Friday, 25 January 2013

More Sunlight Needed On Perverse Tax Incentives

Our continuing economic woes seem to reveal a UK Treasury that has lost touch with the fundamental tax and regulatory problems in the UK economy and is unwilling to engage openly and proactively on how to resolve them.

Not only did the Treasury lose any grip it had on the financial system when it mattered most during the last decade, but the rocky passage of the Financial Services Bill and the need to create a joint parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards also reveal that any such grip remains elusive. This, coupled with the UK's bizarrely complicated system of stealth taxes and incentives, demonstrates the urgent need for more transparency and openness in how the Treasury is going about the task of addressing our economic issues.

The latest example comes with the news that the government might revisit the bizarre decision to delay the revaluation of business rates, which are still based on the higher rental values of 2008. The task of setting business rates every five years lies buried in the Valuation Office Agency, an 'executive agency' of HM Revenue and Customs within HM Treasury. So it's nicely insulated from anyone who might complain about the impact of the rather occasional exercise of its responsibility. Instead, businesses have complained to Vince Cable, over at Business Innovation and Skills, and he's bravely (insanely?) promised to do what he can. However, the hermetically sealed nature of civil service silos means the Valuation Office Agency can safely ignore the issue.

Anyone else afflicted by perverse public sector tax issues faces the same problem. 

UK-based retailers are wasting their time by complaining they are disadvantaged compared to international businesses that are better able to minimise their tax liabilities. Not only is this a welcome distraction from the bigger issue of how the public sector wastes money, (which the Cabinet Office has been left to address), but the Treasury hides behind BIS, no doubt laughing-off the complaints as an example of businesses not understanding how the arcane world of taxation really works. The trouble is the Treasury doesn't understand how that world really works either. Nobody does. That was the whole point of Gordon Brown's stealth approach to taxation. But this should be no excuse for the department that's supposed to be in charge. The Treasury needs to take responsibility for understanding and explaining how it all works, including the unintended consequences.

Similarly, the Treasury needs to take responsibility for the fact that the UK's small businesses face a funding gap of £26bn - £52bn over the next 5 years. Here, again, BIS has had to act as a human shield, even threatening to launch its own 'bank'. Yet HMT has allowed four major banks to get away with controlling 90% of the small business finance market while only dedicating 10% of the credit they issue to productive firms. This, despite the fact that small businesses represent 99.9% of all UK enterprises, are responsible for 60% of private sector employment and are a critical factor in the UK's economic growth which has slipped into reverse yet again. Meanwhile, the Treasury continues to resist allowing a broader range of assets to qualify for the ISA scheme, which currently incentivises workers to concentrate their savings into low yield deposits with the same banks that are turning away from small business lending just when it's needed most.

More sunlight please!

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