Archive for the ‘HMRC’ Category

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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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Writing to your MP

April 12, 2017

My MP is Nick Clegg, the former Deputy Prime Minister.  He has a pretty good office set up, so that when constituents write to him there is usually some kind of action taken. I took my own advice and wrote to him about MTD, specifically about the TIIN not supporting the change and asking him to make this point in the debates on the legislation.

What his office actually did, of course, was send my email on to the Treasury and then send me the reply.

Here are some extracts from that reply:

I am pleased that your constituent agrees that the overall direction of travel towards a more digital tax system is the right one.

I have already written about that one: practically everyone who replied to the consultation used the tried and trusted formula of “yes, and, but-

The Government has listened carefully to the wide range of views put forward about the MTDfB proposals. Most commentators were positive about the vision of a fully digital tax system that matches what we are increasingly used to from interactions with other service providers.

Yes, that’s the “yes” part of the argument. Yes of course the UK should invest in a modern digital HMRC. Give HMRC the money to improve its service and we’ll applaud.

However the speed of implementation, and the capability of those in scope to adapt, alongside the costs of doing so, were all key areas of feedback.

This is the point at which the letter stops being a response to the points I actually raised and becomes a generic. I asked about the TIIN not providing evidence that the rewards of mandation justified the costs.

In response, the Chancellor announced at Spring Budget 2017 a significant change to the timetable, which will give unincorporated businesses (including landlords and the self-employed) more time to prepare for the changes. Those below the VAT threshold will not have to keep digital records and update HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) quarterly until April 2019. As well as giving them (and their agents) more time to prepare, it will also ensure two full years of testing of the new system and services before they become mandatory for this group. The Government has already responded to other areas of feedback, such as exempting those with an annual turnover below £10,000 from mandatory use, making free software available for the smallest businesses with the most straightforward affairs, and accepting the continued use of spreadsheets (as long as they fully meet the key MTDfB requirements) as a form of digital record.

Sorry, but this is more boilerplate blah, not responding to the actual point at all.

Let me also set out why we are proceeding with these important reforms. The Government is investing significant sums to improve the tax system for all taxpayers, and deliver a modern digital service. There is a growing appetite for this, with millions already using their digital tax accounts to view their liabilities and payments, to claim back overpaid tax, or renew their tax credits.

Now we’re getting somewhere: we’ve had the “yes” and a bit of the “and” – now let’s see if there’s any response to the “but…”

While most businesses want to get their tax right, the amount of tax not collected due to taxpayer error and carelessness is now around £8 billion a year. This not only costs the Exchequer, but it also causes businesses cost, uncertainty and worry when HMRC has to intervene to put things right. MTDfB will reduce the tax gap caused by error by requiring businesses to keep a digital record of their income and expenditure, using software or an app, and to update HMRC quarterly with a summary of that data.

Will it, though? Will recording in an app or online actually cut down on errors and mistakes or will it add more and interesting ways to make errors? And where does the figure of £8 billion come from and how is it calculated? At the same time as Nick Clegg was sending on this correspondence, HMRC were responding directly to me on my FoI request for the underlying computations producing the figure for tax allegedly lost. In summary: they still say no.

Your constituent suggests that MTDfB should be a voluntary scheme. These reforms will deliver a better and more modern customer experience for businesses, where they can do everything they need to digitally. They will have greater certainty over their tax affairs, confidence that they have got things right, and a clearer in-year picture of their evolving tax position, allowing them to plan their cash flow more effectively. More timely digital record keeping will lead to fewer errors, thereby reducing the likelihood of an unwanted HMRC intervention. A voluntary scheme would deliver only a fraction of these benefits.

Would it, though?  If MTD is really going to be a better way, wouldn’t people want to gain the alleged benefits by joining it?Or are we not talking about benefits to the taxpayer at all, but this mythical seventeen grand all small businesses have lost down the back of the sofa?

I would like to reassure your constituent that quarterly updates do not amount to quarterly tax returns. The software will produce a summary of income and expenditure for the quarter using the information that the business has already recorded, and prompt them to send that to HMRC. The update process will be light touch, not at all equivalent to the current annual tax return. There is no requirement for the update to be done by an agent, no penalty for inaccuracy in the update, and no requirement to pay alongside the update.

Are you reassured? I’m not reassured, not even a little bit.

HMRC is introducing the changes gradually, and piloting them thoroughly before mandatory use begins in April 2018 for unincorporated businesses above the VAT threshold. HMRC is running a large-scale pilot and plans to test with several hundred thousand businesses by March 2018, including those who do not currently use software at all, or who may be less confident in moving to digital.

March 2018 is just next year. Where is the software? Where do people sign up? How long will the trial last and when will the results be out? How will success be measured and who will do the measuring? There just plain isn’t *time* to do a proper trial before mandation kicks in.

At Spring Budget 2017, HMRC published an updated impact note for Making Tax Digital (MTD). The changes will reduce error on an ongoing basis by around 10%. MTD will contribute an additional £1.9 billion to the public purse over the next 5 years and just under £1 billion per year thereafter.

They’re called TIINs. This one doesn’t show that the benefits justify the cost. (It really doesn’t. It shows them as the same, with the costs front loaded and the theoretical benefits off some time in the fuzzy future. You wouldn’t buy a fridge on that basis, let alone an intrusive system that will make digital slaves of half the nation.)

We recognise that there will be costs in the transitional period for some businesses, while also recognising that all businesses are different. Transitional costs may be lower for businesses already using digital tools, or where they are eligible to use free software. Businesses that have limited existing digital capability may need to purchase hardware and software, so initial costs may be higher, but net savings will start to be made from 2021-22 onwards. HMRC will ensure that the transition to digital is as smooth as possible and is committed to making MTDfB work for its customers, modernising its services for the benefit of all UK taxpayers.

Boilerplate blah, nothing to do with anything I had asked.

HMRC will start to ramp up its communication activity to raise awareness amongst the business community during the live trial. Agents and the software industry will be key partners in achieving this. As the different start dates for different sizes of business approach, HMRC will ensure those affected by the changes are aware of any new obligations. As with any change to the way people interact with the tax system, HMRC will focus on making sure customers have the right information well in advance of any changes coming into effect.

Because HMRC has a long history of being good at this kind of thing, right? I mean, right??

Please pass on my thanks to Ms Bradley for taking the trouble to make us aware of these concerns.

JANE ELLISON

*Clutches head in hands and weeps* 

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The oncoming storm

April 6, 2017

HMRC has a long record of enforcing compliance with direct taxes by hitting taxpayers with a bigger and bigger financial stick until they engage. Readers with long memories may recall the old method of estimated assessment, where a tax return was obtained by estimating income and profits and, if no return was received, estimating next years’ higher and higher and higher until finally we had little old ladies with tens of thousands of pounds of alleged income in tears on the doorsteps of accountants.

More recently there were cases of absurd penalties racking up under the C.I.S. system. And there is of course the notorious hundred pound penalty for failure to submit a tax return on time. This began as the lesser of £100 or the tax due: now it is simply £100 even if your tax bill as a result of the return is zero.

It is my contention that HMRC has very little understanding of the ecology of taxpayers with earnings at or around the nil rate band limit. This was evidenced in the last few years in the VATMOSS debacle (this blog, ad nauseam) where the tax authorities failed to engage with the very smallest digital entrepreneurs, principally because they had no idea that such businesses existed in the first place. The HMRC stakeholder model makes it hard for such people to engage because on an individual basis it takes up too much time and energy to deal with HMRC one-on-one, and none of the existing stakeholder organisations represent such businesses: the entry level for the Federation of Small Businesses, for example, at £99 for a start up or £172 thereafter, is prohibitively expensive if one is earning 10,000 a year.

So if we accept that HMRC’s pattern is to use disproportionate financial penalties on small businesses and it has little understanding of the very lowest earner, it is easy to see how the disastrous affair of the tax credits outsourcing program came to be. The PAC report published today goes into full detail but there are a couple of additional points worth noting.

Firstly the outsourcing of work which ought rightfully to be done by the civil service. It has always been thought morally dubious (and in my opinion rightly) to outsource the collection of tax to a profit making entity. How is it not incorrect, therefore, similarly to outsource the payment of small amounts to the poorest members of society?

Secondly there is the question of control of contracts and external work. As you will know, I am not sanguine about the possibility of Making Tax Digital for Business working as intended and this is largely because HMRC have over the years lost their in-house expertise in dealing with computerisation. Combine this with the rumoured walking away of their own consultants because of the changes to IR35 rules, it looks as though the problems with tax credit payments are merely a foreshadowing of a shit storm heading HMRC’s way.

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How to prepare a TIIN: the tax impact assessment

February 10, 2017

You may remember that I asked HMRC for the current guidance on how to prepare a TIIN (this was published here on my blog) but that the guidance referred to further guidance on how to do the tax impact assessment part of the process.  I have now received, by way of a further FoI request, the attached tia guidance

Note that the “redacted” areas are where the names of the particular officials responsible for different policy areas have been redacted.  Apparently the “more” areas refer to links to further internal guidance which was not considered to be covered by the scope of my FoI request.

More interesting, though, is the response I had to my question of why this guidance is not part of HMRC’s routine publication schedule, particularly as the TIIN is the tax version of a Regulatory Impact Assessment, and the RIA guidance and instructions are routinely published.

We have not published this guidance routinely for two reasons. Firstly it does not affect the computation of the tax that a customer pays and is therefore of interest only to a small community. Secondly, as you point out, it mirrors cross government impact assessment guidance for internal HMRC use and is not intended to materially differ from it, except to the extent that the impact assessments provided for tax provisions are presented in TIINs, and to explain to HMRC staff how to engage the right processes to generate the impacts.

Hmmmm… I am tempted to point out that another possible reason could be that other government departments’ impact assessments are subject to external scrutiny.  As impact assessment programme manager in HMRC, my job for several years included going to cross governmental meetings and saying (in effect) no, hands off, tax is different!  These days?  I’m not so convinced…

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Yes, and, but.

February 3, 2017

Is there a communications manager for Making Tax Digital yet?  Because – apologies if there is – but it seems to me the communications so far have been, well, pants.  Apparently we are no longer MTE (Making Tax Easier) or even Making Tax Digital (MTD) for example, but “MTDfB”.  This inelegant acronym stands for “Making Tax Digital for Businesses”, presumably because we don’t want to frighten the taxpayers horses by suggesting that pensioners and others on PAYE will have to play.  Yet.

More importantly, there seems to be no plan to communicate with anyone outside the rather small circle of people who are already tax mavens, with those unrepresented businesses who will be hardest hit by the changes.  You don’t believe me?  Put “making tax digital” into google and hit the tab for “news”.  There is virtually nothing in the general press, although the professional press is of course full of it – but no-one at HMRC is, seemingly, listening to them.

Look, there’s a serious misunderstanding here.  The consultation response says that “respondents overwhelmingly support the move to a digital tax system.”  No, it’s a recognised letter-writing technique.  You don’t think your bank really means you’re “dear” to them when they write to you, do you?

Well, generations of people have been trained to deliver unpleasant messages using the format “yes, and, but…”  You start off by finding a point of commonality, something you can agree on.  (Yes, it would be good if HMRC had a modern computer system.)  Then you go on to add something else you think you can agree on.  (Yes, it would be great if tax returns were prepopulated with the information HMRC already holds) and only then do you deliver the unwelcome message. (But making it compulsory to keep electronic records and update four times a year are terrible ideas!)

Yes, and, but.

It’s plain as the nose on your face if you look at the Treasury Select Committee’s report which helpfully summarises the responses under the heading “support for the principle” – yes, we welcome the digital principle, and we think the changes go with the grain of progress BUT… we’re worried about the timetable, about the lack of free software, and above all about mandation.

The whole basis of the current proposal is undermined in HMRC’s own Impact assessment.  The projected extra tax in this parliament (to 20-21) is £945m. The projected extra costs to business in the same period? £920m.  Extraordinarily, the impact assessment quantifies no costs for HMRC for the proposal, although the original consultation document justified mandation by saying that without it “the return on the £1.3bn investment in transforming tax administration would not have been realised” (para 2.6)

In short, HMRC, your comms are pants, you have misunderstood people’s feedback, and your numbers don’t add up.  Sorry and all that.

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MTD, the response documents

January 31, 2017

Well, here we go: the responses to MTD are now live.  There’s a ton of stuff to read, so I’m going to post my immediate responses “live” as I go through them.  Watch this space! (or, temporarily turn off notifications if you get update notices)

  1. The overview.  It’s not easy to find.  Starting from the “consultations” page on gov.uk I got all excited when today’s list showed MTD updated 31 January.  But when you go to it, it’s not immediately obvious what’s been updated at all.  The actual response document is linked from the paragraph that reads

Over 1,200 people responded to this online survey and individual responses were fed into the other consultations to support the government’s thinking. Many of the responses helped influence key outcomes.

Now, maybe it’s just me, but I wouldn’t immediately have thought that “other consultations to support the government’s thinking” was a signal for “look!  Here’s the responses doc!” (updated 3.20pm)

2. Ah!  I see!  There’s an overview document (like there was for the original pack of consultations)  Right then: here’s a link to the overview.  Speed reading: first reaction?  Great flying spaghetti monster but it’s a complacent piece of spin.  Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, and a committee of MPs has published a report but we’ve addressed “many” of their recommendations.  (As I recall, the Treasury Select Committee report wasn’t happy at all).  Not sanguine!

3.40 pm.  Aha!  I just had an email from the MTD correspondence address:

Dear stakeholder,

Thank you for responding to our consultations on Making Tax Digital last year. We’re extremely pleased with the level of response to the consultations and grateful for the time and effort that you took to send us your views.

A summary of feedback received, the government’s decisions and our next steps have been published today in six response documents on GOV.UK. If you’re short of time, we’ve also published a short overview which draws out the key conclusions from each of the consultations.

Over the consultation period, we held a number of events with interested parties to communicate and discuss the proposals, including face-to-face meetings, and webinars for the public and tax agents, which attracted over 3,000 participants. HMRC also attended a range of conferences and events to reach as many stakeholders as possible. Feedback from these events has also been considered as part of the formal consultation exercise.

Your input is important as it has not only informed the development of policy and draft legislation, but has also helped give us a clearer understanding of the needs of our customers as we implement Making Tax Digital.

Thank you again for your participation.

Jim Harra

Director General, Customer Strategy and Tax Design, HMRC

Onwards!  Next reading: the revised impact assessment.

4. The impact assessment.  Er, the admin burden savings figures have been revised.  A lot.  And, lo!  The transitional costs of £100m, £500m and £350m to 2020 add up to £950m.  Now, where have I seen that figure before…????

The MTDfB changes will contribute £945 million to the Exchequer by 2020 to 2021.

Oh yeah, that was it.