their own lives. This cannot be what the Government envisaged and a new approach is urgently needed. Will the Treasury now review the loan charge scheme and the approach of HMRC to prevent further devastating consequences?
As I have said, both the Government and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs take these cases extremely seriously, which is why HMRC has put in place extra care and support for people who may be affected by tax issues of this and other kinds. The fact remains that we have had a review. I might refer the hon. Gentleman to the words of his colleague, the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), who said of Sir Amyas Morse who did the review that it was
“a thorough piece of work…we thank him…He has done a great service to Parliament and to the wider public debate.––[Official Report, Finance Public Bill Committee, 4 June 2020; c. 33.]
He was right about that and the Labour party has been right not to have opposed this policy at any point during its passage through Parliament.
The problem that Members have on both sides of this House is that ordinary people were duped into something and it has effectively become a retrospective piece of legislation. I thought the way that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray), approached this was very reasonable. HMRC is not taking the right approach. Perhaps the Government could look at that again.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I have mentioned the extra care and support that HMRC has put in place. I have mentioned the extremely careful approach that it has taken with people who may be facing the loan charge. As he will be aware, it has not initiated insolvency proceedings against any taxpayer for a loan charge debt and that in itself is emblematic of the care and attention that it is taking with this subject.
It is not enough for the Minister to say that people had to take responsibility for their own tax affairs when the information that they were given by HMRC was that there was nothing wrong with these schemes initially, when HMRC passed and signed off tax years for people, and when the head of HMRC has admitted that, in recent months, he had repeatedly tried—this was the outcome of a freedom of information request—to obtain legal analysis to understand the strength of a claim with “very little success”. There is not even a legal standing for this. How then can the Minister say that it is right to pursue people for things that they were led into, and, indeed, for payments that HMRC was regularising by allowing contractors to use as a means of paying their employees?
The right hon. Gentleman raises a whole bunch of questions. Let me address them. There were some contractors working through agencies for HMRC. Where it was discovered that they had used disguised remuneration, those relationships were ended and strong measures have been put in place to prevent recurrence. That is an unfortunate feature of the extended way in which these contract arrangements sometimes work. I do not think that there is any evidence that HMRC has signed off or positively approved the use of any disguised remuneration scheme. If the right hon. Gentleman has an example, he is welcome to send it to me. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the chief executive of HMRC has specifically written to the loan charge and taxpayer fairness all-party parliamentary group to make it perfectly clear that it has taken those remarks out of context and that what he was doing—as every chief executive of a public agency should do—was putting his own officials under some pressure to provide the justification needed, and rightly so.