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Tiresomeness

February 19, 2015

You know what?  There’s too much legislation.  Not just tax legislation, all legislation.  No-one has time to read it all, yet we are all presumed to know and understand it, because ignorance of the law is no defence.  And if you have been watching the programme about what goes on Inside the Commons you will have seen why.  Who has the time, in amongst the running down corridors to be shepherded into the right lobby to vote and camping out in empty offices to get to the front of the queue for a Private Member’s Bill slot (have these people never heard of computers?)

Parliamentary scrutiny is supposed to be the way that Bills are turned into Acts of Parliament – a series of formal debates take place with select committee scrutiny in between and so anything that comes out of the process has been scrutinised by our elected representatives and that’s democracy, right?

Yeah, right.

Parliament isn’t fit for purpose, or at least not for THAT purpose.  The House of Commons is a generator of heat, not light.  Even the way the building is designed confirms it, with two sides sitting opposite each other at a distance calculated to prevent them *sticking each other with swords*.

Which is why the process is vital.  By the time the Bill gets to the floor of the House, all the democratic scrutiny should already have been facilitated.  If it is a regulation, then there should be an impact assessment to show what the proposed change will cost and why the particular option has been chosen.  There should have been a public consultation where all the unintended consequences were bottomed out.  There should be an explanatory memorandum showing what the regulation is intended to achieve and assuring Parliament that all the necessary processes have been followed (there’s a good explanation of what ought to be in the EM at paragraphs 18 onwards here, in the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee’s guidance:

The purpose of the EM is to provide members of Parliament with a plain English, free-standing, explanation of the effects of the instrument and why it is necessary)

So consultation is important.  Oliver Letwin told the Legislation Scrutiny Committee that debates in parliament were the bedrock of democracy (so it didn’t really matter if he cut the time allowed for consultation, because consultation wasn’t the place to gather public “views”)  But I disagree.  I think democracy is, perhaps not quite broken, but a bit battered and bent round the edges, and that a consultation process before changes get as far as the Commons is a good sticking plaster.

Which is why it pisses me off that, three years after I suggested it to the Legislation Scrutiny Committee and they made it one of their recommendations, you still can’t get a list of consultations ordered in the date they will close.

I mean, it’s not rocket science, is it?

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Small firms impact: not waving but drowning [Part 3 of 4]

February 18, 2015

We have finally reached page A113 of the TIIN, the second half of the table of impacts.  In terms of the seven questions, we are now past “what does it cost/raise” to the final three questions which are:

  • What will it cost the customer?
  • What will it cost the department?
  • Are there any other impacts?

“What will it cost the customer” can be a bit hard to fathom if you aren’t used to dealing with TIINs, but start with the section on “impact on individuals and households”.  In this case, you could summarise it as:

  1. Individuals who buy ebooks from abroad will have to pay UK VAT on them
  2. There won’t be any compliance costs

Now, if you are an individual with a kitchen table business affected by this change you might object to this, but  “individuals and households” in this context means “customers” rather than suppliers.  The impact on one-woman businesses is covered in the business impact section, further down.

So all of us who buy ebooks – or music downloads, or pdf knitting patterns or any of the other things covered by VATMOSS – will feel the impact because the things we buy will have VAT charged on them at the 20% UK rate and not at, for example, the Luxembourg rate of 3%.  But the total amount of that VAT is captured in the “exchequer effect” field I looked at in part 2: the “impact on individuals” field is for any extra compliance costs the individual might incur.  And of course when you buy an ebook you don’t, as a customer, have to DO anything to pay the VAT at the right rate.  It’s up to the seller to work out the correct rate, charge it, collect it, and hand it over to the tax authorities.

(One of the interesting things about this whole mess has been the lack of any particular interest from small vendors in other European countries.  The rates of VAT are here, on page 3 of this EU document.  The interesting bit isn’t the main rate.  It’s the table of reduced rates on page 4.  Books are zero rated in the UK, and so it feels annoying to us that ebooks aren’t zero rated but charged VAT at 20%.  But look at other countries.  There are very few zero rated items, but many countries charge a reduced rate of VAT on books… so if you’re charging 3, 4 or 5% VAT on books already, why not charge 3, 4 or 5% on ebooks too, to harmonise your rates?  Maybe they should just cut the VAT rate on ebooks all round???  As I understand it, you can keep your zero rates but you can’t increase their scope or number.  So we haven’t asked for a lower VAT rate on ebooks in the UK because we have a zero rate on hard copy books and we’re afraid that the EU would insist on changing that if we changed the rate on ebooks.  Would it be worth paying say 5% VAT on all books to harmonise the rate between hard copy and ebooks?  I genuinely don’t know.)

The main thing to note in this section of the TIIN, though, is the “impact on business including civil society organisations” (in other words, the impact on businesses and charities)

Here we have the lovely suggestion that there are only five thousand businesses who will really lose out by the changes.

This is on the assumption that most small businesses will sell their electronic wares via Amazon or another big platform.  I already have an outstanding Freedom of Information Act review request asking whether HMRC really can get away with not telling us who they consulted in arriving at their decisions on this issue.  But I was always taught that the data used in calculating an impact assessment were subject to disclosure under FoI and I wonder whether it would be interesting to look at just how, exactly, the figures of “up to 34,000 businesses, of which about 5000 are not currently registered for VAT”  were arrived at, because from the face of the TIIN it looks as if they have been plucked from the air.

The estimated compliance cost for these businesses is £40 per business per year for the businesses already registered for VAT and £220 per business per year for the estimated 5000 unregistered businesses which HMRC thought would have to join MOSS.  Again, that’s not the cost of the VAT itself, just the cost of administering the tax – the time cost of filling in the VAT returns.  Even on these figures, 29,000 x £40 plus 5000 x £220 (£1,160,000 + £1,100,000) you get an increase in admin burden just on the very small businesses of around two and a half million a year.  The question the TIIN raises in my mind is, does the £300m putative tax raised from the large businesses like Amazon warrant imposing the £1.5m putative admin burden on micro businesses?

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Prosecuting tax evasion is hard. Because, evidence.

February 14, 2015

Prosecuting tax evasion is hard.  Or at least, I imagine it is.  Because in all my time in the Inland Revenue and HMRC, I was never involved in a prosecution case.

Prosecutions are dealt with by a separate bit of the department.  Because, evidence.

Say I looked at a set of accounts and asked for some backing documents and then someone sent me a document that was a forgery.  Should they have been prosecuted?

Say it was an appeal: say they told me they’d appealed.  Say the thing they sent me was backdated to make it look like they’d appealed in time, and I spotted it was a forgery – could prove it was a forgery, in fact, because it referred to a thing that hadn’t happened at the purported date of the document.  Should they have been prosecuted?

What would their defence have been?  We actually did send in the appeal on time, but we couldn’t put our hands on it when you asked us?  A junior member of staff made a copy from our computer files but obviously they shouldn’t have done it and we’re very sorry, but that doesn’t alter the fact that we made the appeal in time and the dog ate our copy and why can’t you find YOUR copy, HMRC?  Is your filing system SO chaotic?

Say failing to make the appeal on time would have cost them £100.  Should they have been prosecuted for a measly hundred quid?  Would that have been worth the cost of prosecution in the first place?

Would the forged document even have been admissible as evidence?  We hadn’t had any conversations under PACE, they hadn’t had legal advice when they spoke to me, I hadn’t had any training in PACE except for the basic “this thing exists, you have to get it right, so refer to prosecutions if you think you’ve found something that needs this kind of handling” training.

It’s not as easy as it first sounds… except….

Well, except that obviously an overworked prosecution section has to prioritise.  Say they are so under resourced they can only take cases where there’s a million quid of tax at stake: would you even waste their time asking them about a forged document that £100 hangs on?

What should have happened, in an ideal world?

Well, shouldn’t there have been a prosecution unit attached to every team?  Resourced to investigate the smaller cases, under PACE, with a view to prosecution?  To prosecuting the tax cheats (and I mean the direct tax cheats, not the fag smugglers and VAT dodgers on the “most wanted” list) with the same kind of limits as the benefit cheats?

Instead of me arguing with them about their accounts and a district inspector shouting at them about the attempted forgery, maybe their accounts should have been examined with a view to prosecution and they should have been hauled in and interviewed under PACE.  It still might not have been a serious enough case to be worth prosecuting, but there’s a space between a hundred quid and a million where, surely, there ought to be some equivalence between the limits we set on benefit fraud and the ones we set on tax fraud?

Wouldn’t that bring in 25 times more than it would cost to run?  Why aren’t we doing that?

[Edited 14/2/15 because the headline should have read “evasion”, not “avoidance”.  Thank you, twitter! *beats head on desk*]

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Small firms impact: not waving but drowning [Part 2 of 4]

February 5, 2015

A TIIN is supposed to answer seven questions.  (They are here in the TIIN instructions – the TIIN instructions still aren’t published by HMRC – and why not??? – but let’s assume the basic principle is still the same as “in my day”.)

The questions are:

What are you doing?

Why are you doing it?

Why are you doing it this way?

What will it cost/raise?

What will it cost the customer?

What will it cost the department?

Are there any other impacts?

“Why are you doing it” is a powerful question in the “better regulation” mindset, which basically reflects a worldview in which regulation is a Bad Thing in and of itself.  The idea is that regulation is nothing more than Red Tape, which would be Strangling Business unless it was itself regulated.  “Why are you doing it (at all)” is really the question, if you think that having no regulation at all is the ideal.

So why is the government doing MOSS at all?  Well let’s see.  The policy objective field of the TIIN (still on page A111) is where the answer ought to be, and it says:

Policy objective The measure will make business to consumer (B2C) supplies of BTE services taxable where they are consumed, thereby removing an incentive for businesses to locate offshore. This will level the playing field for UK BTE suppliers and is consistent with the Government’s aim of fairness in the tax system. The MOSS business simplification scheme is intended to reduce the administrative burdens and costs associated with this rule change and multiple VAT registrations for BTE suppliers, particularly for small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

Translated into English, I think this means there are two objectives:

  1. The main objective is to stop big companies from gaming the system by setting up shop somewhere with a low VAT rate.  Instead of VAT being charged where the supplier is located, from January 2015 it is charged (for electronic services like e-books) where the customer is located.  So small companies should have a more “level… playing field… consistent with the Government’s aim of fairness…”
  2. Because this change comes with associated costs for small companies, there will also be the “mini one stop shop”, the MOSS, which stops you having to register for VAT separately in each member state and instead handles it all in once place, the place the seller is located.

Now, I think the objectives are good ones in themselves.  Let’s make it easier for authors to sell their own works, for craftswomen to sell their own knitting patterns, for musicians to sell their own tunes, directly to the customer without having to lose a slice of their profits to a multinational selling for them.  And, yes, let’s keep the administration as simple as possible.

So what went wrong?

Let’s go back to the TIIN, to the summary of impacts that starts at the bottom of page A112.

Screenshot 2015-02-05 14.14.50

The first line shows you how much money the government expects to get as a result of this change.  The numbers are in millions of pounds, and the plus sign means the government expects to get this much tax in from the change.

The first few months of 2015 are still in the 2014-15 tax year (the tax year runs from 6th April one year to 5th April the next year).  So between January 1st and April 5th 2015 the UK government estimates it will make £70 million in VAT from the changes.  In a full year, it thinks it will make an extra £300 million plus, with the numbers rising over time.

I think we can all agree three hundred million is a sum worth having.  For the government, it’s the cost of, say, the entire NHS radiotherapy service (table 9 page 28, 2011-12 figures).  But look at this: “The MOSS element of the measure is expected to have a negligible impact on the Exchequer.”

Now, I understand “negligible” in an impact assessment to mean “less than £100,000 across the entire affected population”, which is what it used to mean in 2012 when I was last working for the government.  But have a think about that.  The entire farrago of MOSS is expected to bring in less than a hundred grand?  Seriously?

Because one of the seven questions written into the tax original impact assessment proposals, and which was still there when I obtained the TIIN instructions and published them on my blog, is

why are you doing it this way???

Why the hell are you imposing this business-busting system on people from whom you expect to raise peanuts, when you’re still going to get the moolah you want from the big businesses it’s really aimed at?  Is this really the only way?

Option appraisal is one of the key elements of impact assessment methodology: generating and assessing all the possible ways of solving a possible policy issue and then choosing the best one, even if it’s the option to “do nothing” – that’s how governments tell themselves they solve problems.

So where is the options appraisal in this TIIN?

Don’t bother to look.  It isn’t there.

Look instead at the assessment of the economic impact.

This measure should have positive economic impacts by minimising distortions to the location of the economic activity and increasing competition between large and smaller suppliers within the sectors affected.

Well perhaps it “should”.  In an ideal world it would.  But in this imperfect world, HMRC completely overlooked the one-woman kitchen-table microbusiness and introduced a system which, far from “minimising distortions” and “increasing competition” will in fact wipe out the micro businesses or else drive them into the arms of the very businesses whose behaviour caused the policy problem in the first place.

A proper options appraisal might have included:

  • excluding micro businesses from the regulation altogether
  • allowing a longer lead in time before the regulation affected small and micro businesses
  • unilaterally setting a threshold below which the regulations do not apply
  • making payment processors legally responsible for operating the regulation
  • devising a MOSS which itself operated as a payment processor for micro businesses (instead of a paypal or worldpay etc button you could have a MOSS button – your money would come to you VIA the government, but come to you guaranteed VAT-compliant)

There might have been good reasons for and against any or all of these.  But if you don’t ask the right questions of the right people, well, you’ll never know, will you?

 

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Small firms impact: not waving but drowning [Part I of 4]

February 4, 2015

Let us all wave to the House of Commons *waves* and then again to the House of Lords *waves*, our law makers.  Let us ask them to look again at a couple of the bits of paper that have been put in front of them and which have gone through on the nod.

Let’s start here, with a parliamentary question asked by David Morris, the Conservative MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale, on 22nd January.  Now I know nothing about Mr Morris beyond his website (the government has a Hairdressing Council?  Seriously?) and his wikipedia entry (and I can’t say I’m that sanguine about the veracity of all of that!) but Parliament.uk, usually a reliable source, gives small business as one of his interests.

So good for him, asking about the VATMOSS assessment of the impact on small business.

David Gauke’s reply was to refer him to the TIIN, published (on page A111 of the package of TIINs published on 10 December 2013 to accompany the draft clauses of the 2014 Finance Bill)

Let’s pause for a minute while you open up another screen, click on the link, and find page A111.  You might want to print it out, because we’ll be referring to it a fair bit over the next couple of entries.

Now to start with, what are we looking at here?  What is a TIIN?  Well I happen to know, because I was in the team that kind of accidentally invented the TIIN, when I was in charge of the Impact Assessment programme for tax measures.  An impact assessment is a formal document assessing the costs and benefits of making a regulatory change, and don’t get me started there (that’s what my PhD is about, amongst other things) and has to be done according to fairly strict protocols.  If you’re interested, there’s a hundred and eight pages of guidance you can access from this link (It was only 95 pages in my day).

At the point the coalition government came into office, there was a proposal to change the impact assessment template to make the format much tighter – to compel you to put an actual number to the costs/benefits and to put the numbers into the same format, essentially so that BIS could track the numbers across the whole government.  But that kind of impact assessment isn’t particularly helpful for tax changes, because the amount of tax raised or foregone is normally much greater than the administrative burden of the change itself.  So there was a lot of internal civil service politics around whether tax changes should be in or out of the new system, and this coincided with the move to improve the process of tax policy making itself, and the outcome was the invention of a tailored tax impact assessment process… but at the last moment the Treasury decided they wanted to combine the tax impact assessment with the Budget Note which HMRC used to produce explaining tax changes, and so we wound up with the Tax Information and Impact Note, the TIIN.

The TIIN, then, should explain what is being done and why, and include an assessment of the costs and benefits – to the exchequer, to the “customer”, and to HMRC.  It should also give the outcome of any other impacts which have been assessed, including equalities and other impacts to which governments have committed themselves (see the list on page 34 here and on page 66 here)

So.  David Gauke is telling us – is telling Parliament, in fact – that this TIIN contains the government’s assessment of the impact of the VATMOSS changes.

Let’s see what it says then, shall we?

First of all, look at the bottom of the first page, “background to the measure”.  This says:

Background to the measure

The measure was announced at 2013 Budget. Business input has been provided through joint business/HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) groups.

Now, if you have been following the #VATMOSS #VATMESS hashtags or the articles in Taxation about POSMOSS you will know that one of the principal complaints of the micro and nano-businesses whose kitchen table businesses are likely to be wiped out by the change is that they were completely overlooked in the consultation process.  So who was representing small businesses on these “joint business/HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) groups”?

I honestly don’t think that’s an unreasonable question to ask.

So I asked it.  On November 25th last year I sent a friendly email to the person who is named as the contact on HMRC documents, saying that it might well just be my google-fu was lacking but I couldn’t find the minutes of these meetings online as I’d expect so could he please point me to them?  I thought it was more than likely that the links was buried somewhere on gov.uk but just in case it wasn’t, I said if they weren’t yet published, would he please consider this a Freedom of Information Act request?

I had no reply.  But then I’d guessed at his email address (HMRC email addresses are usually in the format firstname dot lastname @hmrc.gsi.gov.uk but they can vary, after all) so on 11 December I put the request in formally via the HMRC Freedom of Information Act “portal” and had an acknowledgement telling me that

A response is being prepared and the statutory deadline is 13 January 2015.

On 21 January I sent another polite reminder asking why I hadn’t had a reply yet.  And on 30th January I received a reply.

Apparently

The external membership consisted of: Publishing: 3 small businesses Online Gaming: 2 small businesses Digital Services: 4 small businesses Other sectors/organisations: 3 representatives

but

I do not consider that there is a particular public interest in releasing the names of the micro or small businesses/organisations involved.

Now just a minute…

There used to be a handy page on the HMRC website that listed all the consultative groups, with links to their minutes and memberships.  It’s not there on gov.uk (well if it is, I haven’t found it yet!) but some individual groups are.  Look, here’s the Joint Customs Consultative Committee, the Research and Development Consultative Committee, the Joint VAT Consultative Committee (which, oh look, discussed MOSS on 8th May 2014…)

Are we seriously arguing that it’s a secret who the government talked to about introducing VAT MOSS?

No-none is planning on descending on the consulted businesses with pitchforks and torches – no responsibility resides with someone being consulted in answering for themselves and their own knowledge.  But there is a HUGE responsibility on HMRC and other government departments to ask the right people – to seek out and talk to the affected businesses.

Yes, I’ll be following up the FoI request – watch this space – but the arrogance (or defensiveness?) of saying there’s no public interest in knowing who HMRC consulted with, when the whole point of the outcry is that there are large numbers of people saying “I’m affected!  Who was representing me?”…. well, I think it’s just staggering.

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Tax doesn’t have to be taxing?

February 3, 2015

Look, I’m an ex-inspector of taxes.  Of course I left my tax return to the last minute, and of course I finished up doing it on Saturday (the last possible day to avoid penalties) and of course I got stuck and had to ring the helpline.

(By the way, HMRC, you might want to look again at section 4.  When you’re customising the return you’re asked
Screenshot 2015-01-31 17.06.40

 

Well of course I said yes, because I have an occupational pension.  But then I spent a good hour baffled by section four itself, which says

Screenshot 2015-01-31 17.08.20

 

I mean, OK, it was five o’clock on the day the tax return was due, but I managed to get through to the helpline with no trouble.  The trouble was that the helpline didn’t know where to enter an occupational pension either!  The answer is, hit send (leaving all the boxes blank) and you will, eventually, get to the secret page 2 of part 4 which has a space for occupational pensions.  Try a bit of signposting please!

While we’re about it, where the hell do you get off with this page?

Screenshot 2015-01-31 17.12.38I don’t have a repayment due.  But you can’t get past this page of the return without entering your bank details or lying that you don’t have one at all.  Now, that may be administratively convenient for you, and I have given you my bank details before when I have been due a repayment.  But I’d very much like to know how you have the right to demand my bank details as part of my return?  Anyone?  Bueller?)

Anyway.  I finished my return, paid the tax, and sat back waiting for the Inner Peace to descend.

It didn’t.

Because, you know, when I worked on the CIS scheme, we were very proud of the groundbreaking way that the contractors’ monthly returns were pre-populated with the details of their subcontractors already known to HMRC.  And, to be honest, the thing that took me longest in preparing my return, was trying to find the P60 with my pension details on it, which I clearly have put in the Proverbial Safe Place and no doubt it’ll turn up in time for me to make an amendment.

But why am I struggling to find a piece of paper on which are written numbers that I’m going to type into a computer system so that someone in HMRC can check them against the information they already have?  Is there any compliance risk from me putting the gross payments I received into my bank account, or last year’s figures, or an estimate of some other sort into my return, given that the tax has already been paid and there’s nothing that would tip me into another tax bracket?

What I mean is: why isn’t my return pre-populated with the pension and other employment details that HMRC already knows?

I suspect it’s because the HMRC computer isn’t one big shiny Skynet or Deep Thought but, like most large organisations’, it’s a patchwork of parts,  a bundle of bits and bobs of hardware and software, tied together with goodwill and fingers crossed. To put the information HMRC already know about my pension into my actual return and feed it back to me would involve… spending more money than anyone has lying about.

The old Inland Revenue was cutting edge with its computer technology, back in the seventies. Since then all the computer experts have been made redundant and privatised, so now the giant Aspire contract and the complicated web of suppliers and operators means no-one really knows how it all works. When the contract comes to an end wouldn’t it be nice to replace the outsourcing? I know, I know, that would count as an increase in Civil Service numbers and we can’t have that, can we?

But it might cost less in the end. And I might not have to spend my January Saturday afternoons cursing a system that has to ask me to type in information that it already knows.

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Should HMRC and HM Treasury be the ones explaining themselves in court?

January 28, 2015

Wendy Bradley:

Another interesting piece from the Digital Microbusiness Action Group

Originally posted on Digital Microbusiness Action Group:

Let’s have a look at the Tax Information and Impact Notes published in December 2013, signed off by David Gauke, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, specifically relating to this particular area of indirect tax.

Now, there are all sorts of holes to be ripped in this particular document and its reasoning, by far better qualified folk than me. Meantime, two things catch my eye in the section dealing with VAT: place of supply and the introduction of the Mini-One Stop Shop starting p.133 of that document.

Equalities impacts. The Government has no information about the protected equality groups of any individuals who may be affected but no specific impacts have been identified for any protected equalities group.

Really? Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence and the point’s been made time and again that the smallest online businesses are a way out of benefits for the housebound, carers, the…

View original 545 more words

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