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The Navy Lark

July 20, 2017

All quiet on the consultation front. Which is as you would expect, really, because this is not a government embarking on a frenzy of domestic legislation on which it needs to consult, but holding its fire ready for the transposition and/or abolition of EU law after Brexit.

Except…

…well, there are still more than 40 open consultations listed on gov.uk. There are equality and other impact assessments around the HS2 proposals, open access restrictions proposed on different Nature England sites, odds and ends of changes to the way statistics are compiled and…

This. Proposed cessation of the Ministry of Defence’s military aid to civil authorities I wondered what it might be about.  Surely the MoD weren’t going to stop helping out in times of disaster; fear, fire, foe, flood?

No. It’s an odd thing. It seems to be a proposal to stop telling us about something we’re not much interested in, but not to stop doing the thing itself.

This is an annual publication that provides information on the number of vessels boarded by the Royal Navy Fishery Protection Squadron (RN FPS) within British fishery limits, and the number of court convictions and financial administration penalties (FAPs) issued as a result of the boardings.

We are proposing to cease production of this publication

The consultation closes on 14th August and it’s only a one page document and I honestly recommend you read it in full, because, well, I just don’t get it. Under “reasons for the proposed change” it says

The number of vessels boarded by the RN FPS has fallen from 1335 in 2006/07 to 460 in 2015/16, a decrease of 66% over the decade. The number of convictions and administrative penalties has fallen from 53 in 2006/07 to 4 in 2015/16, a decrease of 92% over the decade.

The number of web-hits for the publication page has fallen from 535 in 2015/16 to 343 in 2016/17, a decrease of 36%.

Something that is happening less and less, and being enquired about less and less, so we can stop publishing stats about it? Well OK then but I still have questions. First of all, presumably people will still be able to make a request for the figures under the Freedom of Information Act (or by asking their MP to ask a Parliamentary Question). Does’t it cost more to respond on request than it would cost to carry on chucking the figures routinely onto a website?  Seriously?
Secondly, does it cost money to collect the figures in the first place? Is there some process (“Damn it Caruthers, we may have caught the blighters but there’s still a thirty-six page form to fill in explaining how we did it”?) involved in compiling the figures in the first place that’s going to be stopped?
And finally… well, Brexit, I suppose. Isn’t policing the UK’s fisheries going to be a higher priority for the RN after Brexit, and wouldn’t you therefore expect these stats themselves, as well as interest in them, to go up substantially in the next few years? Remember the Cod Wars? The timing of this seems weird to me.
But, hey, what do I know? I’m neither a fisheries nor a naval expert and maybe this all makes sense to the people who know about it. Wouldn’t you think, though, that before you issued a consultation document you might have read it and maybe wondered whether you’d included sufficient detail for other people to understand where you’re coming from? Particularly if you’re going to say “As long as there is no objection during the consultation period, the cessation of the report will proceed as planned and the June 2017 bulletin will be the final annual report produced.” No objection? None? Anyone?
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Good news, bad news?

July 14, 2017

Great news yesterday, with the announcement that Making Tax Digital has been postponed and that only businesses with a turnover over the VAT threshold will have to keep digital records until, well, this government has either gone or has consolidated itself enough to be able to get the legislation through.

This is the best of all possible worlds – or at least it is at first sight.  Because of course HMRC needs to have a modern computer system that isn’t held together with string, prayer and for all I know a couple of  floppy disks.  Of course we should be able to log on and see our tax returns already pre-populated with the information HMRC already knows about us, the stuff from our P60s and bank interest and what have you.  MTD is a customer service imperative.

The problem is that the Treasury won’t pay for that kind of thing: it had to be pitched as a project that would pay for itself, and that’s when you get into the ridiculousness of trying to make teeny tiny businesses that keep perfectly adequate paper records move online or perish, in the absurd belief they’ve all got seventeen grand or so stuffed down the back of the sofa.

So keep the good stuff, the modernisation of the online interface, and ditch the bad, the mandation/penalty routine?

I wish.  The HMRC annual report and accounts for 2016/17 came out yesterday.  I know it’s a couple of hundred pages so I can’t pretend to have done more than skimmed it so far, but for me the key question is this:

do they still get the money?

Does HMRC still get the funding to upgrade its computers to MTD and to do the necessary work on pre-population without the spurious promise of resultant tax gap closure?  I can’t tell from the accounts.  Did they get MTD funds in 16/17 and will they get the rest in 17/18 and beyond.  I can’t tell.

Anyone?

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The magic money tree!

June 13, 2017

I’ve found it!  You know, the famous Magic Money Tree that Theresa May was saying didn’t exist?  Well hurrah, the Times is reporting this morning that apparently she has found it; there’s to be no more austerity because £2.2 billion from #MTD (along with £4 billion on “corporation tax relief” and £1.4 billion from “scrapping permanent non-domicile status”) will sort it.  Hurrah!

Except…

…as I wrote in this article for accounting web, I’m not sure there’s really £2.2 billion down the back of small businesses’ sofas.

…and as I wrote in this blog post, I’m not at all convinced there’s a correlation between “austerity” and tax receipts in the first place.

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Legislative v administrative

June 12, 2017

There’s a hung parliament.  Things are moving quickly: in my head, I imagine someone taking on a new job, running “legislative affairs” like Josh Lyman  in the West Wing.  Someone whose job it is to ring round the new MPs to see if they will stand for this policy or that, as each new idea for the Queen’s Speech has to be fought through separately.

Leaving aside my fantasies about there being someone competent and grown up behind the scenes, let’s look for a moment at what a hung parliament means for taxes?

Three things.  First of all, there’s unlikely to be any huge legislative change.  It’s entirely possible that the proposals to make it compulsory for businesses to keep their records on an app or computer programme and update HMRC four (five?) times a year, MTD (“Making Tax Digital”) for short, will fall.  Why would anyone back MTD when it is going to be as popular as a cup of cold sick with small businesses once they learn how it will affect them?  Kick it down the road and make it Someone Else’s Problem, would be my instinct.

Second, the difficulty in making legislative change is unlikely to apply to actual tax rates: there are different rules.  But then why would a “continuity” government want to change the rates they themselves introduced five minutes ago?  They may have to give sweeties to their supporters (abolition of APD for Northern Ireland, would be my best guess from the weekend press).

But the third thing is that administratively, things will carry on much as before.  The rule for the Civil Service is to carry on doing your job until someone tells you differently.  So the idiotic decision to carry on with the “building our futures” plan and move HMRC into big lumps instead of a distributed network of local offices will probably carry on.  There will be a new Minister, after all.  (Jane Ellison lost her seat so there will be a new Financial Secretary to the Treasury but at the time of writing I can’t see an announcement of who replaces her) so there is no-one with a vested interest in saying “no” and the inertia of “keep calm and carry on” may let this go through.

I think that’s a shame: you may not. But what IS a shame is that there will be no will to change the way policy is made. When the coalition government came in there was a will to do things differently and the political space to think them through . No-one had a vested interest in continuity but in Getting Things Done. So we had Making Tax Policy Better and the invention of the TIIN. Sigh. Ah well, business as usual, at least for a while.

 

 

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Going postal

June 7, 2017

Imagine you’d agreed to become a school governor. Only at a meeting the day before you joined, they decided to sell off the playing fields, appoint a new headmaster and turn the school into an academy. You’d be a bit miffed, right? Because you agreed to help with the running of a school but they made it into a completely different kind of school before you had a chance to influence its direction.

It’s an analogy. The real thing is here – the report in Civil Service World that says HMRC has signed contracts for new premises during the pre-election “purdah” period. It is no secret that I think HMRC’s “Building our Futures” plan to close down its local network and move to massive regional centres is a bad idea (see here, here and here for example).

It’s also no secret that HMRC has a truly awful record of negotiating property deals (see the Mapeley deal, where it sold and leased back its own buildings via an offshore entity) and it has been reported, for “Building our Futures” that HMRC has signed inflation linked 25 year contracts with no break. Seriously? 25 years ago I was working in HMRC and we were worrying about whether we had the right number of smoking rooms and filing space, and were there enough plugs for the new computers – who knows what accommodation will be appropriate for whatever the revenue authority looks like in 2042!

HMRC get a bad idea and run with it – nothing particularly new there (VATMOSS, MTD…) but this is the day before a bloody election. If there’s a new government on Friday they may well want to look again at how HMRC is organised. Having the civil service distributed in local offices amongst the people they serve is, surely, a better way of organising society than corralling them all into Fortresses Of Doom. Signing contracts in the quiet period before an election is shocking, and has the appearance of an attempt to railroad the new government into acting on a bad idea of the old. If there’s a different government on Friday I hope the first thing they do is repudiate any such contracts, discipline the people who signed them, and have a proper look at how a modern government delivers its services.

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Diversity matters

April 18, 2017

Diversity matters.  It really does.  Look, I know all the arguments about asking the people with expertise (the “best” people) and you only look at what they know so how does including the legendary one-legged black lesbian help take the discussion forward, so please, don’t be a bore in the comments and go over them again.

Instead, look at this: the announcement of a Treasury Committee witness session this morning where they will be looking, inter alia, at Making Tax Digital.  It’s not about all the witnesses this time being male.  It’s not about them all representing accountancy and taxation bodies (because, who else would you ask).  But it IS about hearing the voices of small businesses.  Remember a few weeks ago when they couldn’t find anyone from the construction industry who knew about MTD?  The people I know who work for the construction industry advising them on tax were a bit vexed about that.

If your meeting doesn’t look like the nation but like a badly-organised golf-club AGM then maybe, just maybe, you need to up your game and talk to some of the people affected but outside of the magic circle of “stakeholders”.

After all, that’s what happened with VATMOSS, remember? No-one talked to the people affected, because no-one at HMRC and HMT realised they existed.  If they’d looked at their stakeholder groups and wondered why they kept seeing the same faces, well, who knows?

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The Finance Bill

April 17, 2017

Well now we know that the Finance Bill will receive its second reading on Tuesday, 18th April.

What happened to the first reading, do I hear you ask? No, I didn’t know either, but the Parliament website helpfully tells me here that the first reading is literally just someone reading it out before it’s printed ready for discussion – a formal, one might even say ceremonial, stage.

There is, however, a particularly useful briefing paper, here, which explains the background to the second reading, the change of date for the Budget and the package of paperwork which supports the Bill.

Here’s the thing.  A lot of legislation and regulation comes before Parliament.  Not many MPs are experts in any particular subject: tax perhaps has more than many other subjects.  MPs who are not experts should be able to rely on the briefing papers that come with the bill to ensure they understand it and that it is worthy of being passed into legislation.

But they have to read them.

Seriously.

As I have said before, there are twenty measures in this Finance Bill which raise no revenue, remove no admin burden and save HMRC nothing.  Why, then, are they included in the Bill at all?

No-one is, to be realistic, going to object to the entire Finance Bill tomorrow.  The real work comes in the committee stage, next.  Let’s just hope that the MPs involved in the committee stage actually read the material that comes with the clauses.  The very least we can expect from our legislature is that those twenty measures don’t pass on the nod.

 

(Late edit: I’m indebted to a twitter correspondent for this link, to the Order Paper for tomorrow, which shows the Bill will be subject to a “split committal” – there’s a motion to deny a second reading on the ground that it “is a wholly inadequate response to the economic challenges being faced by Scotland and the UK” and there’s also some split of the Bill which, frankly, I still don’t quite understand,  between clauses “committed to a Committee of the whole House” with the rest of it… “The remainder of the Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.”  No doubt all will become clear.  Or at least clearer.  Watch this space!)