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Light bulb

February 6, 2020

Expiry date: midnight on 7 February 2020

Time is tight, but if you are carrying around a LIGHT BULB moment of inspiration about the tax system, well, you have a chance to get it to the right people.

Yes, it’s that time of year again, when the Budget Submissions Window is open, which is when the Treasury opens itself to ideas from all and sundry about what should be in the March Budget.

No, don’t get too excited. It takes the form of a nasty cheapskate little “survey” window you can find here – and I have to say I don’t recommend this, as the one year I tried it they swore blind they’d never received my suggestion, there were no records of what suggestions had been received through the portal, and go away peasant (I paraphrase). You can also send your suggestion in an email to Budget.Representations@hmtreasury.gov.uk which at least has the benefit of leaving you with some evidence of what you said and when you said it.

Don’t get too excited, though. Although the Treasury may say

HM Treasury welcomes representations as part of the policy-making process. The views of stakeholders are gratefully received.

I wouldn’t get too invested in telling them how to change the world. If you are an MP then OK, a Minister might get to read your idea. If you represent an accountancy body or another “stakeholder” then, yes, your stuff will be read and summarised for the Minister. If you’re a tax muggle? You know, an ordinary member of the public, a Citizen Stakeholder? Your idea will be added to a list that’s looked at by… well, someone. You won’t get a reply. Because who really cares what the Citizen Stakeholder might want?

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New Year, New TIIN, Same Old Rubbish

January 14, 2020

We’ve all read Dominic Cummings’ blog post about recruiting weirdoes and misfits into Number 10 and, yes, I’ve fantasised briefly about being one of them, stomping around in a Thick of It cloud of obscenities, demanding to know what the f**ing f**k people think they are playing at…

… with stuff like this, the TIIN for the new legislation on International Tax Enforcement.

Because it’s a piece of crap. HMRC are going to spend £7.7 million or so on the computer infrastructure for these new regs, and it will cost them another three and a half million or so a year to administer and enforce them.

They are expected to have a “significant” impact on businesses. What kind of businesses? What do we mean by “significant”?

This measure is expected to have a significant impact on businesses. HMRC is engaging with affected businesses and information gained through this process will contribute to further quantifying these costs. A fuller assessment of costs in relation to businesses will be made once the regulations have come into force.

Fuller than what, for fuck’s sake?

Will the legislation impact on small businesses? Will cross border activity by micro businesses be impacted, like it was when the VATMOSS saga was implemented to hit at multinationals and accidentally screwed a swathe of kitchen-table one-woman craft businesses? Who can say? (Well HMRC could have said, but I strongly suspect they haven’t bothered to worry their pretty little heads about it)

Well at least there will be some extra tax coming into the exchequer to validate all this quantified and unquantified administrative burden, right? I mean, right?

Exchequer impact (£m)

2019 to 2020 2020 to 2021 2021 to 2022 2022 to 2023 2023 to 2024 2024 to 2025

The Office for Budget Responsibility will include the impact of this measure in its forecast at the next fiscal event.

Yes, that’s a big fat blank line where under the heading, where the actual figures ought to be. In other words, we don’t know, we haven’t asked, and we’ll think about that tomorrow.

The point of doing an impact assessment or TIIN is not to annoy the policy team working on the subject, but to make better decisions by laying out the evidence in one place. Either do it right or don’t do it at all. But don’t do this.

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Marking the government’s homework: the Brexit Impact Assessment

October 18, 2019

Impact assessment – no, don’t fall asleep yet – is a boring technical discipline. I know: I used to be the impact assessment specialist for HMRC and for all Treasury tax measures. The point is to regulate how governments regulate – the IA process is actually designed to be a brake or anchor on introducing new legislation. Supposedly you think through the impacts as you design the policy, so that by the time you get to the stage of introducing legislation you’ve already worked out the costs and benefits, got your stakeholders on side, and checked that you aren’t proposing anything that damages small businesses or has equality implications or offends against any other government priority. Actually in civil service terms it’s a fun job if you don’t mind a bit of unpopularity – you get to tell MUCH more senior people that they can’t ride their hobby horse till they fill in this form, and you get to play “my boss is senior to your boss” sometimes all the way up to the Minister’s private office, at which point they tell you to go away and come back when you’ve worked it all out.

So does the Brexit agreement need an impact assessment? Well, does it have an impact on businesses? Yes it does. Is that impact more than £5 million a year? The last draft showed an impact in the billions, so, yes. Can you get out of it by saying Brexit is self-evidently a good thing so a further impact assessment isn’t required? Er, no, that’s not how it works.
(Side note: just a thought, but did they actually negotiate this new agreement without knowing what the costs and benefits of each change might be?)
What can anyone do about it? Judicial review – governments have said publicly (for example this government, here in this document) that they’ll do impact assessments and under what circumstances.
…and here’s the catch. You can bring a judicial review on the grounds of “legitimate expectation” – citizens can expect governments to follow their own rules, and the courts can force them to go back and do their homework properly under those circumstances. But parliament trumps courts: if a change is legislated, you have to assume that parliament understood they hadn’t got the impact assessment they were entitled to expect but decided to do it anyway.
In other words, my reading of the situation is that if someone wanted to bring a judicial review this afternoon they might plausibly argue that parliament couldn’t reasonably vote on the Brexit deal without an updated impact assessment showing the projected costs and benefits. But when the courts close today it’s too late – if the agreement passes on Saturday, then the presumption is that the parliament that passed it knew what they were doing…
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The Palace of Westminster

May 8, 2019

The government has published a “Government response to the report of the Joint Committee on the Draft Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill

What’s this about? Well, essentially the Palace of Westminster – the building that houses the House of Lords, the House of Commons and various offices, chapels and halls – is falling down. It’s a fire risk, bits of it keep falling off and narrowly missing people, and it’s a warren of unsuitable spaces with rubbish access and facilities.

It’s also, apparently, a World Heritage Site (which seems bizarre to me as it was only built in the nineteenth century albeit on top of some medieval buildings and incorporating some remnants) but which means it can’t just be left to rot.

Have we really got between £3-6 BILLION to spend on a building, though, however historic?

Usually the government’s answer to anything expensive is to offload it. Why aren’t we preserving the building by flogging it off to someone else, in the way that the County Hall buildings opposite were preserved? Give it to a hotel group for a peppercorn and let them spend the money?

If you look at more modern parliament buildings like the Scottish Parliament or the EU Parliament they are arranged differently, usually in a semi circle to facilitate civilised discussion rather than the yah-boo-suckery of the two-sides-two-swords-lengths-apart Commons. They have microphones that work and electronic voting systems that don’t rely on parliamentarians being wheeled through the lobbies “sick bucket on lap and high on morphine

So here’s a thought. There’s a perfectly adequate set of offices and chambers across the square, at the 100 Parliament Street building that houses the Treasury and other assorted Departments.

Move Parliamentarians into that.

There’s also a tragically underused circular car park at the heart of the building. Use that to build a twenty-first century debating chamber. Don’t faff about commissioning a new design. There’s an 800 seat theatre in the round sitting in the middle of the Royal Exchange building in Manchester, built in 1976 for a million quid. It’s a proven design using proven technology. A million quid in 1976 is about, what, seven hundred million now. Appoint an architect to oversee the project and give them a fixed seven hundred million budget and a firm closing date, and let them get on with it.

The Treasury? Move it into the Foreign Office building next door. Move the Foreign Office into the next building down Whitehall and so on, till the unlucky (lucky?) losers get to move into the Lord Moon of the Mall pub at the end of the road.

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Till we have faces

March 13, 2019

Brexit has sucked the life out of the last  three years of government and here we are, nothing done, no energy for doing.

Here’s a thought. If a jury can’t reach a conclusion there’s no dishonour in a re-trial. This Parliament will never agree on the May deal, a no deal, a people’s vote or any other possible outcome.

So let’s stop. Don’t ask the EU for a postponement, which would need the unanimous agreement of the other EU members and which they have already said would come with conditions. No: let’s withdraw Article 50 and then do it right.

Set up a Royal Commission to look at what Brexit means: we want from it, how we will act during any transition period and after, the risks and rewards. What May should have done after the election, essentially, so there’s cross party agreement. The Royal Commission should also take advice from a Citizens’ Jury, as was done in Ireland on the abortion debate, an issue at least as toxic as Brexit.

The police investigation into any wrongdoings during the referendum should continue alongside the Commission and any prosecutions should go ahead independent of the Commission’s deliberations.

There would be another election in the usual course of events but campaigning would be on the issues – tax, spending, welfare, education, NHS, defence… and not on the slow grind of Brexit.

A new Parliament would look at the Royal Commission’s plan of action and then vote on whether to trigger Article 50 again, this time with a clear road map of agreed actions, or whether the new proposals should be put back to a new referendum.

One tiny snag, as I’m sure you have noticed… in order to withdraw Article 50, Parliament – this Parliament – would have to vote to do so…

 

 

 

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Alternative visions

November 8, 2018

The Office of Tax Simplification has a vision of the future of tax guidance.  Funnily enough it makes no mention of the previous review (the Good Guidance Guide, also known as the Anderson review) nor for that matter the Guidance on Guidance, a booklet with a yellow cover (sunflowers, I believe) which was current in my day. Maybe it’s a spinal reflex: every ten years or so someone says Something Must Be Done about Guidance, writes a report, and adds it to the shelf.

Not that I’m saying guidance has stayed the same. From manually updated HMRC manuals and printed pamphlets for taxpayers, to Tintax (electronic manuals) for HMRC staff and the grudging move to online for taxpayer guidance, to todays whizzo talk of pop-ups and voice operated search functions, and government mandated web pages with a paragraph of text written in a register with a reading age of nine, we are clearly in a dynamic system.

Which is why it’s disappointing that OTS’ review is so… static. Set up a panel of the Great and the Good. Get a Senior Manager to be in charge. Consult on whether we want HMRC guidance to be binding… It IS the twenty-first century, you know! That’s just not how things are done any more.

So here’s what I’d do. First, watermark all existing HMRC guidance with something that says “this guidance was written before G-day so may be difficult to follow. Seek advice” or words to that effect.

Second, leave HMRC manuals out of this. As I have said elsewhere, HMRC manuals are written to instruct HMRC staff how to administer the tax system, not to advise taxpayers how to interact with the tax system. It’s available to citizens under the Freedom of Information Act – that doesn’t mean it’s written for citizens to use, any more than police radio is intended for easy listening just because your radio might pick it up.

Third, make use of metadata – a webpage might well only have one paragraph of text on it, but with minimal work it should also be able to tell you when it was written (and by whom), where to go next for more detail, and have a clickable link to archived previous versions.

Fourthly, integrate guidance vertically as well as horizontally. By “horizontally” I mean across levels of expertise – taxpayer, practitioner, specialist. And by vertically I mean that even the simplest guidance should also be capable of further exploration (a “for more detail click here” link) that takes you from taxpayer to practitioner to specialist guidance and ultimately to the actual legislation. Don’t get me started about the state of the legislation online, but seriously the government buys its own legislation back from commercial firms because it can’t be arsed to update it properly and talk about don’t spoil the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar.

Yes, set up a supervisory panel… of retired teachers and other similar volunteers. Not the “tax community” who are big enough and ugly enough to argue their own corner with the revenue. No, the voices that aren’t being heard here are the taxpayer community, the actual citizens affected by this, who may have strong views on how they want to find out about the legislation that affects them.

And then write the new stuff collectively. Or, rather, keep guidance divided into three parts. The simple instruction/write according to gov.uk standards so a nine year old can read it/drop down and pop up help that comes with the HMRC forms, fine. That’s a customer service function. Fund it. Let HMRC write it. It will pay for itself. The HMRC guidance for its staff? Leave it alone: let HMRC keep it, use it, update it, and publish it under FOI. But don’t mistake it for taxpayer guidance. No, that’s the third layer: the “can I claim for a painting under the plant and machinery rules” “is there still a tax exemption for keeping a horse” “how do I claim for research and development” level of guidance.

Which – it’s the twenty first century after all – we should wiki.

Yes, you read it right. Use the wikipedia model. When I was last an HMRC policy worker, we actually had a wiki, sharing internal advice across different government departments. My staff wrote the guidance on how to produce a TIIN and kept an eye on any edits, but it was helpful for the people who “owned” the policy on, say, equality to be able to edit or expand on or add links to the relevant bit of the guidance rather than one person have to know everything about everything.

Set up a tax guidance site on the wikipedia model. How to stop people trolling it? Sign in via your taxpayer ID (the government gateway or equivalent) How to tell whether it’s accurate? It’s a dynamic system but it’s hallmarked with the date and time and name of the last person contributing, and with specific rules about how a page may be edited and why. It’s very far from perfect but then so is HMRC’s existing guidance. So, yes, let’s have a collaboration between the tax profession, HMRC and the interested taxpaying population. But let’s do it twenty-first century style.

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Bread and butter

October 9, 2018

The hopelessness, it gets to you.

You look at the world, at politics, economics, climate change, and you think, it’s all so big and so hopeless and so utterly, utterly fucked that there’s just no point in anything…

Nevertheless. Insert platitudinous inspirational meme here. We can’t go on. We go on.

Anyway. Did you know we have a Minister for Small Business? Well, actually a Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Corporate Responsibility? It’s Kelly Tolhurst MP and she’s only been in post since July of this year, so I suppose we must let her off.

Because small businesses are being screwed. Again. Well, not small businesses, as such, but micro businesses. You know, the ones who aren’t represented by the CBI or the FSB, the ones which barely have a need for an accountant let alone someone to read policy documents for them and represent them at HMRC “Stakeholder” groups.

In the beginning there was administrative burden, which is the cost of dealing with the government – not the money the government takes from you in taxes etc, but the money it costs you to comply with the regulations they make like filling in the necessary forms to tell them how much tax you’re going to have to pay. And the UK had the highest VAT threshold in the EU because that took bazillions of micro businesses out of VAT and cut the administrative burden by gazillions.

Then there was Amazon, who hoovered up the business of selling ebooks and they did it from a low-VAT-on-ebooks jurisdiction. So the EU introduced rules to make the VAT chargeable where the buyer was located, not the seller, and in solving one problem they created another, because there were a load of authors who sold their ebooks directly from their own websites rather than paying a substantial proportion of the turnover to Amazon or another platform.

Because those authors (and the knitters selling patterns and the musicians selling sheet music and the trainers selling online courses…) weren’t represented by any “stakeholder” group and because neither HMRC not the EU did due diligence on the impact on micro businesses, no-one realised they were literally unable to comply with the legislation as originally envisaged, well, they were fucked.

Fair play to the micro businesses of Great Britain, though, because they got together and lobbied their little hearts out and crowdfunded to go to Ecofin in Dublin and lobbied the EU and… won. There’s a €10,000 Euro turnover threshold below which the new rules won’t apply, so Amazon and the like are hit but the one-woman kitchen-table business isn’t. Result?

So you might think.

The legislation comes into force on 1 January 2019. Unless something happens, the UK leaves the EU on 29th March 2019. The micro businesses of Britain have a whole 87 days to trade legally and friction free.

After that? Not only do they not get the concessionary treatment for micro businesses and the simplified system for small businesses, they don’t even get the “benefit” of being able to transact via the VATMOSS system with the protection of HMRC between them and the other EU fiscs. They become “non-union” traders and are expected to work out the rate of VAT applying in the location of their customer at the exchange rate on the day of the transaction…

It’s rubbish, and (according to the campaign group) the British government haven’t even asked for relief, or for a continuation of the de minimis threshold, after Brexit.

Oh, and there’s talk of lowering the VAT registration threshold. Because the one thing we need from Brexit is more red tape and administrative burden, right?  I mean, right?

Dear Kelly Tolhurst MP, can you please remember the very smallest businesses and look at the VATMOSS mess?

I can’t even. It’s worse than the music hall. The circus. The music hall.