ICAEW chart of the week: personal tax bands

This week’s chart examines the complexity in the tax system and potential options for reform by looking at the number of tax bands for salaried employees across the UK.

Chart showing personal tax bands from £150,000 (45% UK income tax +1% Scottish income tax + 2% Employee national insurance) down to £0.

See text for more details.

The new tax year saw the introduction of an additional tax band to the UK system of personal taxation, bringing the total number to nine tax bands in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and twelve in Scotland.

The #icaewchartoftheweek continues on the theme of complexity in the tax system and potential options for tax reform by looking at the number of tax bands for salaried employees, with up to nine tax bands in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and up to twelve in Scotland.

Although the advertised personal tax allowance of £12,570 a year suggests that individuals only start to pay tax above that point, in practice ‘taxation’ in its wider sense can start from as little as £0, which is when some of those claiming universal credit start to have their benefits withdrawn at a rate of 63p in the pound. The threshold is £0 for those without dependent children, £3,516 for those on housing benefit and with dependent children or limited capability to work, or £6,180 for those with dependent children or limited capability to work who are not on housing benefit. The rate of withdrawal is even higher for those receiving council tax benefit, with an additional 20% or more levied on incomes above a certain level until it is fully clawed back – the details vary by council.

Tax in its more formal sense starts at £9,568 when employee national insurance of 12% starts to be levied. Although ‘constitutionally’ different in how the money collected is used and its role in entitlement to the state pension, in substance it operates as an income tax in all but name.

Income tax itself starts to be levied on earnings above £12,570 at a basic rate of 20%, adding to national insurance to give a marginal tax rate of 32% for those not on universal credit and 74.8% for those who are.

For those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland this tax band goes from £12,570 up to £50,000 but in Scotland, there are intermediate tax bands, with a lower rate of income tax of 19% between £12,570 and £14,667, 20% between £14,667 and £25,926, 21% between £25,926 and £43,662, and 41% above £43,662 when the higher rate of Scottish income tax kicks in.

The new tax band this year arises because the government failed to increase the £50,000 threshold at which child benefit is withdrawn from the higher-earning parent to align with the increase in the higher rate tax threshold to £50,270. This means the insertion of a new tax band between £50,000 and £50,270 as the government starts to withdraw entitlement to ‘universal’ child benefit of £21.15 a week for the eldest child and £14.00 a week for remaining children by collecting an additional tax of 11% for the eldest child and 7.3% for the second and each of any subsequent children.

Above £50,270, the higher rate of income tax of 40% starts to be levied in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but the marginal rate of national insurance reduces to 2% meaning that this is a 10% increase from 32% to 42% in the combined marginal rate – at least assuming you don’t have children! This rate also applies to those with children from £60,000 up until £100,000 when the marginal rate jumps to 62% (63% in Scotland) as the personal income tax allowance is gradually withdrawn. The marginal rate reverts to 42% (43%) from £125,140 before increasing to 47% (48%) for those on the 45% top rate of income tax above £150,000.

While devolution has led to some of the complexity, this probably hasn’t been helped by the perennial tendency of governments to find ever more complicated approaches to extract additional money from taxpayers without touching the headline rates of tax – for example through the ‘withdrawal’ of the personal tax allowance, which in substance operates as an additional 20% tax payable by those earning between £100,000 and £125,140.

The consequence of this tinkering with the tax systems means there are now nine different tax bands in England, Wales and Northern Ireland with marginal tax rates of 0%, 12%, 32%, 32% + 11% (or more) for higher-earning parents, 42% + 11% (or more) for higher-earning parents, 42%, 62%, 42% and 47%. In Scotland there are twelve: 0%, 12%, 31%, 32%, 33%, 53%, 53% + 11% (or more) for higher earning parents, 43% + 11% (or more) for higher earnings parents, 43%, 63%, 43% and 48%. 

Such a complex system invites the question of how it might be reformed, with the possibility of increasing the national insurance threshold to align with the income tax personal allowance being actively discussed in recent years to eliminate one of the bands. However, this now seems less likely than it once did since the pandemic caused such damage to the public finances. Other ideas have included aligning the 40% higher rate and 45% top rate of income tax (either up or down depending on political preference) or ‘folding’ in the personal tax allowance withdrawal into the tax system as part of the higher or top tax rates in conjunction with a reform to tax thresholds.

However, another option would be to add even more complexity, a real possibility now the Welsh government has obtained devolved powers to adjust its income tax rates and thresholds like Scotland, albeit powers that have thankfully not been used so far.

Either way, the nirvana that some tax reformers aspire to of a single flat rate of income tax applying to all earnings seems more remote than ever. One can but dream!

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

Universal Credit improves but attracts NAO criticism

14 July 2020: The National Audit Office has stated that vulnerable claimants struggle with Universal Credit and face financial difficulties, while administration costs are still too high.

The National Audit Office (NAO) has issued a new report on the troubled Universal Credit welfare benefit that is in the process of replacing six existing benefits. The report states that the Department for Work Pensions (DWP) should do more to support vulnerable people and others who struggle to make a claim. 

With many more people on Universal Credit, the NAO reports that the number of people paid late increased from 113,000 in 2017 to 312,000 in 2019. As a proportion this was an improvement, going from 55% to 90% paid on time, but for those paid later than the scheduled five weeks the average additional delay was three weeks. Some 6% of households (105,000 new claims) waited around 11 weeks or more for full payment.

The NAO also reports that the cost of implementing Universal Credit had risen from £3.2bn to £4.6bn, not including the effect of the coronavirus pandemic. The average cost of administrating each claim has fallen to £301, but this is still higher than the DWP business case target for 2024-25 of £173 per claim.

Many of the payment delays affect vulnerable claimants and others who struggle to make a claim, especially as many are in financial difficulty before they apply. Nearly half have not been earning in the three months before claiming, while many are already in rent arrears. Claimants with more complex needs and circumstances, such as people with learning difficulties, can struggle to engage with the claims process or to provide the evidence required, leaving them at greater risk of being paid late.

Around 57% of households making a new claim obtain an advance payment, but this can lead to further financial hardship and debt when that advance is deducted from subsequent payments. The proportion is much higher for more vulnerable claimants, including the very poorest, those with disabilities or those with children with disabilities.

The NAO says that the DWP has been doing well in paying proportionately more people on time and has made improvements to its systems to address problems that were blocking large numbers of payments. However, the NAO also found that the DWP needs to better understand and address the needs of people with more complex claims.

Fraud and error are listed as “major issues” in the report, with over one in ten pounds paid through Universal Credit being incorrect. The DWP estimates that £1.7bn (9.4% of claims) was overpaid in 2019-20 and that 1.1% of claims were underpaid, the highest error rate for any benefit outside of tax credits. These errors contributed to the NAO qualifying the DWP’s 2019-20 accounts for the 32nd year running earlier this month.

The NAO’s work relates to the period before the coronavirus pandemic caused a significant jump in the number of claims for Universal Credit (over three million since the beginning of March). Dealing with vulnerable claimants will be even more critical if they are not to slip through the safety net.

Commenting on the report Alison Ring, director for public sector at ICAEW, said:

“The NAO report highlights how challenging implementing Universal Credit has been and how many vulnerable claimants are struggling financially. It complements the DWP on improvements to date but reports that late payments are still a significant issue – as are fraud and error.

Although the DWP appears to be making better progress in rolling out Universal Credit than before, it is still not expected to be fully implemented for several years to come. It remains a complex welfare benefit and more thought should be given to its design and how it could be improved to reduce delays, reduce the need for advance payments and reduce the likelihood of error and fraud.

The NAO also highlights the challenges that DWP is currently experiencing, with over three Universal Credit claims since the beginning of March.”

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

NAO qualifies DWP accounts for 32nd year running

6 July 2020: The National Audit Office reports that overpayments from fraud and error reached their highest ever estimated rate in 2019-20. COVID-19-driven claims since March are likely to increase this even further. 

The Department of Work & Pensions (DWP) published its annual report and financial statements for the year ended 31 March 2020, containing a qualified audit opinion for the 32nd year running due to the material level of fraud and error in benefit expenditure.

The audit report from the independent National Audit Office (NAO) contains a clean opinion on the truth and fairness of DWP’s financial statements for 2019-20. However, the Comptroller & Auditor General Gareth Davies (the head of the NAO) has qualified the second part of his audit opinion with respect to overpayments attributable to fraud, error where payments have not been made for the purposes intended by Parliament, and for overpayments and underpayments that do not conform to the relevant authorities.

Excluding the state pension, where the level of fraud and error is relatively low, the estimated level of benefit overpayments increased to an estimated £4.5bn (4.8%) in 2019-20 from £3.7bn (4.4%) in the previous financial year. Underpayments were estimated to amount to £1.9bn or 2.0% of the relevant benefit expenditure. 

The NAO reports that overpayments of Universal Credit increased from 8.7% to 9.4%, which is the highest recorded rate for any benefit other than tax credits. It says the most common cause of fraud and error is incorrectly reported income (leading to £1.4bn of overpayments and £0.35bn of underpayments), followed by incorrectly reported savings (at a value of £0.9bn).

NAO head Gareth Davies issued a press release commenting on his concern that the level of error and fraud in benefit payments has risen again – and highlighting the likelihood of even higher levels as a consequence of relaxed controls at the DWP during the coronavirus pandemic.

Commenting on the report Alison Ring, director for public sector at ICAEW, said: “Although the National Audit Office is quite right to stress how important it is that the DWP does more to reduce the incidence of fraud and error, it is likely that the increase seen in 2019-20 is primarily as a consequence of the further rolling out of Universal Credit, a complex welfare benefit which is inherently prone to error and more vulnerable to fraud than many other benefits.

“As well as investing more in tackling individual cases of fraud and error, the DWP may want to give further thought to the design of Universal Credit and how it could be improved to reduce the likelihood of error and fraud in the first place.

“The relaxation of controls over benefit payments during the coronavirus pandemic has helped get financial support to claimants in quite often severe financial difficulty, but that has come with the prospect of much higher levels of fraud and error in the current financial year. Reducing the levels of both over- and under-payments will be a big challenge for the DWP, especially if there is further large surge in claims as the furlough scheme comes to an end in the next few months”.

The Department for Work & Pensions Annual Report & Accounts 2019-20 and the associated NAO press release are publicly available.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.