HC Deb 12 July 1978 vol 953 cc1578-87
Mr. Robert Sheldon

I beg to move amendment no. 95, in page 13, line 5, at end insert— '(1A) In section 12 of that Act (allowance for female housekeeper)—

  1. (a) the word "female", wherever it occurs, shall be omitted;
  2. (b) in subsection (1)(ii) after the word "above" there shall be inserted the words "or the relative is a man who has claimed and been allowed that hither relief".
(1B) In section 13(a) of that Act (allowance where claimant's mother or other female relative takes charge of his brother or sister)—
  1. (a) for the words "either his mother, being a widow or a person living apart from her husband, or some other female relative" there shall be substituted the words "a relative";
  2. (b) the words "mother or other" shall be omitted'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

With this we may take Government amendments nos. 96 and 97 and the following amendments: No. 74, in page 13, line 8, at end insert— '(3) In section 12 (widower's or widow's housekeeper) the word "female" shall be omitted wherever it occurs.'. No. 72, in page 13, line 8, at end insert— '(3) In section 13(a), the word "a" shall be substituted for the words "either his mother, being a widow or a person living apart from her husband, or some other female", and the words "mother or other" shall be omitted.'. No. 155, in page 13, line 8, at end insert— '(3) In section 15, for the word "man" there shall be substituted the words "man or woman" and for the word "his" there shall be substituted the words "his or her."'. No. 156, in page 13, line 8, at end insert— '(3) In section 16 of that Act (dependent relatives)—

  1. (a) for "£100", wherever occurring, there shall be substituted "£145";
  2. (b) in subsection (1)(b) for the word "mother" there shall be substituted the words "mother or father", for the word "husband" there shall be substituted the words "husband or wife", and for the word "woman' there shall be substituted the word "person";
  3. (c) in subsection (2) for paragraph (a) and (b) there shall be substituted "the references in that subsection to the claimant's wife shall be construed as references to the claimant's husband";
  4. (d) subsection (4) shall be omitted'.
No. 73, in page 13, line 8, at end insert— (3) In section 16(2)(b) (Dependent relatives) the words 'unless she is a married woman living with her husband' shall be omitted.". No. 75, in page 13, line 8, at end insert— (3) In section 17 (daughter's services) after the word 'daughter' the words 'or son' shall be inserted.". No. 78, in page 13, line 8, at end insert— (3) In section 18 (blind person's relief), there shall be omitted the words 'throughout the year', wherever occurring, and the whole of subsections (3) and (4) below".

Mr. Robert Sheldon

These amendments take up two matters that were debated upstairs in Committee. The first contains certain elements of sex discrimination which are present in the minor personal allowances on which we undertook to consider amendments moved in Committee by the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton). My right hon. Friend, in a later comment on these matters, announced our decision to bring forward amendments on Report.

The next amendment relates to the conditions of award of the blind person's allowance on which I accepted the substance of an amendment in Committee also moved by the hon. Member for Braintree. It was defective in drafting and I undertook to come back with another amendment which is now before the House.

These amendments remove from the minor personal allowances certain sex discriminatory features which we recognise as being inappropriate. But I should point out that our decision to bring forward these amendments does not imply any change in our view on either the relevance or the importance of these minor allowances. We are still by no means convinced that these minor personal allowances are justified in present day conditions. Therefore, the amendments proposed that the relief for a housekeeper will be available for a male as well as for a female.

Regarding the child minder part of the allowance, at present the relative maintained by the claimant to look after a younger brother or sister must be either the claimant's widowed or separated mother or some other female relative. We propose to substitute the simple condition that the person maintained should be a relative. I do not think it is likely that these proposals will affect many of the claims that come before the Inland Revenue. The cost is likely to be negligible. However, these amendments will remove the sex discriminatory conditions of the allowances which have rightly been criticised as anomalous. I am happy to bring these amendments before the House.

Mr. Newton

This is a variegated group of amendments, and it would be possible to speak on them at some length. However, in view of the wish of the House to make rapid progress I shall try to keep my remarks brief.

The second half of Amendment No. 96 simplifies the blind allowance. It is a concession to an amendment that I moved in Committee and it is very welcome. It removes two extremely convoluted subsections from the Taxes Act. It does something—if only a little—to reduce the stupefying complexity of our tax system. Not least, it does a little to help some people who unfortunately go blind in the relevant year.

Before leaving the question of the blind allowance altogether, I should like, in two sentences, to restate my view. This minuscule concession, welcome as it is, does not in any way change my view that there should have been a proper change to raise the value of the blind tax allowance. It is deplorable that it has not been altered in line with the fall in the value of money for some years. It was mean-minded of the Government to vote down in Committee an amendment that I moved to do just that.

I should like now to refer to the general thrust of the amendments. Having spent some time yesterday and in Committee upstairs advocating various measures that would reduce the tax system's discrimination against women, I am glad that my comparable pressure upstairs to remove discrimination against men has also paid off in the form of these Government amendments. However, I should draw attention—I cannot forbear to do so—to the fact that the second half of Government amendment no. 95 is identical in effect to my amendment no. 72 and that my amendment no. 72 is identical to one which I moved in Committee but which was voted down on the orders of the Government Whips. Although the outcome of the procedure and the other steps that the Government have taken to implement amendments that I tabled upstairs is welcome, I must observe that the processes through which we have gone —first, voting down the proposal upstairs and then bringing it forward in identical terms as though the Government had just thought of it—are farcical.

I should like to ask one specific question about the dependent relative allowance which is raised by some of these amendments. It has been suggested that an inadvertent consequence of the phrasing of the Finance (Incomes Tax Reliefs) Act 1977 has been retrospectively to reduce the threshold for the income limit of the dependent relative beyond which the person providing support to that relative can gain tax relief.

The relevant phrases from section 2 of the Finance (Income Tax Reliefs) Act 1977 are: So much of any pension or allowance … as is attributable to any general increase taking effect in the year 1977–78 shall be left out of account for all the purposes of income tax charged for that year". That was intended to be a relieving provision. It prevented from being taxed the pensions increase that took place last November. But the income limit for the purposes of the dependent relative's allowance is defined as being £100 above the level of the basic retirement pension. It has been suggested that the consequence has been to reduce, and therefore, for many people, to destroy, the tax relief under the dependent relative's allowances for last year.

I tabled clauses on this matter which have not been selected. Indeed, I sent a letter on it to the Chief Secretary a few days ago. I should be grateful for some guidance on this matter, because I cannot believe that it was intended. If it has happened, I hope that the Government will seek some way to do something about it.

Finally, I turn to the additional amendments in my name, nos. 155 and 156. In suggesting that the Government have done something to remove the discrimination between men and women within the tax system by these amendments, it appears that the Government have fallen well short of carrying through their policy in a logical way.

Amendment no. 155 is directed to section 15 of the Income and Corporation Taxes Act 1970, which states that A man who becomes married during a year of assessment may by notice in writing to the inspector elect that his marriage be disregarded for certain tax purposes. If he feels that it is to his advantage not to be treated as a married man in the year in which he gets married, for reasons which I shall not attempt to discuss, he may elect to be treated in that way.

My amendment no. 155 would give the same right to a woman in the year in which she gets married. I can see no good reason why that should not be written into our law. The present provision seems a piece of petty and silly discrimination which we could quickly get rid of.

7.0 p.m.

Amendment no. 156 is directed to section 16 of the Taxes Act, the dependent relatives section to which I have already briefly referred, under which taxpayers can obtain certain relief if they are helping relatives, usually elderly or infirm, whose income is relatively modest—just a little above the basic retirement pension level. The level of these allowances is also out of date and should be increased, but they exist and it is not my purpose to make that argument tonight. My purpose is to say that section 16 is perhaps the biggest the most glaring example of discrimination remaining in the minor personal allowance clauses. In no way do the Government's amendments tackle this problem.

There is discrimination in two respects. First, there is discrimination as regards the person who is giving the help. There is a higher tax allowance—£145—for a single woman who is helping a dependent relative than there is for a married woman living with her husband or for a man, whose tax allowance is up to £100.

Secondly, there is discrimination as between different categories of people who can be helped in this way. Perhaps the clearest way in which I can put this before the House, because it is slightly complex, is to read part of the relevant paragraph of the report of the Equal Opportunities Commission on income tax and sex discrimination. It said: The terms on which the allowance may be claimed also discriminates in favour of female relatives. If the dependent relative is the mother of the taxpayer (or his wife), then the allowance may be claimed as soon as the mother is widowed, separated or divorced and the taxpayer is providing support. In the case of the father of a taxpayer (or his wife), he must be incapacitated by old age or infirmity before he can be regarded as dependent upon any financial support which is being given. This section of the Taxes Act consequently makes a distinction betwen a state of dependency for each sex and, incidentally, means that the unmarried mother of a taxpayer is treated differently as she must also be aged or infirm in order to qualify for the allowance even if the taxpayer is supporting her. The assumption appears to be that only a married woman should be regarded as incapable of self-support and that others are expected to be self-supporting unless they are physically incapable. I appreciate that that is complex, but, however complicated it may be, it is certain that that discrimination and the discrimination between the persons providing help to dependent relatives is an antique part of our tax system which bears no relation to attitudes as between the sexes today and no relation to the Government's other amendments.

My amendment would remove this discrimination. I commend it to the House.

Mr. Lawson

My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton) raised these relatively new issues of what might be called reverse sex discrimination in Committee upstairs. He deserves the congratulations of the House not only for having raised them but for having persuaded the Government to accent most of his points. But the one which the Government have conspicuously not accepted is that in amendment no. 156, concerning the dependent relative.

It is curious that there is no explanation from the Minister why, having decided to end the discrimination against men in certain of the minor allowances, the Government apparently intend in the dependent relative allowance to perpetuate the discrimination I hope that on reflection the Minister will feel that he should accept amendment no. 156. Although I take his point that he is not convinced that the minor allowances should be kept, this is not the time to debate that matter. It is clear that so long as they remain on the statute book they should be the same for men as for women. That is a point of principle. As the Government have accepted it in practice on a number of the allowances, it is curious that when it comes to the dependent relative allowance the Financial Secretary is unable to accept it.

The matter was first brought to my attention some time ago by a constituent who happens to be a badge messenger in the House and who is in precisely this position. He could not understand why he should be discriminated against in this way, when a woman with a dependent relative would receive a higher allowance.

The position is very unsatisfactory. I hope that, on reflection, the Minister will feel that the amendment can be accepted. If not, I advise my hon. Friend not to press the amendment to a Division. Clearly, it is a matter to which we shall want to return in our first Budget.

Mr. Robert Sheldon

Amendment no. 155 deals with the minor tax allowances. Under section 15 of the Income and Corporation Taxes Act 1970, minor allowances are not lost as a result of claiming marriage allowance late in the tax year. If his marriage takes place late in the tax year, the extra allowance—£46 a month—might be less than the tax relief that a man would be able to obtain under his existing claims as a single person for the various personal reliefs—the housekeeper or child-minder or additional personal reliefs to which he may be entitled as a widower or unmarried. Section 15 of the 1970 Act provides him with the option of forgoing his marriage allowance for the first year of marriage and retaining those allowances due to an unmarried man under sections 12, 13 or 14 of that Act.

However, since 1976–77 a married woman has been treated as single for the year in which she has married. That makes the amendment unnecessary, because she is already treated as single for the whole year in which she has married, unless her marriage takes place on 6th April. Generally, her marriage is already disregarded for tax purposes for the year of marriage, and she continues to receive any allowances to which she is entitled because she is a widow or unmarried. The wife is treated as a single person for the year in which she is married, and there is no problem.

Amendment no. 156 has as it intention the elimination of sex discrimination from the dependent relative allowance provisions. At present it is worth £100 to a man and £145 to a single woman taxpayer. The amendment seeks to provide the same amount, £145, to all taxpayers and so to prevent any discrimination in favour of the single woman The present conditions are that the relative must be elderly or infirm unless she is the taxpayer's mother or mother-in-law and is widowed, separated or divorced for the claimant to qualify for the allowance.

I find it difficult to understand the principle behind what the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton) is seeking to achieve. I know his strong concern about widows. It is precisely to meet the problems of widows that this provision exists. Our whole attitude to widows, whose interests the hon. Gentleman pursues assiduously, is one element of sex discrimination of a kind, but a kind that we accept because it reflects the way in which other generations set their standards.

That is the problem. It may be one that is diminishing with time. As tax matters always fall to be looked at anew in the light of changing social patterns, they will come under further examination.

But the position of the widows, with which the hon. Gentleman concerns himself so much on so many occasions, is still paramount, and I am afraid that I am unable to accept his amendment.

Mr. Newton

In spite of what I regard as the profoundly unsatisfactory nature of the second half of the Financial Secretary's reply, in the light of the advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Lawson) I shall not pursue my amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Newton

I beg to move amendment no. 77, in page 13, line 8, at end insert— '(3) In section 11(3) of that Act, the words after "agreement" shall be left out and the words "allowed to the person who has custody of the child" substituted.'. I can speak with great brevity as the point is one to which I have referred earlier in our debates. It reflects the worry of the Child Poverty Action Group, and other bodies concerned with one-parent families, about what happens, on the break-up of a marriage, about the distribution of the child tax allowances, and also about the very long delay which can arise in resolving these matters, sometimes causing very considerable hardship, when, even though the wife usually has care and custody of the children, the child tax allowance continues to be made available to the husband.

The amendment simply seeks to provide that where there is a dispute about the child tax allowances, the relevant fact should be who has custody of the child. That would automatically take the tax allowances in the direction of that person. There is genuine concern about the point outside the House, and I hope that the Minister will give it proper consideration.

Mr. Robert Sheldon

The hon. Gentleman is right in suggesting that the amendment is worthy of consideration, but I do not believe that it is worthy of acceptance by the House. It seeks to alter the rules for the apportionment of the child tax allowance where there is a double claim. It proposes that where the claimants cannot agree on how to divide the allowance, it should go fully to the person who has the custody of the child. The allowance is apportioned by the General Commissioners of Income Tax in proportion to the amounts provided by each of the claimants for the child's maintenance and education in the year concerned.

Whatever might be thought of the merits of the suggestion that the child tax allowance should go, in the event of separation, to the parent with whom the child is living, as suggested by the hon. Gentleman, his amendment refers to custody, and it really would not be satisfactory for this purpose. In a number of these cases the question of custody would not have been settled by the courts. It is not uncommon in any case nowadays, as I understand, for joint custody to be awarded.

At this very late stage in the life of our child tax allowance, there seems to be little point in legislating for a changed rule when the whole system of child tax allowance is being phased out.

Mr. Newton

On the basis of what the Financial Secretary has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: no. 96, in page 13, line 8, at end insert— '(3) In section 17 of that Act (allowance for services of daughter) for the word "daughter" there shall be substituted the words "son or daughter" and the like amendment shall be made in sections 18(5) and 39(1)(d) of that Act (which contain references to the allowance under section 17).

(4) In section 18 of that Act (relief for blind persons)—

  1. (a) in subsection (1)(a) and (b) for the words "throughout the year a registered blind person" there shall be substituted the words "a registered blind person for the whole or part of the year";
  2. (b) in subsection (2)(b) for the words "throughout the year both he and his wife were registered blind persons" there shall be substituted the words "he was a registered blind person for the whole or part of the year and his wife was also a registered blind person for the whole or part of the year";
  3. (c) subsections (3) and (4) shall be omitted.'.—[Mr. Robert Sheldon.]

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