Making Tax Digital for VAT (Economic Affairs Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:07 pm on 29th April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Chair, Economic Affairs Committee, Chair, Finance Bill Sub-Committee 3:07 pm, 29th April 2019

My Lords, I rise to introduce the Economic Affairs Finance Bill Sub-Committee’s report on the powers of HMRC. Perhaps I will leave those who do not wish their tax affairs to be considered to leave the Chamber.

In this debate we are considering two reports from the committee: The Powers of HMRC: Treating Taxpayers Fairly and Making Tax Digital for VAT: Treating Small Businesses Fairly. These reports sprang from the sub-committee’s inquiry into the 2018 draft finance Bill. As the House will know, the sub-committee exists to scrutinise the draft finance Bill for issues of tax administration and clarification or simplification, and not the rates or incidence of tax.

Last year’s draft finance Bill did not contain many show-stopping measures, as Members might have noticed when the final Bill progressed through the House. We therefore decided to conduct thematic inquiries based on a few of its clauses, considering the cumulative effects of increased HMRC legislative powers over recent finance Bills and checking progress on the Making Tax Digital programme, which we considered in 2017. An example of the cumulative powers which perhaps went unnoticed in the Finance Bill was that anyone who has overseas investments can now have their tax affairs backdated for 12 years rather than four or six. That includes having an overseas property or perhaps having shares in a company listed on a US or other foreign exchange.

Before explaining our conclusions, I would like to thank the sub-committee members, who were recruited at short notice for a fast-paced inquiry. I also thank our excellent special advisers to the inquiry, Elspeth Orcharton and Robina Dyall, and the committee staff who produced the report: Sam Newhouse, Luke Hussey, Lucy Molloy and Lloyd Whittaker.

Making Tax Digital for VAT obliges all businesses with an income above £85,000 to submit their VAT returns through software that connects to HMRC’s database. It came into force at the start of this month. It is the first part of the Government’s Making Tax Digital programme, about which I will not go into detail other than to say that it aims to make tax digital. We first considered Making Tax Digital in 2017, when it was due to be implemented for income tax in April 2018. We found that HMRC had underestimated the cost to businesses and overestimated the benefits to the Exchequer, and that many businesses had no idea that they would soon be forced to change their whole accounting processes. The sub-committee recommended that all mandation of the programme be delayed until April 2020 at the earliest.

A year and a half later, when we started our 2018 inquiry, the deadline had been moved back to April 2019 and income tax had been removed from the scope of the first stage. We hoped that, by then, HMRC would have learned the lessons of our previous report, but we were disappointed. HMRC has again underestimated the cost to business. It says that, on average, there will be a one-off transition cost of £109 and an ongoing cost of £43 per year. But one practitioner told us that it could cost clients transitioning from paper records as much as £2,600. There seems to have been no effort to calculate a cost for the smallest businesses, which will need more agent support and may be more likely to use paper records. The definition of a small business used in HMRC’s estimate includes any business with taxable turnover between £85,000 and £10 million. This takes in 96% of VAT-registered businesses.

HMRC has still not done enough to raise awareness. The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales found in a survey as recently as last summer that 42% of businesses which are now required to comply with Making Tax Digital for VAT were not aware of its existence. The Treasury announced triumphantly last month that, as of December, over 80% of businesses in scope had started to prepare; but the fact that nearly one in five had not started to prepare, just three months before the introduction of Making Tax Digital, should have been more worrying. In its own research, the Daily Telegraph reported on 30 March, in a survey of some 500 companies, that 23% of affected companies had not even heard of Making Tax Digital; an additional 28% had heard of it but did not know how it would affect their business.

It seems likely that these are the same small businesses that HMRC also forgot about in calculating the costs of its programme. Serious questions remain about the expected benefits of the wider Making Tax Digital programme. HMRC and the Treasury expect it to yield higher tax revenue as businesses make fewer errors filling in their tax returns. But this does not seem to account for the fact that mistakes can run in both directions: businesses could be paying too much as well as too little. There is no convincing explanation of how businesses are meant to cope in rural and other areas where broadband connections are insufficiently good for this purpose.

We recommended that Making Tax Digital for VAT be delayed for a further year to address these problems. Clearly, that ship has now sailed. In the Spring Statement, the Chancellor reiterated that there would be no further mandation until after 2020. Our report recommended that no further mandation takes place until April 2022, to allow the Government to properly analyse and learn lessons from the implementation of Making Tax Digital for VAT.

Delaying until 2022 would also allow a reassessment of the benefits of the programme and its costs to the smallest businesses. We also recommended that the Government publish a revised long-term strategy for Making Tax Digital, accounting for the recommendations in our reports and the experiences of the programme so far. I ask my noble friend Lord Young whether he can give any further updates on these recommendations when he responds to the debate on behalf of the Government.

Our inquiry also sought to ask whether, after a plethora of new HMRC powers to address tax evasion and avoidance in recent years, there remains a fair balance of power between HMRC and the taxpayer. We concluded that HMRC’s powers have outpaced taxpayer safeguards and tipped the scales in HMRC’s direction. Before I begin, I must emphasise that the sub-committee wholly supports efforts to tackle tax evasion and avoidance but those efforts should enhance, not diminish, fairness in the tax system.

We found that several powers had been introduced with insufficient safeguards attached for taxpayers, particularly those on lower incomes or without agent representation. For example, accelerated payment notices require taxpayers to pay up front an amount of tax that HMRC thinks the taxpayer has avoided, before any dispute about whether the taxpayer is actually liable to pay tax to HMRC is settled by the courts; follower notices require taxpayers to pay tax that HMRC says the taxpayer has avoided by using a scheme that HMRC thinks is similar to one that has been challenged successfully in the courts. Taxpayers cannot appeal these notices, only the underlying tax liability. Taxpayers who continue to appeal a tax liability after receiving a follower notice and lose can face penalties of up to 50% of the tax liability added to their final bill. Both notices prioritise the fast recovery of tax revenue over fairness for taxpayers and, in my view, are attacks on access to justice. The sub-committee was very grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, who was able to advise the sub-committee on its draft conclusions. He criticised these powers for making HMRC judge in its own cause and fettering access to justice. I look forward to his contribution later in this debate.

To consider the overall balance of HMRC’s powers and taxpayer safeguards, we recommended a new collaborative review of powers between government and the tax profession, repeating an exercise so successfully conducted between 2005 and 2012 when Customs and Excise merged with the Inland Revenue. The Government noted this recommendation in their response, and I hope my noble friend can offer more clarity in his response to this debate on whether the Government will consider a new powers review.

In addition to legislative imbalance, we heard evidence of an aggressive and uncompromising culture of enforcement at HMRC. For example, witnesses told us that HMRC had presented voluntary requests for information as statutory requirements, made inappropriately harsh decisions on penalties, and alleged more serious conduct against taxpayers in order to access longer times for assessing tax. There is a sense, one witness told us, that HMRC is aiming to collect the maximum amount of tax rather than the right amount of tax. It may be that HMRC’s declining resources have made it impossible for HMRC to satisfy demands to recoup higher amounts of tax revenue and treat taxpayers fairly. This is one area of government expenditure where increased expenditure actually produces increased revenue.

We recommended that consideration be given to the role of HMRC’s adjudicator, who currently considers taxpayers’ complaints about HMRC. She should, for example, proactively investigate the conduct of HMRC investigators in the manner of an inspectorate, or simply expand the types of taxpayers’ complaints that she can hear and strengthen her power to settle them. We also recommended a review of the case for an independent body to scrutinise the operations of HMRC.

The loan charge was the most distressing part of our committee’s evidence-taking. The new HMRC anti-avoidance measures, which came into force on 5 April 2019, introduced the measure known colloquially as the loan charge. This is an example of both the phenomena I have mentioned: disproportionate powers and an overtly aggressive culture. We received, and continue to receive, a huge amount of evidence on the impact this is having on individuals, which is often very difficult to read. There are already reports in the media of at least six suicides as a result of the implementation of the loan charge.

The loan charge seeks to tackle a tax avoidance scheme called disguised remuneration in which individuals, usually contractors, are paid in loans rather than income, to avoid income tax and national insurance contributions, on the understanding that those loans would never need to be repaid. The loan charge will classify any outstanding loans from these schemes, from 6 April 1999, as taxable under income tax. For those who have been using these schemes for many years, this requires them to pay many years of income tax in one go in one tax year.

In going back to 1999, the loan charge is retrospective. There is a long-established principle in the tax system that taxpayers are entitled to certainty in their tax affairs. As such, HMRC cannot go back further than six years, except in cases of fraud, but this charge goes back 20 years. HMRC says this is because the loans received in 1999 are still outstanding. The tax therefore applies to the present loan balance, not the past loan income. However, the problem with disguised remuneration schemes is that these are not really loans; they are income under another name. HMRC’s treatment of the loans as income in the loan charge is evidence that it agrees. We therefore recommended that the charge be disapplied to any disguised remuneration which occurred in years which would otherwise have been closed to HMRC inquiry.

Retrospection notwithstanding, we support HMRC in its attempts to address present and future disguised remuneration—it is clearly tax avoidance. However, we have pleaded with it, with limited success, to consider the different types of individuals embroiled in these schemes. Unlike some tax avoidance schemes, this affected middle- to lower-income individuals, rather than high-income individuals with easy access to professional advice. They believed the promoters of these schemes—often their employers—when they told them that the schemes were legitimate and approved by QCs and even by HMRC itself. They were perhaps naive, but they were not malicious.

One witness told us about a social worker affected by the charge. Before I continue, I note that we cannot independently verify the facts of this case, but it is illustrative of many examples received. The social worker was made redundant by her local council, which then offered to re-employ her as a contractor, as long as she used a particular scheme. Unknown to her, this was a disguised remuneration scheme. She was made aware of this fact only when she was presented with a bill by HMRC many years later. Some might say she should have investigated further, but as the witness said, she is a social worker, not a tax expert. The loan charge unfairly assigns the same culpability to lower-income individuals without easy access to professional tax advice as to better-advised individuals who should have known better. What is surprising about all this is that many of the schemes were promoted by employers with deep pockets, but we have found no evidence that HMRC is showing the same enthusiasm in pursuing either the employers or the promoters of the schemes.

I will finish by reflecting on the Treasury’s engagement with our inquiry. We invited the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Mel Stride, to give evidence. At first, he said he was busy with the Budget, so we delayed our inquiry to accommodate him. He declined to attend on two occasions and he has since declined two further invitations to attend the Economic Affairs Committee itself. As rationale, the Treasury asserts a convention we do not recognise, claiming that the fact that no Treasury Minister has attended a sub-committee before represents a precedent. The Financial Secretary repeated this argument in the Financial Times on 31 March.

This is a matter of coincidence, not convention. No such agreement was in place when the sub-committee was created in 2003. In the past its inquiries have often been technical, uncontroversial and answerable entirely by HMRC officials, but the gravity of the evidence we received in this inquiry required a ministerial response. When HMRC and Treasury officials gave evidence, they could not answer several of our questions—quite understandably, because they were matters for Ministers. Furthermore, two of these invitations were from the Economic Affairs Committee, which has a long history of hearing from Treasury Ministers. The Chancellor gives evidence every year, and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is likely to give evidence to us just next month. The Governor of the Bank of England attends every year.

In future years, when the finance sub-committee considers issues it believes merit a ministerial response, it will continue to invite Ministers from the Treasury. I hope that we will be able to co-operate more constructively for the good of this House and the Government. I would be glad of any reassurance to that effect from my noble friend Lord Young when he responds on the Treasury’s behalf. I beg to move.