David Gauke responds to a debate following an e-petition on tax reporting for small businesses.
The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I thank all Members who participated in the debate. I was struck by its measured tone and the many sensible inquiries made. I hope to respond to as many of them as possible.
Before I do that, may I add to those words said by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden) my own words of tribute to Lord Parkinson and of condolence to his family, following the announcement of his death today? I was fortunate enough to meet Cecil Parkinson a number of times in my years as a Member of Parliament and I was struck by his warmth and generosity of spirit. He will be greatly missed by both Houses of Parliament.
We have had a useful and helpful debate in which many points were raised. I am grateful for the opportunity to dispel some of the myths that I think exist with regard to the policy and to provide greater clarity where I can. This is an important policy and it is important that we get it right for small businesses. I would particularly like to thank the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise, my right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who was present for much of the debate.
I would also like to thank all those who took the time to respond to the petition. I hope that as many people engage in the consultations on the reforms that HMRC will launch later this year. The Government have always been on the side of businesses that help to create long-term, sustainable economic growth. That is why we have lowered the rate of corporation tax, increased the investment allowance and helped our companies expand into new markets. We believe in competitive tax, simple tax, and tax that is paid.
Before I say a few words about what is changing and why, I would like to make clear what “Making tax digital” is not and address some of the concerns raised by businesses. First, to respond to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere at the beginning of the debate some hours ago, this transformation does not—I repeat “not”—mean four tax returns a year, but, by 2020, most businesses will be keeping track of their tax affairs digitally, updating HMRC at least quarterly via their digital tax account.
Quarterly updates will not involve the complexity of a full tax return, where the business, or its agent, has to gather together and manually input data on to an electronic or paper form and then perform various calculations. Instead, updates will be generated from digital records and, in most cases, little or no further entry of information will be needed. It will be much quicker, easier and far less burdensome than the current process. The agony of the annual tax return will be a thing of the past.
Sammy Wilson: If the information required will not be the detail required in the end-of-year tax return, what value will there be in the calculations made? If the aim is to give certainty to taxpayers about what they are likely to owe but the information is not substantial enough to work that out, what value does it have? How will that enable people to keep account of their tax affairs, as the Minister described it?
Mr Gauke: That is a fair question. The hon. Gentleman raised that point in his remarks and there is a distinction between the nature of the information provided. Whereas a full return can be complex, the update will be based on business records that are already being recorded.
There will be one process for both business and tax purposes, which will involve a summary of income and expenses.
The hon. Gentleman asks what is the use of the data and how will they be helpful. First, keeping records digitally will reduce error, partly because that will be done on a more timely basis. Secondly, the data will allow HMRC to focus its attention on the small minority of small businesses that are evading their taxes, and not on those who are trying to get it right. One must also bear it in mind that the software will help taxpayers identify any errors in the information they provide. One of the key benefits permitted by a more digital approach is that errors can be spotted earlier by the taxpayers themselves.
I reassure the House that HMRC does not intend to increase interventions on the basis of quarterly updates. On the contrary: HMRC is seeking to reduce error at source and so reduce the need for interventions. It is the case that by keeping records in real time instead of processing paperwork at the year end, businesses are less likely to lose receipts or make basic accounting errors.
I confirm that the proposal applies to large businesses—it is not exclusively for smaller businesses. On whether the software will work, let me point out that there are already six free products on the market and we expect there to be more as small software firms innovate to meet business needs. Such firms are clearly keen to engage and produce new products and services—we see that in the growth of apps—and already 30,000 small businesses have downloaded free record-keeping apps suited to all varieties of devices, whether tablets or smartphones.
One point that came up repeatedly and which was made by the hon. Member for East Lothian (George Kerevan) was that we are rushing this through. Let me reassure him and others that the Major Projects Authority has examined the plans and that it views them as deliverable. However, neither the Treasury nor HMRC are complacent, and we do understand that there are challenges, and I will pick up on some of them. However, it is worth noting that this is a five-year roll-out. We are engaging in substantial consultation this year. The piloting and testing of the technology and the various processes will then follow.
Phone calls were mentioned on a number of occasions. I said in the main Chamber earlier this afternoon that HMRC’s performance in January, which is traditionally a busy month, because of the self-assessment deadline, has been at a very high level. The last number I saw, which was for last week, suggested that 89% of calls were being answered and that the average waiting time is four minutes, which, it would be fair to say, is better than the historic norm for HMRC.
It is worth pointing out that the overall £1.3 billion package of investment for HMRC will allow more of its customers—not just businesses, but individuals—to go online, thus reducing calls. In addition, HMRC gets many calls about information that will in future appear in taxpayers’ digital accounts. For example, people call to find out their reference number or to chase a refund, and digital accounts will take out a large number of those calls. As I said, call centre performance is now also much improved.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) raised the issue of sanctions. We will consult on the sanctions that will be appropriate in a digital environment. Penalties and other sanctions will not be the same as those that apply now to end-of-year returns. We will want the new process to bed in before we turn on any sanctions. There is no plan to penalise those who try to comply. I point hon. Members to HMRC’s record on the introduction of real-time information. There was a careful and measured approach to penalising people, and only deliberate non-compliance resulted in sanctions while the system was being introduced.
A couple of hon. Members asked whether quarterly updates will be required to take account of accounting adjustments for stock and work in progress, which are currently made only once a year. Detailed issues such as the allocation of capital allowances and the counting of stock levels will be addressed through consultation. I stress that all allowances, deductions and reliefs that are currently annual will remain so. Of course, for the many businesses that use cash accounting, that is much less of an issue, but I recognise that it is an issue for some businesses. Again, for issues such as work in progress, we are not requiring information quarterly.
Concerns were raised about payment. No decision has yet been made about changing payment dates. In December, alongside the “Making tax digital” road map, we published a discussion paper on options to simplify the payment of taxes. An initial consultation will take place shortly, with a further, full consultation to take place later this year.
My hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris), who does so much for the self-employed in the role he plays for the Government, raised the issue of payments following quarterly updates. Again, I stress that no decision has yet been made about changing payment dates.
Questions about how the changes will affect seasonal businesses will be addressed through this year’s consultation. Businesses trading seasonally may be due a tax refund in-year. If they update HMRC more frequently than they do now, that will allow HMRC to assess them for such a refund, so there may be a financial benefit for them. Let me also stress that the quarterly update will be based on actual information, not forecasts. I hope that that provides some reassurance.
In terms of implementation, I reassure hon. Members that we will carry out extensive testing. Roll-out to businesses will take place when the process and the design are known to work.
I touched on cash accounting earlier. About 2 million businesses operate on a cash basis and do not need to account for work in progress, stock and so on. For others, updates will provide an increasingly accurate picture through the year. However, direct taxes will remain annual taxes, so some adjustments will need to be made at the end of the year. That should, however, be less of a task than the traditional annual tax return, because much of the information will already have been pulled together.
Chris Leslie: I am trying to envisage what the Minister is discussing, because there is still quite a lot here that is open to consultation. Data on income and expenses would be supplied through these quarterly updates, but we might not necessarily be able to get rid of the annual return, which might still be necessary because of tax reliefs and so forth.
Yes, people could be doing these things five times a year—there would be one big final return and these updates along the way. Are we getting rid of the annual tax return or not?
Mr Gauke: The traditional annual tax return, we can get rid of. What I am saying is that, rather than starting largely from scratch and pulling all the information together, businesses that need to make adjustments at the end of the year will have already done much of that work. Now, as I say, the tax system remains an annual system, and one needs to be able to look at the year as a whole for things such as capital allowances. However, it is worth bearing it in mind that the capital expenditure of the vast majority—something like 98%—of businesses would fall within the annual investment allowance of £200,000, so that is not necessarily too much of an issue for them. However, I understand the point about work in progress.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to make the point that there is still quite a lot to consult on. Sometimes, I fear that we are criticised both for rushing things, charging in and not listening and for things being a bit vague because we are still consulting on them, and there is a certain mutually exclusive element to those criticisms. However, the sense of direction is clear, and it is right that we consult on the details.
Rob Marris: May I gently tell the Minister that the problem, rightly or wrongly, is that it has not been clear to many observers what the Government have been consulting on?
Mr Gauke: I think the information has always been out there, but we are where we are, and I am grateful to have an opportunity to set out where we are consulting. If the hon. Gentleman likes, I can set out some of the communication that has already been done. There are issues we are consulting on, but I believe that the direction is absolutely right.
The hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) asked about the cost of the proposal. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Rob Marris) asked about the cost to business and the publication of an impact assessment. As with any other tax measure, a detailed assessment of the impact on administrative burdens will be published alongside draft legislation, and that is expected to be in December 2016. That assessment will be informed by prior consultation of affected businesses. HMRC anticipates producing an initial draft impact assessment alongside the formal consultation process, which starts in the spring.
Sammy Wilson: Will the Minister give way?
Mr Gauke: I will, although I was about to respond to one of the hon. Gentleman’s points. Let us see whether it is the same one.
Sammy Wilson: Perhaps it is this very point. The Minister has told us the kind of information that will be required in the quarterly returns and the calculations that will be done. Will that give taxpayers an indication at the end of each quarter of what tax HMRC expects from them, and will it have to be paid quarterly?
Mr Gauke: As I said a moment ago, we are looking at the issue of payments, which I appreciate is a potentially vexed one. We are not rushing into that. We are consulting on it, but it is not part of the proposal announced at the autumn statement. The new arrangement will provide more information. Indeed, one benefit is that it will give a better indication to businesses of what tax they owe when it is due. That will be an advantage to businesses, which I think they will appreciate. However, we have not made any decisions on payments.
The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and other hon. Members raised the subject of broadband. I will come back to the issue of people who cannot make use of digital, but I want to respond on broadband, as it is a key point. Through the Government’s £1.7 billion investment programme, we are on track to deliver superfast broadband to 95% of premises by 2017. The Prime Minister announced at the end of last year that we are looking to implement an updated broadband universal service obligation for those not covered by the superfast plans. Industry are also set to roll out 4G mobile connectivity to 98% of UK premises well ahead of the 2017 obligation, through Ofcom’s regulatory spectrum licensing conditions.
In every walk of life, people are embracing the digital revolution. From shopping for groceries to making a GP appointment online or paying invoices at any time of day or night, millions of us benefit from digital services daily. Businesses, too, are harnessing the opportunities of the digital age to transform fundamentally their operations and the services they provide, with customers reaping the benefits. It is only right that the Government keep pace with the world around us. That is why we are seeking to transform HMRC into one of the most digitally advanced tax administrations in the world. “Making tax digital” is at the heart of those plans. At the spending review, the Chancellor announced a £1.3 billion investment in HMRC to make that vision a reality. That will see the end of the annual tax return and, in its place, the introduction of simple, secure and personalised digital tax accounts for businesses and individuals.
Importantly, the changes will deliver what businesses and individuals have told us they need. In particular, many businesses have said they want more certainty about their tax bill and do not want to wait until the end of the year, or often longer, to find out how much they have to pay. Businesses have also said they want tax returns to be more integrated into the way they run their business, rather than something done separately and many months later. The use of digital tools—accounting software or smartphone apps—will, for the first time, create that desired integration.
Businesses will be able to see in their digital account what each update means for their tax position as the year goes by. That will also make it easier for businesses to understand how much tax they owe, giving them far more certainty about their tax position and helping them to budget, invest and grow. Beyond helping businesses to get their taxes right, making tax digital will also help them to improve and develop their business. Targeted guidance and alerts will make them aware of relevant entitlements and reliefs or wider Government services to support business growth.
Apart from the modernisation of business practices, there is another important prize that we cannot ignore. Each year, around £6.5 billion of tax goes unpaid because of mistakes made by small businesses when preparing and filling in their tax returns. These reforms will improve the quality of record keeping, reducing the likelihood of mistakes and contributing £920 million in additional revenue to the Exchequer by 2020, then £600 million a year thereafter. The alternative would be to stick to a system where taxpayers take out 18-month-old records, stare at them for a while as they try to figure out what they were doing then and tentatively use them to fill in a lengthy HMRC form, or drop on to their accountant’s desk a large carrier bag of records—
Rob Marris: Or a shoe box.
Mr Gauke: —or, indeed, a shoe box, and bear the expense of having the accountant do the job. The taxpayer then pays their final tax bill on money made up to 21 months previously. It is a system designed for a world of paper and bookkeeping, in the literal sense, and it is not tenable in the 21st century.
I do not, however, underestimate the scale of changes that making tax digital represents for businesses and their agents, in particular the transition to digital record keeping. I also make no apologies for the scale of our ambition. With the Government and local authorities investing £1.7 billion to bring superfast broadband to over 95% of the UK by 2017, these changes are possible. As I said, the Prime Minister has announced that we are looking to implement an updated broadband universal service obligation for those not covered by the superfast plans. Equally, I acknowledge the concerns raised about the pace of the reforms. Similar concerns were raised about online filing and real-time information. However, HMRC’s impressive track record in implementing those changes speaks for itself. Working with interested parties, we can match that success.
Some have suggested that the reforms should be introduced on a voluntary basis, rather than requiring businesses to make the change. A voluntary approach would cost the same but deliver only a fraction of the benefits for business and the Exchequer. In the current fiscal environment, without the additional revenue generated by closing the tax gap, we could not have provided the £1.3 billion investment required to transform services for all taxpayers.
Some have said that it is overly ambitious to rely on digital as the primary channel. The fact is that we are going with the grain of the way small businesses are already moving. The benefits of digitisation are readily accepted by the majority of small and medium-sized organisations. While there has been plenty of debate—a lot of it online—about the challenges, I am heartened see that many businesses and their agents are already forging ahead. Already, 2 million small and medium-sized businesses are using software for their payroll and VAT.
I am, however, equally focused on ensuring there is support for those who need it. The Government have already said they will ensure that free software products are available to businesses with the most straightforward tax affairs. Some—a very small minority—will be unable to adopt digital tools due to geography, personal disability or other circumstances. In those cases, help will be provided. There is no question of forcing those who genuinely cannot go digital to do so. We will consult with business and representative bodies to understand fully who cannot get online and what support they need, and we will ensure we provide alternatives, such as telephone filing.
We want the reforms to provide the maximum benefit for business and the UK. We are already talking to a wide range of businesses, agents, software developers and professional bodies, and a wide-ranging consultation exercise will start in the spring. We are introducing the reforms gradually and not phasing them in fully until 2020 because we know how important it is to give taxpayers time to adapt. We are using volunteers to stress-test new services, so that we can be confident the new services work before they are rolled out.
If we get this right, the benefits will be considerable. We will reduce burdens on business, reduce the tax gap and bring tax administration well and truly into the digital age. These important changes will boost economic growth, so I urge hon. Members to support our reforms to make tax digital.