- Latest lockdown developments
- More on allowances from Inland Revenue
- Could a tax forgiveness programme help SMEs hit by Covid-19?
As of today, businesses can now apply for the second round of wage subsidies if they meet the criteria for doing so. Unlike last year, the wage subsidy is being paid in two weekly instalments, and one twist to this is that if you have not applied for the previous two-week period, you now miss out permanently. The qualification is if you have suffered a 40% loss compared to a similar period in the six weeks immediately prior to the move to Alert Level Four on 17th August 2021.
As of August 31st, $922 million has been paid to businesses that had met the criteria, and 225,335 applications had been approved, covering over 822,000 jobs. Another 14,708 applications were declined with 73,000 still being processed as of the first of August.
The support continues to be there, and you can apply for wage subsidies in Levels Three and Four, even if you’re outside Auckland so long as you meet the eligibility criteria. There’s also the Resurgence Support Payment, which is available at levels Two, Three and Four. And there’s various other schemes such as the Leave Support Scheme, Short Term Absence Payments and the Small Business Cashflow Loan Scheme which are also available.
There will always be a few businesses that somehow don’t meet the criteria and other businesses that are slipping through. Whether these are enough to keep the business alive, is another matter, because as I’ve said previously, one of the issues Covid-19 has highlighted is how many small businesses are, in fact, relatively undercapitalised.
And just be aware that the applications are being scrutinised. There are now reports that four applicants who received a wage subsidy are now being investigated as to whether, in fact, those were valid applications.
Clarifying the home office rules
Moving on, I’ve spoken previously about allowances and Inland Revenue Determinations issued in relation to payments provided to employees to work from home. Inland Revenue has now issued a third determination, Determination EE003, which will start from 1st October and will run for 18 months through to 31st March 2023.
What this does is amalgamate and replace all the previous determinations that have been published on the topic which we covered recently. However, although this consolidates the previous determinations that have been made, there are actually no changes to the actual operating principles set out in those determinations and the amounts of payments that can be made by employers to employees as a reimbursement for home office use and use of personal telecommunication tools.
Those rates are $15 per week if they are treated as exempt income for an employee of working from home and then a further $5 a week if that employee is using their own telecommunications tool. So that’s a maximum of $20 dollars per week. As I’ve said previously, these allowances are not terribly generous, but they are at least a de minimis work around. Inland Revenue has by extending the application of the determination through till 31st March 2023, given itself time to have a further consideration of what it wants to do with the law around this practise.
At the same time, Inland Revenue’s latest Agents Answers for September sent to tax agents has caused some confusion. It had a note explaining that if a company uses a home office that is the home of one of its shareholders, it will not be able to claim a deduction for the office unless it has incurred the actual cost. This means that if a shareholder or director, runs the company’s business through a home office and pays all expenses relating to the home office, the company has not incurred any expense and cannot claim a deduction.
This came as a surprise loss to many fellow tax agents and left us scratching our heads a little bit on this. What Inland Revenue has done is set out the law, which is quite clear that the company can only claim the expense if it can prove a nexus between its business income and the home office expense and no private portion can be claimed. The company must incur the expenditure within the income year, that is, it has a liability to pay the expense either direct to the provider or to the homeowner.
And that last phrase there is where perhaps practise will probably align with the theory. What one often sees is that small businesses run out of family homes, will claim a home office expense. And in reality, what it should be is a reimbursing allowance of the type we’ve just been discussing. The director or shareholder-employee or other person should file an expense claim for the home office expenditure they’ve incurred.
Tax policy aimed at the big overwhelms the small
Now this highlights an issue that I’ve talked about previously is that our tax system doesn’t always work well for small businesses. There’s a mismatch that goes on. A lot of policy is driven by larger taxpayers who have the resources to manage their affairs properly and also make submissions when legislation is being considered. However small businesses just tend to muddle along as best they can and sometimes have matters, to put it bluntly, just dumped on them unexpectedly with an increase in compliance costs.
Managing compliance costs for SMEs is always a bit of a hard one for tax authorities. There’s a trade-off between minimising compliance costs and the potential for abuse. If I was to say where I think Inland Revenue lies on that line, I think they have always been more cautious about the opportunities for concessions to be abused.
So that’s that means that sometimes obstacles like this Agents Article note appear, which have everyone head scratching and don’t actually reflect the actual practise. Sometimes, I think policymakers at Inland Revenue would be a little surprised at how “imprecise” would probably be a polite way of putting it, some accounting records kept by small businesses are. This is, as I said earlier a reflection of how small businesses are undercapitalised or under resourced and sometimes the I’s aren’t dotted and T’s aren’t crossed.
Anyway, this note on home office expenses, as I said, caused some confusion. It probably could have been phrased better, it certainly caused a stir when it landed, even though ultimately when you drill down it isn’t a question of Inland Revenue changing the policy. Instead, it’s just saying there are procedures to be followed and you should do so. How helpful you might think that is in the midst of a general lockdown is another judgement you can make.
And finally, a very interesting article just popped up the other day from Ranjana Gupta, a senior lecturer in taxation with Auckland University of Technology. Ranjana has suggested that a tax forgiveness policy could help many small businesses get through the financial woes that they’re dealing with a result of Covid-19.
She’s been carrying out some research and based on this suggests a voluntary disclosure programme for overseas income could protect these businesses affected by the pandemic and also promote honesty in tax matters. Essentially, what she’s pointed out is that the system, as it currently operates, tends to be quite punitive rather than encouraging compliance. Just to give an example, if you’re late with filing a return and paying tax, a late filing penalty will be imposed for the tax returns involved and there will also be late payment penalties and interest on top of that.
All the research I’ve seen shows that there is no better compliance here in New Zealand over prompt payment of tax than in other jurisdictions that may only impose an interest charge. And as a tax agent unwinding the position where late payment penalties have been imposed is very, very frustrating at times. As I said, it doesn’t seem to encourage any prompter payments. Instead, what happens is the late payment penalties accelerate so rapidly that the debt balloons to the point where taxpayers just give up.
So, Ranjana’s point is a fair one. And she goes on to say that if a taxpayer is operating outside the tax system, the consequences of entering may be harsh because of this penalty regime. And so, this encourages even inadvertent tax offenders to remain outside the system.
And that is something I have encountered, that taxpayers who have realised they’ve made error are often quite worried about coming forward and how hard they will get hit for non-compliance. And so, the position that Ranjana is proposing, and I agree with it, if it’s made clear that there’s an amnesty going on, that may encourage people to come forward who may have stayed under cover hoping Inland Revenue wouldn’t find them.
And interestingly, she then goes on to discuss the point that currently 31% of the population are immigrants and one in 10 of those are self-employed without employees, with about 5% small businesses with employees. And her argument is that they may not be fluent in English and may be unaware of their tax obligations and are therefore unintentionally non-compliant. This was something we actually came across during my time on the Small Business Council. The migrant community is of a size that some may only deal in their own native language rather than, as you might think, in the wider community.
So anyway, as Rajana notes, they now face the ramifications of making a voluntary disclosure. And her suggestion is maybe Inland Revenue should think about some form of amnesty, or message to the public as to how it would take a more sympathetic approach to people who come forward. So, I think this is an interesting proposal.
I have found, to be fair, where people have come to me and made voluntary disclosures to Inland Revenue they’ve been treated reasonably well. There haven’t been many instances of any very heavy penalties being imposed. Tax is collected and the interest is paid and then the system carries on as normal. So, Ranjana’s proposal is something worth considering.
Well, that’s it for this week. I’m Terry Baucher and you can find this podcast on my website www.baucher.tax or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening. And please send me your feedback and tell your friends and colleagues. Until next time Kia Kaha! Stay strong.