Wednesday 23 October 2019

Richard Curran: 'Modest expenses were treated as an easy mark'

Tax row: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar intervened on flat-rate expenses and declared that no one would be affected by changes until 2020 – ‘if at all’. Photo: Damien Eagers / INM
Tax row: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar intervened on flat-rate expenses and declared that no one would be affected by changes until 2020 – ‘if at all’. Photo: Damien Eagers / INM
Richard Curran

Richard Curran

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has made a late but worthwhile intervention in how flat-rate PAYE expenses were being changed.

Discussions about fairness in taxation are never straightforward. We often see the taxes we have to pay as unfair and those paid by others as necessary.

Rows about taxation usually split into two camps. The 'haves' say they are paying too much and if they paid less there would be greater economic activity from which everybody would benefit.

The 'have nots' will argue that the rich always get off too lightly. They will point to tax-avoidance schemes, low corporation tax rates, reliefs, offsets, tax losses generating tax credits etc.

Somehow, the Finance Minister has to adjudicate on all of these issues using policy tools, while Revenue has to implement those policies as fairly as possible.

So was all the more surprising to see how the Revenue Commissioners have gone about reforming the relatively modest flat-rate expenses regime available to around half a million workers, most of whom are relatively low paid.

These flat-rate expenses have evolved over many years in different jobs and provide a set flat-rate allowance for people who need to spend a certain amount of money on legitimate expenses associated with their job.

The Revenue Commissioners have conducted a review of some of these expenses and around 80,000 workers were set to be affected by the first wave in January 2019. These include 75,822 shop assistants who get €121 per year; 8,134 journalists who get up to €381; and 881 cardiac technicians who get up to €212.

Flat-rate expenses for PAYE workers cost €85m last year.

The Revenue Commissioners have pointed out that workers will still be able to make expenses claims in the future but it won't operate on a pre-agreed flat rate. In theory, some could receive more rather than less.

This does appear to be a genuine reform of what may well be an archaic system of doing things. Given changes in work practices and employment, the current system may not even be the best way of doing things.

But who made it a priority?

And why have the Revenue moved to axe the flat-rate system for 80,000 before the full review has been conducted of all flat-rate reliefs across all jobs?

Perhaps this is why Taoiseach Leo Varadkar intervened when he suggested in the Dáil on Tuesday that nobody would be affected until January 2020 - if at all.

The amounts per worker are modest, but could be the difference between affording private health insurance or being stuck on an overcrowded creaking public system.

The speed of movement here is worth comparing to other forms of tax break or reliefs that have formed government policy in the past.

All tax reliefs and tax incentive schemes should be subject to review before implementation and ongoing assessments of whether they are relevant and worthwhile. Yet when it came to the property boom of the past, tax reliefs worth hundreds of millions of euro to just a busload of individuals were extended without review on many occasions.

Tax loopholes to avoid paying capital gains tax on commercial property gains were identified during the boom and not acted upon by government. At one stage, former Finance Minister Brian Cowen just had to sign a statutory instrument to save the Exchequer hundreds of millions but he delayed. Former Finance Minister Michael Noonan decided to incentivise a recovery in the commercial property market. He slashed Stamp Duty on commercial property deals, and it worked. The measure helped bring in lots of investment from abroad back into the market.

However, he let it run for longer than it was needed - a delay that cost the Exchequer hundreds of millions of euro. This was eventually reversed by Paschal Donohoe.

How long did it take recent governments to put up the betting tax, from 1pc to 2pc? The answer is several years after it was first recommended. The cost here was tens of millions of euro in lost taxes.

Let's take the special assignee relief programme (Sarp). This is a scheme that allows foreign business executives to come to Ireland and if they earn more than €75,000 per year here, they pay just 30pc in income tax.

It is actually a good idea in theory, in so far as these executives can be hard to attract to a particular country.

Ireland competes for these investments. And they can bring jobs with them.

I heard leading accountants recommend for years that the Government introduce a measure like this. Eventually, in 2012 it was introduced. But the flood of highly-sought executives didn't arrive and avail of it. In 2012 it cost the Exchequer just €100,000. By 2015 that figure had increased to €9.5m after the scheme was made more attractive. By 2016, it had nearly doubled to €18.1m because there was no upper limit on the salary that could be earned.

So, 18 beneficiaries were earning more than €1m and four of them were earning between €3m and €10m.

What if those executives led a huge team of employees and helped bring hundreds of jobs to Ireland with employees paying millions in income tax? OK. But what if they were heading up an investment fund or a holding company that simply held some intellectual property and didn't really employ many people here at all?

A salary cap is now being introduced on Sarp.

The comparisons are most striking when it comes to the wealthiest few hundred and how they have been able to reduce their tax bills dramatically.

A Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) report published in September found that about 90 of the wealthiest people in the country pay income tax at a lower rate than the average taxpayer.

And 83 of those high-net-worth individuals declared taxable income of less than the average industrial wage, which is just over €36,500 per year. Revenue defines high-net-worth individuals as having more than €50m in assets.

It is too simplistic to suggest that lower-paid employees automatically get a rough ride. Hundreds of thousands of them are outside the income tax net altogether and don't pay any income tax on their earnings.

Equally, it is wrong to suggest that high earners have it all their own way. The bulk of the income tax bill is paid by higher earners who are not in the super rich category or earning multimillion-euro salaries.

This week Mr Varadkar pledged to equalise the treatment of the self-employed with PAYE workers when it comes to tax treatment. This has been an inbuilt unfairness in the system whereby the self-employed were regarded somewhat as second-class citizens in the tax system.

Yes they can offset their income against a range of business expenses. And yes they can put money into their own pensions and avail of very generous tax reliefs.

But these are the same pension pots that Fine Gael raided during the tough times of the recession to the tune of a couple of billion euro.

Inevitably, the tax system is about swings and roundabouts when it comes to striving for fairness. However, the swiftness with which these flat-rate expenses were about to be chopped down was striking. As various professions are reviewed, the flat-rate expenses were to be dropped.

Why not wait until the review of all professions was completed and then decide? Perhaps this is what the Taoiseach has in mind when he said nobody would be affected until 2020 - a much fairer approach. This was a chop-as-you-go review. There was no generous lead-in time, as we often find with other tax breaks.

Indo Business

Also in Business