Small Talk: Problems ahead but the tax revolution looks a winner

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The Independent Online

HM Revenue & Customs is as adept as any commercial organisation at presenting changes to its practices as "improvements", no matter what additional expense or hassle they cause. So it is with real-time information (RTI), about which David Gauke, the Treasury minister with responsibility for HMRC, tends to be evangelical.

"RTI is the single biggest innovation in the administration of the tax system since [pay-as-you-earn] was brought in after the Second World War," Gauke said last year.

"Its introduction will remove admin burdens from businesses of around £300m each year."

One can quite see what Mr Gauke is getting at. RTI, which requires all employers to submit online data to HMRC on what their staff have been paid every time the payroll is run rather than in a single annual return, certainly represents a huge shake-up of tax administration. And £300m is the estimated cost of those annual PAYE returns, so there's no disputing that figure either.

Funnily enough, Mr Gauke made no mention of the costs of the new system for businesses – both for the transition to RTI, or on an ongoing basis. Nor did he mention that although there will not be penalties for employers who don't comply with the new regime straight away, there may be fines or levies after a short moratorium that is not guaranteed to last beyond the autumn.

Many accountants and tax specialists are getting increasingly nervous about RTI, which comes into effect in April – particularly about the impact on small and medium-sized enterprises. "Though the intended outcomes for the change are to streamline and better organise payroll operations, this is still a major change to the operations of many companies," says Diana Flier of Intuit UK.

One problem is that despite the undoubted efforts of HMRC, awareness of the move to RTI in less than three months is not as high as it should be. The most recent survey from the Federation of Small Businesses warned that one in four employers had never heard of RTI, let alone begun to think about how to comply with it.

For businesses that use payroll software continuously updated by providers, complying with RTI may prove unchallenging, even at this short notice. For many other SMEs, however, the shift could come as a shock.

The other issue is the question of what HMRC will do with all the PAYE data it receives. One of the most important objectives of the move to RTI is to prevent what presently happens when employers inadvertently make incorrect tax deductions – these mount up over the course of a year and, when spotted on the annual PAYE return, may result in very sizeable unexpected demands.

In theory, reducing the chances of this happening should do SMEs a favour. In practice, if HMRC uses the constant flow of PAYE date to take a much more aggressive approach with employers it thinks are building up arrears, there may be many more confrontations with struggling businesses trying to manage cashflow difficulties.

While the tax authorities have generally been lenient with businesses owing large sums, they may be less inclined to sympathy when smaller ones are at stake. Constant demands for small top-up payments may prove even more damaging to some SMEs than an annual negotiation over time to make good one large shortfall.

In the end, it's likely that the move to RTI will be positive for employers, just as Mr Gauke and HMRC's own officials have argued. In the short term, however, there are likely to be many problems – particularly since the shift is taking place at a time when many SMEs' finances remain constrained.

Northcote Energy looks to be one to watch as it taps into the junior market

Look out for Northcote Energy, which makes its debut today on the Alternative Investment Market – this year's first oil and gas listing on the junior market. The business has raised £1m from investors, and should be valued at almost £9m when dealings begin this morning.

Northcote is focused on onshore oil and gas production in the US – specifically in Oklahoma, where significant data on the reserves in the Mississippi Lime formation is already available. It uses development techniques such as horizontal drilling and fracking to improve recovery rates from known assets. Partners include Mid-States and Chesapeake Energy.

Assets in production or development are valued at about $34m (£21m), a substantial premium to the company's valuation, and Northcote hopes to treble production rates this year.

Youth has its day with new award from Veuve Clicquot for female entrepreneur

Champagne house Veuve Clicquot, which has run the Business Woman of the Year award for more than 40 years, is handing out a second gong this year: the New Generation Award, for a female entrepreneur aged between 25 and 35.

"In today's economic climate, it is even more important to recognise the contribution that women make to business life and through the development of intergenerational entrepreneurial communities they can support young talent," says Elsa Corbineau, director of champagnes at Veuve Clicquot's owner, Moët Hennessy UK.

Small businessman of the week: William Chase, founder, Chase Distillery

We started out making only vodka, but you have to go with what's selling, which is why we've also begun making Williams Gin.

"Most people don't know gin is actually made from vodka, and we've not pushed it particularly hard but it does now account for 40 per cent or so of sales.

"People assume all vodka comes from Eastern Europe and that gin is made only in London, so products made on a farm in Herefordshire seemed a bit different; but then we were named as the world's best vodka at the World Spirits Competition in 2010 in San Francisco, which really helped.

"We sell in Waitrose and Sainsbury's, as well as many bars and restaurants but we need to be careful because this is a premium brand and you can undermine that by being available everywhere. The plan now is to focus on the global market. Exports account for only 20 per cent of sales right now but I'd like to quadruple that.

"This is a sustainable business: we're doing low volumes and high value, so you don't need so many people, and once you've bought your stills, they'll last 100 years – given the copper price, our equipment is probably worth more than we paid for it.