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UK budget – will it be a whimper or a bang?

15 November 2017

Joe Stanley-Smith

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Ahead of next week’s UK budget, beleaguered British Chancellor Philip Hammond is said to be considering a major VAT overhaul, and other tax measures targeting large online businesses like Amazon and Uber. But he could be cautious to avoid controversy and potentially keep his job.

In his November 22 budget statement, Hammond could announce a cut in the VAT registration threshold for businesses as part of his VAT plans, which was recommended by the Office of Tax Simplification (OTS) in a recent report.

Drastically reducing the UK’s VAT registration threshold for small businesses – which stands at an unusually high £85,000 ($111,000) – would be unpopular but it would raise £2 billion per year for the UK if it is dropped to £25,000.

"The high UK threshold relieves the administrative burden of VAT compliance for small businesses," said David McDonnell, VAT director at MHA MacIntyre Hudson. "It also creates very real net savings in not having to charge and account for VAT on income."

"One of findings of a review by the OTS was that, perhaps unsurprisingly, there are a large number of business 'bunched’ just below the VAT registration threshold, with a significant fall off in businesses trading just above the threshold," he added.

Lowering or eradicating the VAT threshold could increase revenues for the government, but also complicate business practices. Conversely, by significantly increasing the threshold, doing business would become easier, but government revenues may suffer.

"In the challenging pre-Brexit environment they may decide to keep the status quo, for now at least," said McDonnell. "But the issue is now firmly on the agenda and we shouldn’t be surprised if the chancellor acts quickly to shake things up."

The chancellor is shouldering extraordinary political, fiscal, media and economic pressure as the UK battles with a budget deficit the government had promised to eliminate years ago, monumental changes to its finances and tax system from Brexit, and a customs system which is unprepared to trade with the EU as a third country.

"I can’t remember – ever – a chancellor being under this much pressure… so many rocks, so many hard places," said George Bull, senior tax partner at RSM UK. "He might just go for broke."

One senior government official told UK newspaper The Sunday Times: "This budget has got to be big, it’s got to be powerful, it’s got to be revolutionary", adding that "people are very clear that it is basically the last chance" for Hammond.

However, Hammond has a reputation for being cautious, both politically and fiscally, and after being roundly criticised from all angles for his spring budget he is reticent and may be reluctant to make major changes.

Hammond backed the Brexit campaign to remain in the EU, so if he loses his job following a budget perceived as poor – and it almost certainly will be portrayed as so in the media – a Brexit-backing colleague could take his place. Many fear this would jeopardise the economy further.

Further VAT changes – 'split payment method’

The chancellor is likely to announce a new measure, or at least the results of a consultation, aimed at establishing alternative methods of collecting VAT on goods bought from online companies such as Amazon and eBay.

The UK revenue authority, HMRC, could be empowered to extract VAT directly from transactions at the point of purchase, assuming that the sales price on the marketplaces includes VAT. Under this method, banks or the marketplaces themselves would withhold the cash on HMRC’s behalf.

In this situation, "the UK government will automatically collect VAT from [such companies] on the assumption that they should be paying VAT", said Brad Ashton, an indirect tax partner at RSM.

Likely corporate tax changes

The budget is likely to be fairly quiet on corporate tax. Hammond’s predecessor, George Osborne, had publicly expressed his desire to lower the UK’s corporate tax rate – which stood at 30% just 10 years ago – to 15%, and the rate is currently 19% and scheduled to fall to 17% in 2020.

While the UK corporate tax receipts have reached record levels despite the falling rates – many argue that the two are linked, others attribute the increase to the BEPS project – Hammond will want public finances on a solid footing ahead of Brexit and is unlikely to cut corporate tax further. The rate is already competitive, as within the EU only Ireland and Hungary having lower rates.

Trouble in paradise for personal income tax?

One area where we can expect to hear Hammond talking tough is on tax avoidance. The Paradise Papers, released by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists on November 5, have angered many members of the public as it appears that the wealthy – or the '1%’ – are paying less tax than they should.

Almost all of the activity revealed in the Paradise Papers is, of course, legal. But don’t expect this to stop Hammond condemning such practices in strong terms to ensure he appears strong on the issue.

He is facing political pressure from opponents such as Labour MP Margaret Hodge, former chair of the UK Public Accounts Committee, who said Hammond should use the budget to "compel our overseas territories and crown dependencies to publish public registers showing us who owns what and where".

"The Paradise Papers showed us that the problems created by secrecy are much bigger and more complex than we ever thought possible," she added. "That’s why we need to legislate for transparency in our tax havens."

It’s unlikely that he’ll make significant changes to legislation in this area, though, but we can reasonably expect some movement on rules governing payments and benefits made from offshore trusts intended for UK-resident individuals in some situations. On the whole, most legal practices evident in the Paradise Papers will remain legal.

"The top 1% are paying approximately 27.1% of all income tax, however the perception is they’re getting away with low taxes," said Gary Heynes, head of the private client practice at RSM in the UK. "Most people are already caught by existing rules – the exception is non-doms."

"There’s enough legislation around offshore," he added.

More likely to be announced in the budget are changes to employee business expenses, for which the government called for evidence in the spring budget 2017. Employer-provided accommodation will likely be subject to a call for evidence as no rules were changed in the spring following an announcement in the previous autumn budget 2016.

Also likely to be announced, or released are an examination, is legislation on partnership taxation, rent-a-room relief, and rules to address fraud on labour provision in the construction sector. Measures against disguised remuneration-avoidance schemes are also likely following a number of high-profile cases, such as the Rangers judgment.

The gig economy and the Taylor Review

Another area of personal taxation where it’s possible the government will make changes is national insurance contributions for the self-employed.

The Taylor Review, released in July, suggested big changes to the UK tax system to ensure that it keeps pace with modern working practices – i.e. the 'gig economy’ – and recommended that digital tools for the self-employed and gig economy businesses be included in HMRC’s Making Tax Digital programme and, more drastically, overhauling the tax system to influence behaviours and address the hidden economy.

It’s doubtful that the Treasury, grappling with hundreds of Brexit-related tasks, has had time to come up with a meaningful plan in this regard, but Hammond could set the ball rolling.

The potential for tax changes is high in next week’s budget, but the question is whether Hammond will deliver or disappoint. 






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