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

I think that the individual has made HMRC aware and happens to have an email trail, which makes the process rather easier to understand. On many of these occasions, people were not told, “You are going into a loan scheme”, or that they were going into some form of disguised remuneration. They were told that there were two or three ways in which they could structure themselves as self-employed. The word “loan” was rarely used. They were told that the advantage of scheme X—it always had a fancy name—was that the administration of it was quite simple. For many people, it was not financially particularly advantageous, because they paid a huge fee for the administration of the scheme: 18% was the standard charge. When that is added to the tax they were paying, they were not taking home more, and they had every reason to think that they were working in an approved situation.

Some people perhaps knew that one scheme was more advantageous in tax terms than another—not everybody is in the same position—but virtually everyone that we talked to said that if they had had any clue that HMRC was troubled by this, they would of course have stepped away. When they did find this out, many did step away but were then put into another scheme with similar characteristics. So we have a population here who did not understand what they were getting into. They did not intend this—and intent is significant and important when you go after people for what effectively are their life savings.

HMRC says that it understands about vulnerable customers, but there is plenty of evidence that people have now sold businesses, sold their homes or gone bankrupt. Families have split up because, I am afraid, money can become very significant in shattering a family structure, particularly when someone has to dissolve their whole pension pot to meet a very large bill that comes in over one year. Being told that it could be spread over three years is pretty meaningless because the number is so fantastically large. Many people on the receiving end of a loan charge are no longer employed and have no way to pay.

I was horrified that some of the 70 individuals who submitted evidence to the APPG—I am not sure how many—have actually been called by HMRC, with messages left on their answerphone that have been picked up by business partners and family members who had no idea that there was an issue. We need an answer about that from HMRC. I was even more shocked that on 24 April, giving evidence to the Treasury Select Committee, the Chancellor claimed that the secretariat to the APPG was partly staffed by people who were promoters of loan charge schemes, which was absolutely not true. I hope that that has been retracted by this point in time.

When I pulled these notes together—the situation now may be slightly different—only a single promoter of a loan charge scheme, Hyrax, had been successfully prosecuted, but on the grounds that it breached DOTAS rules, not because it sold the schemes to people. Indeed, it has been allowed to keep its 18% fees that were charged to users. Hyrax’s penalty appears to be a requirement that it discloses the users’ names to HMRC so that they can be pursued. On the six other promoters that HMRC has been investigating, we hear that charges will not be pursued because they did not breach DOTAS; only the users of the schemes will be pursued. As far as I know, no one has yet gone and asked the employers—which ultimately would of course include HMRC, a beneficiary of this move to outsourcing and to self-employment under tax-advantage pricing—and nor do I believe that they have yet gone to local government, to central government departments or to the various public bodies.

Surely this is a real abuse. I understand that HMRC is under extraordinary pressure, but I believe that at the decision-making level people are completely detached from those on whom they have an impact. They have very little sense of the world of contracting and self-employment, very little understanding of how people made those decisions and what their capacities and capabilities were, and very little understanding of the impact of their decisions. With a body that is responsible for implementation, it is key that that changes.

I totally support the various recommendations in these two incredibly powerful and important reports, but I hope that, in addition, the Government will now consider not just a report but a proper review of the loan charge and a minimum delay of six months in implementing. I know that it is officially implemented, but that can always be delayed. On Making Tax Digital, surely we could now initiate a delay for small businesses, look again and make sure that it is implemented properly and effectively. It could be a superb programme and it should not be undermined.