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In the spotlight: Our monthly news round-up (August 2020)

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Rouse Partners

Now it is easy to keep up-to-date, with our monthly ‘In the Spotlight’ news round-up – a hand-picked summary of key tax news and industry developments. If you have any questions on how any of these affect you personally, please do not hesitate to contact us.


Government extends Help to Buy scheme – The Government has announced a small extension to the Help to Buy equity loan scheme to allow for delays caused by the coronavirus crisis. While the building deadline for new homes sold through the scheme will be extended by two months, from the end of December 2020 to the end of February 2021, the March 31 2021 deadline for sale completions remains. However, for buyers who have seen severe delays and reserved properties before June 30, the deadline to complete purchases has been pushed back to the end of May 2021. Developers had called for a broader extension, urging ministers to extend the scheme by a year. Alex Rose, of Zoopla, comments: “The devil is in the detail, and many would argue that a two-month extension might not give housebuilders enough time to meet these build deadlines.” Noting that the pandemic means residential construction is currently operating at between 60% and 85% of normal output, he added: “While we’d hoped for a more encompassing extension, every ounce of support helps at this stage”. (Source: The Sunday Times, 02/08/20)

Nationwide to restart 90% mortgages – Nationwide is to restart mortgage lending to first-time buyers with a 10% deposit, saying the stamp duty tax break introduced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak had helped restore confidence in the property sector. The building society restricted its mortgages in June, citing fears that falling house prices could leave high-mortgage borrowers in negative equity, with only customers holding a 15% deposit having been able to apply for loans. It has now said it will resume lending to first-time buyers with a 10% deposit as of July 20. Following Nationwide’s announcement, Coventry Building Society said it would offer 90% mortgages on a trial basis, while Platform, part of the Co-operative Bank, will now also offer 90% loans. (Source: The Daily Telegraph, 14/07/20)

Dividends down 57% in Q2 – Analysis by Link Group shows that dividend payments fell by a record 57% in Q2 as the coronavirus crisis prompted an unprecedented cut. Dividend payments fell to £16.1bn in the three months to the end of June, meaning investors missed out on £22bn. The second quarter saw 30 firms reducing their payout while 176 paid no dividends at all, with just 61 businesses increasing their dividend payout. Link Group predicts total dividend payouts for 2020 could fall to £56.7bn in the ‘worst-case scenario’, down from £110.5bn last year, while a best-case scenario would see £61.6bn handed out. It estimates that it could be 2026 before dividends return to their 2019 level, saying a lot of companies need to reset payouts to a “lower, more sustainable level from which they can again start to rebuild”. (Source: The Guardian, 20/07/20)

New P2P COVID-19 loans for the self-employed – A new emergency COVID-19 loans scheme has been launched to help some of the freelancers and self-employed workers who have missed out on Government support. The Small Business Interruption Loan Service has been unveiled by a fintech-led group in association with EXCLUDEDUK – which has been joined by tens of thousands of self-employed and small business owners not eligible for Covid financial help. It works as a peer-to-peer lending platform, which has been provided by P2P lender JustUs. (Source: Daily Express, 11/07/20)

Self-employed given 90 days to come clean on support – After HMRC received tip-offs that some workers may have overclaimed under the Self-employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS) the Treasury has given itself sweeping powers to issue penalty charges against people who may have claimed too much COVID-19 support. The scheme provided a taxable grant worth up to 80% of average profits for a period of three months, capped at £7,500. HMRC said there had been 2.7m claims worth more than £7.7bn in support. The Finance Bill, published on Wednesday, grants a 90-day amnesty period to self-employed workers, after which those who have overclaimed would face fines on a sliding scale of between 30% and 100%. (Source: The Times, 03/07/20)

Wedding bells and tax bills – People married in the last four years could be set to see unexpected tax bills, with HMRC chasing up venues that failed to charge couples VAT. Local authorities, which hire out town halls and council venues, have been hit with bills and accountants warn that if councils are unsuccessful in efforts to challenge the charges, they may have to pass them on to couples. HMRC official Christopher Palmer recently wrote to the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy to explain the charges, which can be handed out up to four years after a ceremony has taken place. (Source: The Sunday Times, 02/08/20)

Sunak: Tough choices ahead on tax – Chancellor Rishi Sunak has hinted that tax rises could be on the way as the Treasury looks to tackle the economic fall-out from the coronavirus crisis. He told the Treasury select committee there were “tough choices ahead” for the economy as he took action to balance the books over the “medium term”. This came after the Office for Budget Responsibility warned that the Government faces a gap of at least £60bn in its finances, suggesting an increase in taxes could be required to get public spending back under control. Considering the impact of the calculations, Mr Sunak told MPs: “In terms of what does that mean for spending and taxes, those are decisions that will have to wait until we get to Budgets. But there are tough choices ahead, that is clear.” (Source: The Daily Telegraph, 16/07/20)

CGT under review – The Chancellor has asked the Office of Tax Simplification to conduct a review into capital gains tax and whether it is fit for purpose, with the body launching a survey asking for “evidence to seek views about capital gains tax”. Rishi Sunak said he was particularly interested in “how gains are taxed compared to other types of income”. Industry experts suggest the review could indicate that the Government is considering increasing CGT in an effort to offset its £350bn deficit this year because of coronavirus. (Source: The Times, 15/07/20)

Triple-lock unlikely to survive the year – Experts have said that pensioners should brace themselves for the end of the state pension triple lock guarantee in the autumn. The Chancellor is reportedly planning to scrap the policy amid concerns that it has become unaffordable. It guarantees that the state pension rises every year by the highest of wage growth, inflation or 2.5%. But a sharp rebound in wages predicted next year could add £10bn to the benefits bill. Steven Cameron of Aegon said a double-digit increase in the state pension would be a hard sell and could spark intergenerational tensions. Retirees would have to foot their share of the pandemic bill, including a sacrifice of the annual boost in state pension. (Source: The Daily Telegraph, 13/07/20)


Making Tax Digital programme to be extended – HMRC has announced that the Making Tax Digital programme will be extended to firms with turnover below the VAT threshold of £85,000 from April 2022. Taxpayers who file self-assessment returns for business or property income of more than £10,000 a year will be brought into the programme from April 2023. The move has been criticised by Mike Cherry, chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, who remarked: “The last thing we need is wholesale expansion of Making Tax Digital without the right support in place. Government should be backing small businesses and the self-employed to drive recovery from a severe recession,” noting that the proposed changes would “mean more costs and paperwork for small firms at a critical time.” (Source: The Times, 03/07/20)

FRC: Companies need to enhance COVID-19 reporting – The Financial Reporting Council has said that companies need to do more to explain the impact of COVID-19 on their performance. The FRC conducted a review of a selection of interim and annual financial statements with a period end date of March 2020, all of which had a post-UK lockdown period end date. The regulator said in reviewing interim financial statements, it considered the requirements of IAS 34 and whether the information provided in the interim accounts offered sufficient information to enable a user to understand the impact of COVID-19. The review found that although companies provided sufficient information to enable a user to understand the impact COVID-19 had on their performance, position and future prospects, some – particularly interim reports – would have benefited from more extensive disclosure. In summary, the FRC said companies should explain the significant judgements and estimates made in preparing their accounts and provide meaningful sensitivity analysis or details of a range of possible outcomes to support any disclosed estimation uncertainty. (Source: The Times, 22/07/20)

EU rules on business loans eased – More small firms will be able to secure government-backed loans under the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme after the European Commission (EC) agreed to relax competition rules which had prevented some accessing emergency support due to their debt and accumulated losses. The Treasury has agreed with the EC that businesses in this category with fewer than 50 employees and a turnover of less than £9m can now apply for the loans. (Source: The Times, 30/07/20)

Half of furloughed staff back in work – Research by the Resolution Foundation think-tank shows that more than half of furloughed employees have already returned to work. Its analysis shows that the peak number of furloughed workers was almost 8m in late April. Since then, a large number of staff have returned to work either fully of part-time, leaving fewer than 4.5m employees currently furloughed. (Source: The Mail on Sunday, 02/08/20)

Furloughed staff payoffs to be based on full wage – As of 31st July, furloughed workers losing their jobs will see redundancy pay based on their normal wages as opposed to the furlough rate. The change will apply to redundancy payments, statutory notice pay and other entitlements. Business Secretary Alok Sharma remarked: “It is important that employees receive the payments they are rightly entitled to,” continuing: “The Government is doing everything it can to protect people’s livelihoods.” This comes as experts predict that the number of people made redundant during the coronavirus crisis, which currently stands at around 150,000, will rise, especially once the furlough scheme ends in October. TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady welcomed the move, saying paying people full redundancy “is the right thing to do”, but called on ministers to extend the furlough scheme, arguing: Without this, we risk an avalanche of redundancies in the autumn.” (Source: BBC News, 31/07/20)

Firms may miss out on £1.37bn – The Local Government Association (LGA) has warned that firms could miss out on more than £1bn in support as the Government looks to close emergency funding schemes for small business and the retail, hospitality and leisure sector on August 28. The body calculates that £1.37bn has yet to be allocated and has urged ministers to keep the discretionary grants fund open. LGA Resources Board chairman Richard Watts has also called for any unspent resources to be redistributed to local authorities so they can help support small businesses and “reboot local economies.” (Source: Daily Express, 03/08/20)

No rush for office returns – A survey of 94 of Britain’s biggest employers by the Chartered Governance Institute and governance recruitment specialist The Core Partnership shows half plan to keep all staff working remotely for the next few months, a fifth plan to bring staff back to the office only on a part-time basis and around a fifth plan to bring staff back full time. (Source: The Times, 30/07/20)

Total of £49bn lent to SMEs during pandemic – Newly released Treasury data shows that banks have now lent some £49.4bn through the three main loan schemes backed by the government. The bounce back loan scheme (BBLS) has seen £33.7bn distributed, while the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme (CBILS) has seen £12.7bn given to small and medium-sized firms. A further £3.1bn has been issued through the coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme (CLBILS) for larger businesses. (Source: Financial Times, 29/07/20)

Separating COVID-19 impact in results “inappropriate” – Some companies are deciding to simply exclude the impact of the coronavirus pandemic from their earnings leading investors and market watchdogs to speak out against the practice. They say that turning the commonly used Ebidta (earnings before interest, depreciation, taxes and amortization) into Ebidtac (c for coronavirus) can give a misleading impression. Ebidtac is a measure that’s emerged in recent months as a way for borrowers to show what their performance might have been had it not been for the impact of the pandemic. Proponents of Ebidtac say it provides continuity with past results and some banks have been sympathetic, but regulators are cautious. The European Securities and Markets Authority has said businesses should be wary of separating the impact of the virus in profit and loss statements while the Financial Reporting Council has warned that measures which attempt to show “normalized” results are likely to be “highly subjective” and “potentially unreliable”. Ratings agencies and investors echo these views. (Source: Washington Post, 11/07/20)

UK Treasury and banks in talks on coming wave of bad Covid debt – The FT reports that the Treasury is in talks with banks about an industry-wide plan to help tackle the £16bn in bad debts expected from the “bounce back” loans scheme. The Times says the Chancellor is understood to be reluctant to write off the debt as it would be unfair on those businesses that struggled on without loans. The Federation of Small Businesses has suggested that repayment conditions should be relaxed. Mike Cherry, national chairman of the federation, said: “A guarantee that they won’t have to start making repayments until they’re turning a profit would give them the confidence to invest and hire today, rather than further down the line, when [it] may prove too little too late.” (Source: The Times, 27/07/20)

Brexit: Firms unprepared for no-deal, says think-tank – The Institute for Government has warned that the coronavirus crisis has left many UK businesses in a worse position to cope with a no-deal Brexit. A report from the think-tank says that government and business resources “have been focused on responding to the pandemic, rightly prioritising this over Brexit preparations”. It added that firms “reeling from the economic consequences of coronavirus are poorly placed to prepare for Brexit”. The report notes that three in five firms have not begun to prepare for the end of the transition period on December 31 due to ongoing uncertainty about the future relationship with the EU. “The UK will be adapting to the effects of Brexit for many years to come – which both business and government should be prepared for”, the report adds. (Source: The Independent, 19/07/20)

Brexit: Planning overhaul and tax cuts planned for ‘freeports’ – Under Government plans for a post-Brexit economic revolution, Chancellor Rishi Sunak is preparing to introduce tax cuts and an overhaul of planning laws in up to 10 new “freeports” within a year of the UK becoming fully independent from the EU in December. Mr Sunak will use his autumn budget to invite bids from towns and cities to become freeports, where tax and regulatory changes will be introduced, including research and development tax credits, generous capital allowances, cuts to stamp duty and business rates, and local relaxations of planning laws. The Government believes the policy can transform ports into “international hubs” for manufacturing and innovation. Meanwhile, Michael Gove has announced that the Government is spending £705m to ensure that Britain’s “new borders will be ready when the UK takes back control on January 1 2021”, with or without a post-Brexit trade agreement. The work will lay the foundations for “the world’ s most effective border by 2025”. (Source: The Sunday Times, 12/07/20)


Land Registry to accept electronic signatures – HM Land Registry will start accepting electronic signatures from next week, it has confirmed, paving the way for the entire conveyancing process to be conducted electronically. HMLR will accept witnessed electronic signatures for transfers of property ownership, leases, mortgages and other property-related dealings. The “mercury approach” for signatures – which allows for a signature page to be signed in pen in the physical presence of a witness – will remain. (Source: The Law Society Gazette, 28/07/20)

Nearly a third of buyers won’t feel stamp duty cut – Just over 10% of homebuyers will gain the maximum benefit – a saving of 2.5% or more on the purchase price – as a result of the stamp duty changes brought in on July 8. This maximum benefit goes to those purchasing properties priced between £400,000 and £600,000. Overall, 29% of buyers won’t get any benefit from the cut, because they are either buying properties for less than £125,000, or have already benefited from the first-time buyer relief on homes costing less than £300,000. The average stamp duty saving varies across the country, from 1.75% in London to less than 0.45% in the North East. (Source: The Sunday Times, 19/07/20)

House prices jump in July – UK house prices saw their biggest rise in 11 years last month, with the market bouncing back as it reopened after the coronavirus lockdown. Nationwide said prices climbed 1.7% in July, the biggest increase since August 2009. Year-on-year, prices were up 1.5%. The average price of a home sold in July was £220,936, up from £216,403 in June. Nationwide’s chief economist Robert Gardner said: “The bounce back in prices reflects the unexpectedly rapid recovery in housing market activity since the easing of lockdown restrictions.” However, he warned that July’s increase may prove to be “something of a false dawn”, saying that activity could be dampened if, as many forecasters expect, labour market conditions “weaken significantly” in the wake of the pandemic and as government support schemes wind down. (Source: City AM, 01/08/20)

“Covid refugees” drive up price of prime country homes – Londoners fleeing the capital in search of rural homes more conducive to comfortable lockdowns and home working are driving up prices, particularly in the prime bracket, with some buyers paying as much as 17% over asking price. The flood of interest has led agents to warn of a bubble developing. Fiona Pengelly of Strutt & Parker in Salisbury described most of her buyers as “Covid refugees”. She said: “Since the market reopened, I have sold a third of our stock off market in excess of guide price.” (Source: The Daily Telegraph, 07/07/20)

Home-working shift set to prompt office exodus – Landlords and property agents believe a mass exodus from offices may be on the cards, with the coronavirus lockdown driving a remote working revolution. A survey by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics) has seen nine in ten agents and landlords say they expect companies to scale back on office space in the next two years, with rents set to decline as firms opt for smaller, cheaper sites. The poll shows that more than half of respondents expect more businesses to base themselves in suburban offices rather than city centres. Rics said office rents are likely to fall by between 4% to 7% in the next 12 months, while the dip in demand could see retail rents decline by up to 14%. Rics economist Tarrant Parsons comments: “The recent shift into remote working raises many questions across the office sector, with respondents expecting businesses to re-evaluate their office space requirements over the next two years.” (Source: The Daily Telegraph, 31/07/20)

But commercial property sees sales increase – Figures from estate agent Savills show that the investors spent £1.3bn on commercial property in the UK during June. While this is 54% down on the £2.8bn spent in June 2019, it marks a 42% increase on the £755m spent in May and suggests the market may be stabilising amid the coronavirus crisis. Analysis shows that February saw sales of £8.4bn but, as the pandemic started to have an impact, sales slipped to £3.5bn in March and £859m in April. The Telegraph notes that Q2 was the weakest quarter on record for UK investment, while sales during H1 are thought to be 43% below the five-year average. (Source: The Daily Telegraph, 15/07/20)


Business confidence returns but hiring remains postponed – Business confidence rose by eight percentage points to -22% in July, the highest since the lockdown was imposed in March, according to the latest Lloyds Bank Business Barometer. However, fears about a second spike in infections are weighing on consumer confidence while higher unemployment is expected to further weigh on demand. Lloyds found 16% of companies plan to bring back all their furloughed employees. A further 24% expect to retain more than 90%. Just 17% of businesses expect to increase employment over the next 12 months, up one point from June, while 40% expect to cut staffing levels. (Source: The Times, 28/07/20)

Jobs warning as furlough scheme is wound down – Ministers have been warned that jobs are at risk as the furlough scheme begins to be wound down. As of today, companies will have to contribute to the cost of furloughed workers by paying employer national insurance and pension contributions, while the job retention scheme is to be phased out by the end of October. The Resolution Foundation believes furloughing should be phased out “more slowly” for certain sectors, warning that as many as one million people in hospitality and leisure roles may be facing redundancy. The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) says the Government “cannot afford to pull up the business support drawbridge any time soon”, calling for a cut in employment taxes that could include a national insurance contribution holiday. Mike Cherry, chairman of the FSB, highlighted that a fifth of small firms have had to let staff go over the last three months, commenting: “Even with critical emergency measures in place, jobs are sadly being lost in the here and now.” (Source: The Times, 01/08/20)


Crisis prompts innovation – A survey by Be The Business suggests that the coronavirus crisis and resulting lockdown have driven small businesses to innovate, with more than half a million having changed or currently altering their operating model and a fifth introducing new services. Be The Business CEO Tony Danker said the early signs of an economic recovery can be attributed in part to this push toward innovation. (Source: The Daily Telegraph, 01/07/20)

Sunak warned against taxing online sales – The British Retail Consortium has warned Rishi Sunak against plans to impose a 2% tax on online sales claiming the move would lead to higher prices for consumer. According to a report in the Times, the Chancellor is considering two types of online retail tax: a levy of about 2% on all goods bought online, which could raise £2bn a year; and a tax on consumer deliveries, which would also help to curb traffic and pollution. Tom Ironside, director of business and regulation at the BRC, said: “Taxing the sale or delivery of online goods would simply be another burden on an already overtaxed industry, one that would ultimately hit consumer spending through higher prices. Throughout the pandemic, many of us have been relying on retailers to ramp up their online services to ensure we can all get the goods we need. The government should not harm these efforts by further taxing the businesses providing these services, and the people they serve.” (Source: The Times, 28/07/20)


Britain’s economic prospects ahead of G7 average – Analysis by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) suggests Britain’s economic prospects for the rest of this year and into 2021 are stronger than the average for the G7. The OECD’s forward looking index has rated the UK at 97.4, while the average across the G7 advanced economies is 96.7. The index looks at six areas: a consumer confidence index, confidence indices for manufacturing and services businesses, share prices, short-term interest rates and new car registrations. (Source: The Sunday Times, 19/07/20)

UK manufacturers look to bounce back from heavy hit – Britain’s manufacturers saw orders plunge at their fastest pace for almost four decades over the last quarter, according to the latest CBI quarterly Industrial Trends Survey. The report, in which 356 manufacturers participated, found that volumes declined by 56%, while orders plummeted by 60%. Business sentiment stabilised in the three months to July, following a survey-record plunge in April, while export sentiment fell at a slower pace following a record decline in the last quarter. “Manufacturers continue to face extreme hardship due to the COVID-19 crisis”, said CBI chief economist Rain Newton Smith. “There are tentative signs of gradual recovery on the horizon, with firms expecting output and orders to begin to pick up in the next three months. But demand still remains deeply depressed.” (Source: Financial Times, 24/07/20)


UK retail sales and services rebound in June – New data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show sales volumes rose by 13.9% in June compared with the month before, bringing total sales across the country close to last year’s levels. Helen Dickinson, chief of the British Retail Consortium, said: “Though a month of growth is welcome news, retail is not out of the woods yet. The pandemic continues to pose huge challenges to the industry, with ongoing store closures and job losses across the UK.” Separately, the IHS Markit/CIPS UK composite purchasing managers’ index jumped to 57.1 in July from 47.7 in June. The manufacturing reading rose to 53.6, up from 50.1, and services rose from 47.1 to 56.6. Chris Williamson, chief business economist at IHS Markit, said: “The surge in activity in July will fuel expectations that the economy will return to growth in the third quarter after having suffered the sharpest contraction in modern history during the second quarter.” (Source: Financial Times, 25/07/20)

Over 50,000 outlets sign up to Eat Out to Help Out Scheme – More than 53,000 outlets across the UK have so far signed up to the UK Government’s Eat Out to Help Out Scheme – and a new official Government online finder is available to help diners locate them. The logo means diners that eat-in will benefit from a 50% discount, up to a maximum of £10 per person, on food and non-alcoholic drinks, any Monday to Wednesday in August – and no voucher is required. Diners can take advantage of the offer as many times as they like during the month. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak said: “Our restaurants, cafes and bars play a vital role in our economy, employing more than a million people. They have been hit hard by coronavirus, so it’s vital we do everything we can to help them recover.” (Source: .GOV, 29/07/20)

Reopening delay a ‘massive blow’ for small firms – The Government has delayed the latest stage of easing the lockdown, meaning some businesses due to reopen on 1st August must now stay closed for at least another fortnight. Federation of Small Businesses national chairman Mike Cherry said the announcement would come as “a massive blow to thousands of small firms,” but noted businesses were warned that restrictions would “need to be responsive to any resurgence in transmissions”. “What we absolutely have to avoid is a scenario where whole swathes of the small business community … are wiped out entirely,” he added. British Chambers of Commerce co-executive director Claire Walker said that while public health must be the priority, such announcements, made at very short notice “will be a hammer blow to business and consumer confidence at a time when many firms were just starting to get back on their feet.” (Source: BBC News, 01/08/20)

Property revaluation put off to 2023 – The Treasury risks condemning businesses struggling with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic to paying business rates bills that bear “no relation to economic realities” after it delayed a reassessment of property values, experts have said. The Government said postponing valuations until 2023 would “reduce uncertainty for business” but Jerry Schurder, head of business rates at Gerald Eve, the property adviser, said: “This announcement does indeed ‘give businesses certainty’ – but only in that they now know their bills are going to remain unsustainably high.” (Source: The Times, 22/07/20)

VAT reduction rolled out – A number of firms have opted to reduce prices after the Chancellor’s temporary VAT cut for firms in the food, drink and hospitality sectors came into force. With the rate cut from 20% to 5% until January 2021, Nando’s, Pret A Manger, Wetherspoon, Starbucks and McDonald’s are among those who will pass at least some of the cut onto customers. However, some firms are expected to use the money to bolster finances hit by the coronavirus lockdown rather than reduce prices. A poll of 163 pubs by trade magazine the Morning Advertise showed that 84% pubs said they would not be cutting prices for visitors. The Treasury estimates that, if passed on to consumers, the measures could save households an average of £160 a year. (Source: The Daily Telegraph, 16/07/20)


PwC vetting charity grants – The Guardian reports that applications for grants from an emergency coronavirus fund for small charities are not only being assessed by the National Lottery Community Fund (NLCF), which was publicly handed the task, but are also being privately vetted by PwC, which has been awarded a £1.4m contract for the work. It notes that voluntary sector leaders have voiced concern over a delay in issuing money, with Chancellor Rishi Sunak saying cash would be distributed “at pace” when he announced the fund in early April. The NCLF says £55m of the £200m pot has been issued and it is processing applications for a further £130m. (Source: The Guardian, 03/08/20)

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