Government urges small businesses to utilise broadband vouchers

The government is urging small businesses to make use of so-called ‘broadband vouchers’, which are worth £2,500.

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The Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme helps small firms in covering the cost of installing a full fibre, gigabit-capable connection. The government intended for the scheme to run until March 2021, but ‘high demand’ for the vouchers means that the funds are now expected to be committed a year earlier.

In order to encourage neighbouring businesses to ‘pool’ their vouchers, the government has reduced the maximum value of the voucher from £3,000 to £2,500. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport stated that the move will enable the scheme to ‘reach more properties, without the need for any additional funding’.

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) is supportive of the scheme. Mike Cherry, its National Chairman, said: ‘Access to good broadband is vital for small businesses across the UK, and with the clock ticking on this scheme, it’s important small businesses don’t delay if they want to apply for funding.’

Details on how to apply for the voucher scheme can be found here.

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Committee launches inquiry into banks’ treatment of vulnerable customers

The Treasury Committee has launched a new inquiry into whether UK banks are doing enough to help vulnerable customers.

As part of the inquiry, the Committee will examine whether vulnerable individuals are being overcharged for insurance. A report published recently by Citizens Advice suggested that some individuals are losing as much as £877 a year for being a loyal bank customer.

The inquiry will also scrutinise whether certain groups of consumers are being excluded from receiving a basic level of service from their bank.

The Treasury Committee will look to address these issues by considering the definition of vulnerability; any practices currently in place; which customers suffer the most when bank branches close down, and how to cater for their needs; the impact of ATM closures; and how post offices can help in areas where bank branches have closed.

Commenting on the matter, Nicky Morgan, Chair of the Treasury Committee, said: ‘With customers expected to take more responsibility for their financial planning and resilience, bank branches closing, and the number of free-to-use ATMs falling, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for vulnerable customers to access certain financial services.’

Restricted access to finance ‘holding back UK economy’, FSB warns

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has warned that UK economic growth is being ‘restricted’ by limited access to alternative finance options for small businesses.

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Research carried out by the FSB revealed that just 13% of small firms are currently looking to apply for external finance. 68% of these businesses are being offered lending rates above 4%, according to the data.

Of the firms which applied for finance in the third quarter of 2018, 70% chose to utilise a bank loan or overdraft facility, according to the FSB. The business group warned that there is a ‘lack of meaningful competition’ within the small business banking sector, which is becoming a ‘chronic issue’.

‘Despite being a decade on from the crash, we still have this dangerous combination of weak appetite for, and low awareness of, alternative finance options, high borrowing costs and inadequate support for small firms that are turned down by banks,’ said Mike Cherry, National Chairman of the FSB.

‘Having real time access to accounts will make it easier for finance providers and investors to identify the right routes for clients and make decisions swiftly.’

HMRC sends MTD for VAT communications to affected businesses

HMRC recently started to send out so-called ‘encouragement letters’ to businesses within the scope of Making Tax Digital for VAT (MTD for VAT).

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The letters are being sent to 200,000 businesses which are eligible to join the current MTD for VAT pilot.

According to reports, HMRC is also sending letters to some VAT-registered businesses with a turnover just below the VAT registration threshold. However, the letters will not be sent to firms’ agents.

The letters are being sent out in two waves. As part of the first wave, 20,000 letters were sent this week: a further 180,000 letters are set to be sent by HMRC during the week commencing 12 November.

Two versions of the letter are being used. The first version of the letter explains the changes to the way in which firms ‘keep VAT records and submit their VAT returns to HMRC’ under MTD for VAT. The second version will be a shorter letter, and will supply businesses with advice on how to prepare for the introduction of MTD for VAT in April 2019.

HMRC stated that it is ‘committed to writing to everyone within the scope of MTD for VAT’, and that it aims to accomplish this by the end of November.

Prime Minister establishes five ‘Brexit business councils’

Prime Minister Theresa May has created five new ‘Brexit business councils’, which will provide UK firms with advice and support in regard to creating the ‘best business conditions’ post-Brexit.

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According to the government, each council will meet three times per year in order to supply ‘high-level advice’ on issues surrounding Brexit and business.

Each council will represent a sector of the UK economy. Sectors covered include financial services; the manufacturing industry and infrastructure; consumer goods, retail and life sciences; telecoms, the creative industry, technology and the media; and small businesses, scale-ups and entrepreneurs.

Ten members will make up each council, including a representative from a leading business group.

Commenting on the new councils, the Prime Minister stated: ‘The UK has always been one of the best places in the world to do business, and is a leader in sectors from advanced manufacturing to the creative industries.

‘Brexit presents a huge opportunity to build a better, stronger economy for people all over the country. So I’ve asked these new councils to advise us on the opportunities and challenges facing business as we shape the UK for the future.’

Government unveils changes to probate fees

The government has unveiled significant changes to probate fees, which could result in owners of high-value properties paying nearly £6,000 more.

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As part of the government’s plans, from April 2019 a banded system of probate fees will be introduced for estates with a value above £50,000. The government stated that, by increasing the estate value threshold from £5,000 to this figure, around 25,000 UK estates ‘will be lifted out of fees altogether’.

Meanwhile, 80% of estates that are affected will pay ‘£750 or less’, according to the government.

However, if an estate’s value exceeds £1 million, individuals are set to experience a significant rise in probate fees. Around 280,000 estates will be liable to the higher fees, according to experts.

‘This new banded fee model represents a fair and more progressive way to pay for probate services compared to the current flat fee, and reflects our commitment to protecting access to justice by ensuring we have a properly funded and resourced courts system,’ said Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Lucy Frazer QC.

‘We are also confident these fees will never be unaffordable. The cost of the fee is recoverable from the estate and executors have several options to fund it.’

HMRC delays reform of late payment penalty regime

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HMRC has further delayed the planned reform of the late payment penalty regime.

HMRC planned to introduce the new penalty regime alongside Making Tax Digital (MTD) for income tax in April 2018, but the Revenue subsequently pushed its introduction back when MTD for income tax was deferred to April 2020.

Within the Overview of Tax Legislation and Rates (OOTLAR) document, which was published following the 2018 Autumn Budget, the government stated that it ‘remains committed’ to the reform of the late payment penalty regime, and intends to legislate for it ‘in a future Finance Bill’. Consequently, some experts have predicted that the new penalty regime will not be in place until April 2021 ‘at the earliest’.

Commenting on the matter, John Cullinane, Tax Policy Director at the Chartered Institute of Taxation (CIOT), said: ‘We are broadly supportive of these reforms to HMRC’s penalties regimes, so we are disappointed by this further delay, though as with any reform, we acknowledge that it is more important to do it right than to do it quickly.’

HMRC previously outlined the new penalty scheme, which is set to be a two-tier system that will take effect 15 days after a late payment.