Finance: Travellers ensnared by Revenue's red tape

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The Independent Culture
In its efforts to close tax loopholes, the Inland Revenue issued a pronouncement on travel and subsistence expenses earlier this month. The trouble is, writes Roger Trapp, that at 100 pages long it fuels controversy over unnecessary tax complications.

If there is a single Holy Grail for those in the business of providing tax advice it is simple and succinct legislation.

For years now, prominent members of the profession have been complaining about the sheer scale of the law with which they have to grapple in order to prevent their clients giving the tax man more than his fair due. But throughout that time the problem has been getting worse, as successive Chancellors have sought to clamp down on what they see as expensive (in terms of lost revenue) tax-avoidance wheezes.

The Inland Revenue's latest pronouncement on the outwardly dull but - to tax specialists - highly-charged issue of travel and subsistence expenses is a case in point. It runs to more than 100 pages.

The explanation, as a number of leading firms have pointed out in the days since the report came out earlier this month, is that it is "a complex area affecting many people in different ways". And yet one cannot help feeling that the gist of the matter - which basically comes down to the circumstances in which an individual can claim expenses for tax purposes when visiting premises other than his or her office - could be encapsulated with rather less adverse effect on the world's forests.

Tax professionals have broadly welcomed the Revenue's move - while pointing out that the proposed new rules to be contained in this year's Finance Act need careful scrutiny by employers who might be put off by the length. The welcome is because the proposals amount to a climbdown on the part of the Revenue.

As accountants from Price Waterhouse stress, this is the culmination of "a long process of consultation" that began in 1996. Last year's Finance Act introduced what were widely regarded as rather draconian rules on the treatment of expenses incurred through employees travelling in connection with their work. But in September, the Revenue signalled the introduction of a more practical system by removing the requirement for employers to deduct "ordinary commuting savings" from travel expense claims. And now the organisation has come up with extensive guidance that will, for example, improve the position of people on secondment from their normal place of work but travel from place to place - their travel and subsistence will not be taxable if the situation is not expected to last more than two years.

However, Anne Redston, tax partner with accountants Ernst & Young, pointed out that although employees will generally be able to claim the cost of all business travel other than from home to work, the new rules were likely to put some employees under increased Revenue scrutiny. Those, such as salespeople or field engineers, who work an area but visit an office regularly form one group, while another, increasingly large category, covers home- based employees. "The onus will be on employers to negotiate the position with their local tax inspector," she says. "With home working becoming increasingly popular in the UK, this is an area that needs urgent attention."

But while it is perhaps regrettable that the tax authorities are a little out of step with developments in employment practices, it is rather more worrying that they feel this is an area open to widespread abuse that needs a lot of complex rules to control.

Nothing better illustrates this thinking than the decision to rule that no tax relief is available for costs incurred if the client or customer is within 10 miles of the employee's normal place of work. As Matthew Ellis, senior manager in PW's employment tax services team, says: "I can see they are trying to stop people calling in somewhere adjacent to the office and pretending it's a business journey, but an arbitrary 10-mile limit will affect a lot of London-based people travelling to contacts elsewhere in London."

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