Trading and property allowances

Finance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 17th October 2017.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 21, in schedule 3, page 155, line 15, at end insert—

“Chapter 3

Review of chapters 1 and 2

(1) Prior to 30 June 2020, the Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs shall complete a review of the operation of the provisions of this Part.

(2) The review shall consider in particular—

(a) the use and effects of full relief,

(b) the use and effects of partial relief,

(c) the use of relief in relation to trading income, and

(d) the use of relief in relation to property income.

(3) The review shall compare the effects on the Exchequer in each of the first two years of its operation with the effects forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility at the time of—

(a) the 2016 Budget, and

(b) the 2016 Autumn Statement.

(4) The Chancellor of the Exchequer shall lay a report of the review under this section before the House of Commons as soon as practicable after its completion.”

This amendment would require HMRC to undertake a review of the operation of the new trading and property allowances in the first two relevant tax years.

That schedule 3 be the Third schedule to the Bill.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.

I appreciate that the strictures of Finance Bill procedure commonly give rise to the overwhelming excitement of review amendments, so I ask the Committee to withhold its lack of surprise that amendment 21 would introduce yet another review. The Government’s sensible stated aim in introducing the allowance is to recognise that many taxpayers no longer fit within a neat and simple model of PAYE-only income or self-assessment-only income. We all recognise that that is the reality, but we should not get too carried away by the idea that online hobby trading is an entirely new activity triggered by the advent of the online sharing economy; I suspect it is more like old wine in new skins. Spending a weekend repairing a few clocks as a hobby and then selling them on eBay for extra income on the side is not an entirely new phenomenon. People 20 years ago did the same through car boot sales, antique fairs or classified ads; this is just a modern version.

Modernising the tax system to recognise the multiple sources of income that taxpayers may now receive is sensible, but we should not always imagine that the problems that we are trying to solve are entirely new, nor should we make too hasty a stab in the dark for solutions. The Association of Taxation Technicians says that, as drafted, the provisions discriminate against individuals who, in addition to having the type of microbusiness to which the trading allowance is intended to apply, also have a sole trader business which cannot benefit from the trading allowance. In that situation, the provisions prevent the microbusiness from qualifying for the trading allowance. The ATT’s concern is that the allowance is potentially discriminatory.

The Government state that the aim of the allowance is to provide

“simplicity and certainty regarding Income Tax obligations on small amounts of income from providing goods, services, property or other assets…and to help the UK become leaders in the digital and sharing economy”, but it could easily end up creating new complications for taxpayers, or lead inadvertently to perverse incentives. The Chartered Institute of Taxation’s low incomes tax reform group welcomes the aim of the measures, but has said that it is

“very concerned that unrepresented low-earners will struggle to understand some of the more complex rules, especially if they have overlap profits, more than one trade or source of income or have not elected, as often will be the case, to use the cash basis of accounting.”

Its concerns stem especially from the fact that this relief’s intended group of users is less likely to engage professional accountants or other advisers. As a result of the complications involved in having to choose a particular accounting basis or work out the types of income that apply, the allowance may fail to benefit that group of users. It may instead become yet another strand in the complex web of allowances that professional advisers throw into the mix when helping their clients to avoid tax.

Photo of Anneliese Dodds Anneliese Dodds Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s comments about the role of personal advisers; the same point came up this morning. Moreover, has not HMRC’s online system for calculating the taxes payable on relatively small amounts of income already been found wanting? As a result of the interaction between the four different allowances—personal savings, tax-free dividend income, the savings starting rate and the personal allowance—individuals have become liable for more tax than they should have to pay, because the online system is not calibrated appropriately. In theory, the new provision is meant to obviate the need to declare income for those purposes, but does my hon. Friend not agree that it must be designed carefully to avoid the flaws that affect people with small incomes who qualify for the allowances?

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury 2:45 pm, 17th October 2017

My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head; that is an excellent forensic point that the Minister will have heard, and will, I hope, take up, especially in relation to our amendment.

The potential problems might be still bigger in the case of property income where the new relief interacts with existing schemes such as rent-a-room relief. Taxpayers will need to work out which relief applies before determining whether and how they need to make a self-assessment return. Although I am confident that the Minister is genuine in his desire to help more people get on the right side and make the right declarations for their taxes, I worry that the added complexity could easily put off more people from making the correct declaration. I suspect that none of us wants that, including him, because it is not particularly sensible. In many cases, it will not be due to anyone’s desire for dishonesty; it will be because taxpayers used to operating only within pay-as-you-earn will be confronted with a confusion of options in considering how they must declare to HMRC.

The Low Incomes Tax Reform Group has rightly highlighted the complications that might arise for lower-income households. The new reliefs might free taxpayers from the need to declare very small amounts to HMRC, but will not have the same effect of releasing their obligations to account to the Department for Work and Pensions if they are universal credit claimants. Those are the households that would benefit most from simplification, rather than finding themselves subject to the most bewildering requirements to account to the state. I do not wish to waylay the Committee with the ongoing issue of universal credit implementation, as we will undoubtedly have a debate about that tomorrow, but the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group highlights a fair point: so-called simplifications involving tax and social security can sometimes have the opposite effect on those expected to use them. I think that we have all witnessed that to a greater or lesser degree.

Our amendment proposes an HMRC review, to report by 2020, of the use of the reliefs and the resulting effects on the Exchequer. I know that the inclination is to resist all Opposition amendments, but I can see little cause to resist this one. Inevitably, just like other measures discussed earlier, the reliefs will be revisited, unpicked, reworked and recalibrated in future Budgets. Sensible and calm review by HMRC must be in the interests of everybody involved.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle. It is said that Britain has more accountants per head of population than any other country, probably because the complexity of our tax system means that we all need to use one. However, in this situation, as he said, the amounts involved might be small, and the cost of an accountant might be quite high. That could deter people from using accountants, getting them into more difficulty.

Is there not a case for a proper review by HMRC, which knows the score because it deals with such things on a daily basis? HMRC could advise the Government on introducing appropriate changes that would simplify the tax system as well as helping those who would benefit from tax reliefs in a more practical and pragmatic way.

Photo of Mel Stride Mel Stride Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Paymaster General

Clause 17 and schedule 3 introduce two new tax allowances so that, from April 2017, individuals with gross trading or property income below £1,000 no longer have to declare or pay tax on that income. Digital platforms are allowing more and more people to supplement their income by sharing property, resources, time and skills. It is perhaps a rather more rapidly growing segment than the hon. Member for Bootle recognised. The UK is a world leader in the sharing economy; a report by PwC shows that the UK sharing economy has grown at the fastest pace in Europe, with transactions worth about £7.4 billion in 2015. This is expected to grow to £140 billion in 2025.

As the economy changes, the tax system should keep pace. For this reason the Government want to support the sharing economy and ensure that the tax system is not burdensome for those making small amounts of income, whether through selling goods, providing services or renting out their property. This could include those advertising their plumbing services through an online platform or those renting out a driveway space, for example. The changes made by clause 17 will introduce two new income tax allowances so that the individuals with gross trading or property income below £1,000 will no longer have to declare or pay tax on that income. Many individuals engaging in these activities on a small scale are not aware of their tax obligations. The new allowances make these obligations clear and straightforward, providing much needed clarity for people making small levels of extra income.

The trading allowance will also include miscellaneous income from providing assets or services, creating certainty for individuals, who will not have to understand tax case law to determine whether their activities should be taxed as a trade. The Government estimate that at least 700,000 individuals could benefit from the allowances. Over three quarters of these are basic rate taxpayers who could save up to £400 in income tax each year.

The Opposition raised a number of points. One was the lack of availability of this allowance to those who are already making self-assessments to HMRC, because they are already sole traders. Part of the reason for that is to ensure that we do not have any diversion of activity from those individuals’ general work arrangements into this scheme driven solely by an attempt to lower taxation. The point has been made about the importance of simplicity in the scheme. Certain aspects of the scheme clearly make it simple: people with that kind of income are not required to make a submission to HMRC, and there is a “miscellaneous” category of income that can address the complications around whether this is trading income—“miscellaneous” is quite a wide-ranging term.

The hon. Member for Bootle raised a fair point on rent-a-room tax relief arrangements; that is why HMRC’s efforts in detailing its guidance on the gov.uk website are so important. All the allowances will be very carefully explained. The guidance is being prepared alongside representative bodies and will include clear, step-by-step explanations and a number of examples, so it will be very easy for people to follow exactly how the arrangements work. Support will also be available via the HMRC helpline.

Amendment 21 would require HMRC to complete a review of the cost and effectiveness of the allowances by 2020 and the effects on the Exchequer in each of the first two years. Such a review is unnecessary. As I have set out, the two new allowances ensure that the tax system is not burdensome for those making small amounts of income. Their effect will be to support the enormous contribution that the sharing economy is making to the UK economy, while simplifying the tax system to support the job creators of the future. As there is no need for taxpayers to declare this income to HMRC, any review would impose a disproportionate burden on taxpayers and be inconsistent with the core rationale for the reliefs. In addition, the Bill also includes specific clauses designed to prevent abuse, and HMRC will carefully monitor the reliefs to ensure that they work as intended. I therefore urge the Committee to resist this amendment.

The two new tax allowances will help micro-entrepreneurs by removing complexity and uncertainty for those wanting to earn small amounts of extra income. There will be no forms to fill in and no tax to pay. It is a tax break for the digital age, furthering the Government’s commitment to simplify the tax system and help the UK become a global leader in the digital and sharing economy. I therefore commend the clause to the Committee.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

We will not press the amendment to a vote but the Minister acknowledges, de facto, that the economy and the world of work is changing fast. There are so many developments out there—apps, online, the whole kit and caboodle—which is all the more reason for the Government to keep on top of this issue. That is why we want the review, because the world changes so quickly.

Photo of Ruth George Ruth George Labour, High Peak

Obviously, universal credit is being rolled out. That will be a particular detriment to people on very low incomes who are self-employed, because they will be deemed to earn the minimum wage on 35 hours a week throughout the year: around £13,600.

If their actual income is below that at the moment, they can receive tax credits and are eligible to apply if they have children and a family. Under universal credit, they will not be able to receive such payments, though they may be liable for tax. That is another reason why a review after the roll-out of universal credit would be particularly useful, to see the impact on the self-employed and people with microbusinesses.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. This is not quite as simple as the Minister would like us to believe, although I am not suggesting that he is trying to cajole us into it. The bottom line is that we will not push this to a vote today but we hope that the Minister takes into account the views we have expressed. If he does not wish to take account of our views, I exhort him to consider those of at least the two organisations that sent us documentation on the matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 17 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 3 agreed to.

Clause 18