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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:29 pm on 29th April 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Kramer Baroness Kramer Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Treasury and Economy) 4:29 pm, 29th April 2019

My Lords, what a brilliant debate. I almost hesitate to speak for fear of diluting what has really been extraordinary. When a unanimous comes with passion from so many Benches, I am sure that the Minister will take on board and take back to HMRC and the Government that this is not a party-political issue or an attempt by one faction to embarrass the Government or make life difficult for HMRC; it reflects a genuine, sincere and deep concern among people who have looked at the powers and the way in which HMRC is implementing programmes and feel that there is a real risk that it is undermining its own reputation, as well as the respect that the collection of tax has within the United Kingdom. That respect is critical if taxpayers are genuinely to believe that, when they are asked to pay, it is on a fair basis and they will get appropriate and fair treatment.

I was privileged to be a member of the finance sub-committee and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, for his extraordinary and skilled chairmanship. I know that he does that every time, but it is not an easy thing to do and I hope that he will not mind if we all take this opportunity to thank him for exercising that skill and leadership.

I am also a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Loan Charge Group, which started taking evidence essentially as the sub-committee’s process came to a close. I will try to use some of the information that I have received from participating in those hearings, some of which is quite shocking.

I shall turn briefly to the report on Making Tax Digital. I suspect that everybody would agree that making tax digital over time is entirely appropriate and that it is reasonable to start with VAT. It is a programme that must be implemented well and effectively—but that is not the experience that the sub-committee heard about when it took evidence. My noble friend referred to the fact that nearly 20% of small businesses impacted by this requirement have absolutely no idea, and many more have not been able to access relevant software.

Regarding the cost, I would far rather go with the estimates from the Federation of Small Businesses than with the, frankly, rather silly numbers that we heard from HMRC, which seem to suggest that it is completely out of touch with the real world of software costs in the marketplace. I point out that HMRC has allowed a delay for what it considers to be large and complex organisations—big businesses with a swathe of staff and several departments to take them through this process—while small firms are being told that they now have to report their tax through this new digital process. We understand that there will be some sort of leeway for those who attempt but fail—but, frankly, given HMRC’s lack of ability to relate to or communicate with small businesses, I am not sure that many have a great deal of faith in it.

Communication with that particular group is unbelievably weak. There really is no excuse, because HMRC knows every small business that is liable to pay VAT, so, if it chose, it could communicate with them directly. The answer that we frequently get is that information was put on the website on the “Spotlight” page, as I think it is called. That is considered to be communication, but it makes absolutely no sense. We heard from many people who were represented by accountants and specialists. My great fear—and, I think, that of the committee—is for the many people who do not have that representation and who are completely in the dark. As I said, this ought to be a good programme. It should be on a voluntary basis and have all the time that it needs, but poor implementation undermines what could be a long-term programme of significance.

However, I want to focus much more on the tax powers report. I agree with all those who have raised the extraordinary issue of the denial of rights to appeal accelerated payments notices and follower notices to tax tribunals, and who totally object to the disproportionate penalties for appealing follower notices and GAAR decisions. Justice is fundamental, and I wish that HMRC would understand that and take it on board. I cannot understand the argument for extending the time limit for assessing offshore tax to 12 years. Who in their right mind keeps records for 12 years, particularly on a small property or a few shares? This is nonsensical. HMRC is merely making up for the fact that it has been lax in pursuing cases where it believes that there is something to investigate. It should not be throwing the burden of its own incompetence, I might say, on to the taxpayer.

But I want to talk mostly about the loan charge. I agree with all those who have said that it is the little people who get no understanding from HMRC. In a sense, HMRC has not recognised that this is the pool of people it is dealing with when it comes to the loan charge. Many of the people who ended up becoming self-employed did so because of outsourcing. The majority worked once for local or central government, or for bodies such as the BBC, or even for HMRC. They did not seek to become self-employed. They were told that the only way to do this particular line of work was to become self-employed. Indeed, they were told, “If you want to be recruited, this is the agency we are using. Go to them, they will provide you with the advice and mechanisms to allow you to become self-employed and continue with your job”. This goes all the way from social workers to IT contractors.

HMRC denies engagement in this process but is totally culpable. On the All-Party Parliamentary Group we heard from people who were consultants to HMRC and are now being faced with a loan charge. This is perhaps a very good example, because the individual from whom we got the most detail was told that, to work as a contractor for HMRC, they would have to go to a particular recruitment agency—which had been retained, and was presumably being supervised, by HMRC—that would provide them with various options to enable them to structure themselves as self-employed.