Archive for the ‘Consultation’ Category

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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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Office of tax complexification?

June 5, 2018

You have until a minute to midnight tonight (11.59pm on 5th June 2018) to comment on the Treasury’s call for evidence on the VAT registration threshold. (There’s a quick-and-dirty online survey you can fill in here if you haven’t got the time or inclination to read the whole thing.)

Now, this was published in March so why haven’t I commented on it till now? You may also have noticed that I haven’t been around here for a while. As I tried to explain to people who came to listen to me at Accountex a couple of weeks ago, it’s basically because the early drafts of this post started off as strings of expletives and then devolved into those random streams of letters you get when you bash your head repeatedly on your keyboard and plkfdje gjkiuht uhirsge whi4u5b

Ahem.

I am not a fan of this concept.  To put it mildly.

Here’s where we are, according to the condoc.

The threshold is a simplification measure that keeps businesses with a turnover at or below the threshold from having to register and account for VAT. This tax simplification benefits around 3.5 million businesses, over half of the UK business population.

Businesses with turnover below the threshold can choose to register for VAT, and there are approximately 1 million voluntarily registered businesses. Only around 1.2 million businesses (out of about 5.7 million total businesses) are above the VAT threshold.

To me, this is an “it ain’t broke” proposition. Small businesses don’t have to engage with VAT till their turnover is over £85,000 but they can if they want to and it benefits them.  A turnover of £85,000 is not, of course, a profit of £85,000 and it seems unlikely that a business with a turnover below that level is supporting more than one or two people from its profits.  Larger businesses object that the imposition of VAT distorts competition, but then they would, wouldn’t they.  The main driver for change seems to be the idea that the

relatively high level of the threshold has a distortionary impact on business growth. This is because of the phenomenon of ‘bunching’, where small businesses deliberately limit their turnover to remain below the threshold.

Personally I’m intensely relaxed about people being intensely relaxed.  You get close to the VAT limit, think “sod this for a game of soldiers” and take a month off.  And?  So?  Whose business is that?  Do you live to work, or work to live?

The consultation explains that the threshold will remain at its current level, but that the intention is to “consult on whether the design of the threshold could better incentivise growth.”

Well let’s see, shall we?

First, there’s an EU proposal to bugger about with the threshold to make it less of a cliff edge and yes I’m aware I’ve put several metaphors in a blender in this sentence but it’s that kind of proposal.  So instead of £85,000 = no VAT, £85,001 = VAT, the proposition is there would be a 50% cushion. If you blipped over the limit but by less than 150% of it as some kind of one off (one big order, say) then you would be ok, or if you went over the threshold by any amount but for more than one year then again you’d have to register.  There would also be a “union cap” of €100,000 turnover so countries couldn’t opt out by making their VAT registration limit infinity minus one, and there would be some fiddle faddling simplified invoicing stuff for businesses over the threshold but not over €2m turnover.

Is that better? Well, there are circumstances – the One Big Order scenario – where you might save money I suppose.  But your business growth would hardly be incentivised by the knowledge you could weasel your way out of having to do VAT if you faffed about with your turnover to keep under the 150% and one year rules, and your business admin would hardly be simplified by having to muck about calculating which scenario would leave you better off.  So no, Socrates, I do not believe this fulfils either the policy objective of incentivising growth nor the original policy objective of the high UK VAT threshold, of reducing the administrative burden.  It is a Bad Idea.  It is, moreover, a Bad EU Idea and what the heck are we faffing about with Brexit for if not to liberate ourselves from Bad EU Ideas?

Next (4.8 in the condoc) the OTS have suggested “administrative smoothing” and again (in 4.9 et seq) “financial smoothing”.  (Small pause for head bashing on keyboard again).  Repeat after me: options are not simplification.  Allow businesses six months instead of three to do their first VAT return, or allow them to use a two year period rather than one to compare their turnover to the threshold, or different rates of VAT for different levels of turnover, and they’ll just faff about trying to make the figures come out the way they want them to rather than just getting on with it.  If your policy objective is, seriously, “to change the behaviour of businesses that take measures to remain under the threshold” then just (a) declare the threshold is £100,000 and will remain unchanged for the life of this parliament and (b) invest a couple of million in employing customer service practitioners in HMRC to go out to businesses and offer to get them up and running with VAT as soon as they hit 90k and (c) carry on doing the stuff HMRC already does to combat the obvious splitting business type avoidance activity.

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Closing the walk-in centre

January 31, 2018

Now that I have finished my tax return (about which I will no doubt be writing more later) I have turned my attention to the consultation on “Making Urgent Care Work Better in Sheffield” which, coincidentally, also closes today.

As this is outside of my usual remit of tax consultations I have posted my response under a cut but click here if you’d like to read it nevertheless. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Glass of almond milk, anyone?

December 6, 2017

There are 100 open consultations listed on the gov.uk website this morning, and 13 of them are from HMRC… do we not think HMRC are legislating too much???

Having a quick flick through to see if there are any which expire soon I came upon this: the draft legislation for the soft drinks industry levy (the tax on sugary drinks).  It is, in my humble opinion, wretched stuff, trying to define in legislation when is a fruit drink different from a vegetable juice different from a milk drink and what constitutes a milk substitute drink.  Treble almond milks and years of anti avoidance legislation after amusing tribunal cases sampling kale, mango and almond smoothies all round?

However my eye was, of course, instantly drawn to the TIIN, or at least to where the TIIN ought to be.  Because, look, here is what it says at the end of the draft SI for the levy itself:

A Tax Information and Impact Note has not been prepared for this Instrument as it contains no substantive changes to tax policy.

What?

No, the other piece of draft legislation (the enforcement provisions, here) has the identical final paragraph.

No.  Just, no.  The TIIN is there to inform parliament about the legislation they are being asked to rubber stamp.  There is little enough genuine scrutiny of this kind of legislative gunk as it is, and at least attaching a TIIN gives readers the chance to see what the likely impact is of letting this go through on the nod.

I was getting ready to write a righteous screed in the manner of Angry of Tunbridge Wells about how it really is appalling that no TIIN has been prepared for this entirely new tax…

…and then I used google.  And of course there WAS a TIIN, and it’s here, from when the primary legislation was published last year.

In order to inform Parliament, surely the last sentence of the draft instruments should read something like “The TIIN for this measure was published in 2016 and may be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/soft-drinks-industry-levy/soft-drinks-industry-levy”

And then I thought, oh, they’re asking for feedback on the draft legislation, and that IS feedback…  So there you go.

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Dreary me

November 2, 2017

Dreary, dreary me. Well, not intrinsically me, you understand, but how I feel after the soul-sucking experience of looking at the Making Tax Digital (MTD) regulations.

Yes, we’re at that stage now. HMRC has given up trying to make us swallow the whole elephant of MTD and instead is pushing it at us one bite at a time. The primary legislation is in Finance Bill (No 2) 2017 (where the MTD section essentially says HMRC can make MTD regulations) and now the secondary and tertiary regulations are out for consultation here and in four attachments. Honestly, I wasn’t going to look, because it’s dreary. You know it is. Dreary, joyless, pettifogging and unnecessary. Look at this, from the Income Tax (Digital Requirements) Regulations

6.—(1) Subject to paragraph (3), “digital records” for a business means records of each of the transactions made in the course of the business, including—

  1. (a)  the amounts of the transactions;
  2. (b)  the dates of the transactions, according to the basis used by the relevant entity for recording transactions for the purposes of income tax; and
  3. (c)  the categories of transactions into which the transactions fall, to the extent those categories are specified.

Please. Get a life.

If this regulation is passed, businesses affected will have to keep records of the amounts, dates and categories of their transactions in “functional compatible software”. Lost the will to live yet?

Functional compatible software is defined in the regulations too:

“functional compatible software” means a software program or set of compatible software programs the functions of which include—

  1. (a)  recording and preserving digital records in a digital form;
  2. (b)  providing to HMRC quarterly updates and as applicable, end of period statements or Schedule A1 partnership returns in a digital form and by using the API platform; and
  3. (c)  receiving information from HMRC using the API platform in relation to a relevant entity’s compliance with obligations under these Regulations;

“The API platform” is nonsense: one might as well say “the language” or “the alphabet” without specifying which language (Greek? Mandarin?) or which alphabet (Cyrillic? Or Japanese – kanji or kana?)

So the Statutory Instrument will also have to define “the API”? Well, it defines “API platform”:

“API platform” means the application programming interface that enables electronic communication with HMRC, as specified by notice made by the Commissioners;

which I take to be drafters language for “HMRC haven’t written it yet but they’ll tell you when they have”?

Dreary, pettifogging stuff.

But I’m an impact assessment specialist, so of course I turned to the impact assessment, or at least I tried to. Where is the TIIN?

The Income Tax (Digital Requirement) regulations end with the words:

EXPLANATORY NOTE

(This note is not part of the Regulations)

The Regulations [ ].

but there IS no explanatory note attached, so there is no indication of whether a TIIN was completed or where it might be found, and there is no actual TIIN attached.

The Income and Corporation Taxes (Electronic Communications) (Amendment) Regulations  end with the words

Consent by the recipient is not required.

[TIIN]

Here’s what ought to happen. Governments say that they will not regulate unnecessarily, only where there is some “market failure” which means the government has to step in.

Does the government need to step in to force businesses to keep their records electronically in a way which will enable them to be sent to HMRC and for HMRC to read them? No Socrates, it does not: all that is required is for HMRC to build an electronic system which is demonstrably better than the current method of making returns of business profits and businesses will use it. Only then would it be reasonable to compel the last few recidivists to join in.

So, in a democracy, these regulations should be scrutinised by MPs before they are passed, and only passed into law if they are a reasonable way of achieving the policy objective.

MPs should do this by looking at the cost/benefit analysis in the TIINs and forming a view on whether the costs are justified by the benefits. They are hamstrung from doing this by the failure to publish a TIIN with the regulations. They should decline to rubber stamp something so… dreary. Joyless. Pettifogging. Unnecessary.

I challenge MPs to do their job. I will write to my MP and ask him to do his. I challenge you to do the same with yours.

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Risky business

October 31, 2017

I never worked in the Large Business section of HMRC so my ignorance on the inner workings of the section is largely an exotic fruit with the bloom still upon it. However we all have a stake in making sure that the revenue authorities play fairly in treating both large and small businesses equitably and efficiently so we all have a stake in the way HMRC deals with its Large Business customers.

What is a “large” business? In HMRC’s world, it is one with either a turnover of more than £200 million, or else it is part of a large multinational group even if its UK “footprint” is relatively small.

Currently HMRC uses a process called “Business Risk Review” (BRR) to divide large businesses into sheep and goats – they are assessed as either Low Risk or Not Low Risk, with “Low Risk” being rewarded by less contact with HMRC, fewer questions, less frequent reassessment of the risk. Six criteria are used to divide the sheep from the goats:

Inherent risk

  • the size of the business
  • its complexity
  • the amount of change to which it is subject

Behaviour

  • attitude to tax avoidance
  • systems and processes
  • openness with HMRC

You can easily see that, although low risk/not low risk is a binary, it is not a pejorative binary: being “not low risk” need not be because a business is trying it on in some way, but simply because it is  E X T R E M E L Y   L A R G E  or particularly complex.

 Someone, somewhere – a politician, or else some bright spark in HMT or HMRC – is busy pondering whether this is enough and whether

A more granular risk classification will help HMRC focus resource on the highest risk businesses, and increase the behavioural influence of the BRR process within business.

Here’s the consultation: it opened on 13th September and closes at quarter to midnight on December 6th.

Here’s what I think. First of all: why? Why change at all? What policy or practical issue are they trying to solve here? Does the current classification system not work? Is it taking up too much time or resource, is someone complaining about it, is there an actual need for change? I don’t see it in the consultation document. I honestly don’t see it at all.

Secondly, let’s look at paragraph 3.2 on page 10 of the document, where there is a flow chart setting out the BRR process. Look at the final point, where HMRC asks itself whether “HMRC can trust the customer to set the agenda for interactions with them”. This seems to me fundamentally misconceived. Of course a business or an individual has a perfect right to abstain from contact or cooperation with HMRC, in exactly the same way as we all have the right to remain silent if asked questions by a police officer. If a police officer turns up on your doorstep and asks you questions you are perfectly entitled to tell them to go away or not say anything at all. If they want to question you badly enough, they are entitled to arrest you, but then you are entitled to have a lawyer present while being questioned, and to answer “no comment” to anything you are asked – and neither guilt nor innocence should be inferred from silence. Rights are only rights if they are exercisable. But it is not up to the individual to decide whether or not they will be investigated by the police, questioned or arrested – it is the police’s decision whether or who or how to investigate.

So HMRC can offer a cooperative relationship to large businesses if they fulfil certain criteria, but it is not up to the business to “set the agenda for interactions” with HMRC and I am astonished that such a phrase has appeared in the consultation document at all. HMRC should run the show, decide what risks the taxpayer presents and how they will address them.

But if HMRC is, indeed, running the show, it is not at all clear to me how a more “granular” approach to risk assessment will be of benefit to anyone. At present the low risk/not low risk categorisation does not imply any wrongdoing on the part of the business being assessed. If they were assessed as one of “low risk, low-moderate risk, high-moderate risk, high risk and significant risk” would that not introduce new opportunity for conflict? Is “high-moderate risk” a pejorative designation? Would it be better to be “low-moderate risk”? Do the classifications depend on whether the risks are inherent or behavioural? What good does it do anyone to classify risks like this?

Again, if you were arrested, would it help to know you were considered low-moderate risk offender rather than a high-moderate one? Would it help you, would it help the police, would it help anyone?

Don’t do it, would be my response to this consultation. Or at least, if you must, explain why.

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Back to school

September 27, 2017

…and then suddenly you look around and see that you haven’t posted for a month, because – overwhelmed by the futility of it all – you realised that there wasn’t anything to say.  And yet, and yet…

There was a point where there were no open consultations from HMRC at all.  For perfectly sensible reasons (change of Budget date, the enormous administrative changes going on in HMRC and, of course, the reduction in flow of legislation from clearing the decks for Brexit) but still a bit concerning.  Maybe no public consultations, but were there still those cozy chats with “stakeholders”? (Was there an “annual stakeholder conference” at all this year?  Or has it happened and been kept wery, wery quiet?)

But normal service has resumed.  We are back to consultations: four of them, in fact, if we are to believe the gov.uk consultations page, sorted for “open consultations” from HMRC…

 

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So gov.uk’s “consultation” page manages to list consultations like, oh, the Forestry Commission’s plans to change public access to open access land at Harwood Village in Northumberland, (See here) but not “eight policy papers” from HMRC?

Sigh.  What was I saying about the futility of existence?