A19 – What about the vulnerable?

Not every taxpayer is professionally represented and I’d like us to spare a thought for one particular group of taxpayers who might be characterised as being vulnerable.

A proposal is being consulted on by HMRC at present which could massively disadvantage these vulnerable people under the guise of making an existing extra-statutory concession more ‘user-friendly’ – the reality is likely to be the opposite for the vulnerable.

The concession is the one known as A19 and it rose to particular prominence a couple of years ago when HMRC were first able to reconcile taxpayer records and discovered that many people, hundreds of thousands, had paid too little tax.

Newspapers led a campaign encouraging taxpayers to take advantage of this extra-statutory concession – whether they were entitled to benefit from it or not – and this is where the problem started.

A19 says, in a nutshell, that if HMRC have failed to make timely use of information provided to them, and they then try to recover tax more than a year later from taxpayers who have reason to believe that their tax affairs are in order – then there is a discretion under which the tax due is not collected.

Now in some ways the most significant part of that is the bit about belief that your affairs are in order – if you are professionally represented and you have paid too little tax you cannot really try to claim the benefit of this provision that’s why practitioners would rarely see it unless approached by a taxpayer with substantial tax demands.

However a vulnerable taxpayer is much more likely, because of their disadvantage, to have that belief and so be able to benefit from this provision – so who might we consider to be vulnerable?

One group, obviously, would be the elderly, another perhaps those who have been recently widowed where the deceased spouse may have had sole responsibility for dealing with financial matters.  Another would be those members of our society who suffer from learning disabilities of all kinds, or those suffering from a mental or physical incapacity, whether permanent or because of illness.

So what do HMRC propose and why is it a problem – and what should we, as tax professionals do about it?

They intend to remove the requirement for reasonable belief and replace it with a more objective test which recognises revenue and taxpayer responsibilities instead.

The responsibilities undertaken by HMRC are no more than what they already do, or should do, but taxpayers are expected to take an interest in and have certain responsibilities for their own taxation affairs – and it is here that the major disadvantage for the vulnerable is introduced as there is no discretion left for those who are not easily able to be involved in their own affairs.

At present the reasonable belief discretion can be applied subjectively based on the taxpayer’s personal circumstances but this cannot be done where there are objective responsibilities.

However the problems with the new proposed A19 don’t stop there.  The revenue propose time limits so that a taxpayer is expected to inform HMRC of the problem, following the issue of a P800 tax statement, within the same tax year, before the new coding is applied to collect the underpayment in the following year.

Now whilst convenient for the revenue administratively, the example they give is of a taxpayer who is issued with a statement in June and is expected to advise HMRC of the problem before the following April – seems reasonable – however as they themselves point out these documents are issued throughout the whole of the year and if one is issued in March a taxpayer may have only days to react.

Furthermore the vulnerable may not appreciate the document’s significance until the tax deduction commences in the following year, under the new rules this is too late and would deny that person the benefit of the concession.

Although the original A19 operated where at least a year’s delay in using information had occurred it also provided for exceptional circumstances and in one recent case concerning a Mr Clark the Tribunal judge observed that he had received 14 separate coding notices which were confusing and difficult to understand – even though he had been notified within the same year the Tribunal judge ruled that exceptional circumstances could be considered in isolation from the one year rule .

The new ESC A19 proposes to remove the provision concerning exceptional circumstances altogether and clearly vulnerable taxpayers will be hit by this as well.

It further proposes not to apply to CGT on the reasoning that this is operated through self assessment but it does not recognise that non self assessment taxpayers might attempt to advise HMRC of a gain, as happened in a case concerning an elderly married couple, the Henkes, some years ago.  They filled in repayment claim forms R40 and attempted on this form to notify the revenue – at that time the form R40 advised that if there was a gain to report the revenue would send a form R40(CG) – although this had ceased to exist with the introduction of self assessment.

The local district sent them a self assessment capital gains form SA108 as a standalone document which was not acceptable unless accompanied by a return.  The tribunal ruled with reluctance that no return had been made so that a discovery assessment could be raised.  But this would be a situation where revenue discretion could be applied – not any longer!

Practitioners may not feel that this is very relevant to them but in the interests of the vulnerable I think we should ALL of us take part in this consultation and make it clear to the revenue  how unacceptable it is not to make adequate provision for the vulnerable – because the vulnerable will not be able to make these representations themselves.

Mind you this isn’t the only mean-spirited announcement by the revenue recently – they have just announced the interest rates that may be applied to Save As You Earn Share Option Schemes – these used to be a very popular way of employees saving with a tax-free return that was in total better than a PEP or an ISA which could be used, if the employee chose, to take up share options which employers could issue at a discount of up to 20%.  It was risk-free because if the shares went down in value there was no obligation to take up the options simply benefit from the tax-free savings rate.

For some time now shorter term contracts – those for three years and five years  – offered a zero return but the seven year contract offered a bonus of 1.6 times a monthly payment, equivalent to an interest rate of 0.58% – from 1 August 2012 this becomes – ZERO as well.