News: Tax umpire calls 'Out!' on rent-a-room racket

Revenue to clamp down on undeclared rental income; telemarketing firms brought to book; new plans to avert pension crisis
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The Independent Online

The taxman is to clamp down on the dodgers by checking letting adverts for spare rooms during the next fortnight's Wimbledon tennis tournament.

Homeowners who live in London SW19 - as well as other areas close to the summer's big sporting events or festivals - can earn thousands of pounds by renting out a spare room to accommodate the seasonal influx of visitors.

The Inland Revenue's rent-a-room tax relief scheme lets homeowners receive up to £4,250 annually without the taxman having any claim on it. But all rental income must be declared on a self-assessment form, and if it exceeds the above figure, tax must be paid.

Anyone who fails to declare this extra income will face a fine.

David Kilshaw, tax partner at accountants KPMG, warns residents: "You might think you can earn a little extra income without troubling the taxman. But beware: the Inland Revenue is well aware of the potential opportunities for additional earnings and keeps a close eye on major events like Wimbledon."

John Whiting, partner at accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers, has further advice for homeowners: "Before placing your ad, check that renting a room won't invalidate your home insurance policy, and that your mortgage lender doesn't impose any restrictions preventing you from doing this."

Silence isn't golden

Steps are to be taken to stop the scourge of "silent calls" to domestic phone lines, where you pick up the receiver only to find there's no one at the other end of the line.

Silent calls are often generated by automatic dialling equipment in call centres programmed to connect calls. If there aren't enough human operators available when you subsequently pick up, they are terminated - resulting in short, silent calls.

Now, after conducting its own research, the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), a trade association for the marketing and communications industry, is to tighten its code of practice. The DMA found that nearly a quarter of all people feel anxious when they receive a silent call. Separately, Ofcom is probing seven companies, including Toucan Telecom, on the same subject.

On average, each home phone line receives around six silent calls a month.

Under the new guidelines, telemarketers - firms trying to sell over the phone - must give a phone number "identity" that is available on 1471 or on a telephone screen, so the consumer knows who is trying to contact them.

Calls to that number must be free, should the recipients decide to return them, and the company behind the marketing must disclose its name when called back.

The DMA is setting up a database listing the free callback numbers and the names of the companies using them. Its members must also now have documented procedures for handling consumer "do not call" requests, in particular those made through the Telephone Preference Service (TPS).

In the past few years, the number of people signing up to the TPS - designed to limit the number of unsolicited direct-marketing calls received by households - has risen dramatically. It currently stands at 7.4 million.

Tough talk at the ABI

Workers should be automatically co-opted into company pension schemes to solve the UK's pensions crisis, according to the Association of British Insurers (ABI).

Signing employees up for company schemes, while still offering them the right to opt out, was part of a package of reforms proposed last week in the ABI's report, Serious About Saving.

If employers and staff each contributed just 3 per cent of workers' pay, total retirement savings would rise by £4.2bn a year, the ABI calculates.

"There is no 'magic bullet' solution to Britain's pension problem," says Stephen Haddrill, director general of the ABI. "We need a package of reforms to encourage a new savings culture throughout every part of society."

The organisation's other key proposals include legislation to force employers that do not offer company pensions to pay contributions into any stakeholder scheme nominated by their employees.

It also wants to see the introduction of a pension contribution tax credit. This would give a refund on national insurance payments to those companies making fixed contributions to a workplace pension scheme where at least two thirds of the workforce are members. The tax credit could increase pension saving by around £1.5bn a year, the ABI calculates, at a cost to the government of between £500m and £700m.

Another ABI proposal is the introduction of the Workplace Advice Credit. Targeted at small businesses, this would enable firms to claim back up to 50 per cent of the cost of providing financial advice to each employee. Over time, the ABI says, four million workers in the UK could potentially benefit from advice under the scheme. This would close the savings gap by as much as £2.1bn at a cost to the government of only £100m.

The ABI also wants to reform the State Second Pension and to make more people eligible for the basic state pension.

The ABI has dubbed its proposals "affordable and effective" and says it is recommending them both to the Government and to the Pensions Commission.

The latter is chaired by Adair Turner, who is currently investigating ways to encourage Britons to save for retirement. He is due to report back in October this year. It is expected that Mr Turner will recommend a mix of more taxation, a raising of the retirement age and compulsory saving into pension schemes.

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