My proposals on the UBR will be of particular benefit to small businesses—the lifeblood of a modern economy. Small businesses have been at the heart of the supply-side revolution in this country over the last decade. The result has been a new economic dynamism, with increased competition and a more flexible labour market.
Inevitably, taxation and regulation bear most heavily on small firms, so I have considered carefully what measures I can take to ease that burden, and in particular to ease the cash flow of small businesses. Last year, I raised the VAT registration threshold by some 40 per cent. This year, I propose to increase the threshold in line with inflation, to £36,600. One hundred and thirty-five thousand traders—one third of all those eligible—now use the cash accounting scheme for VAT, which allows small firms to delay their VAT payments until they themselves have been paid. I can now announce that the rules will be relaxed to allow traders owing less than £5,000 to Customs to use cash accounting. I hope that this will encourage many more traders to take advantage of this excellent scheme.
My decision last year to allow small employers to pay income tax and national insurance deducted at source on a quarterly rather than monthly basis was widely welcomed by small employers. I propose to raise the qualifying limit to £450 a month. That will mean that nearly ¾ million employers will be able to make payments quarterly rather than monthly.
But one problem arouses more anger in the small business community than any other. I have every sympathy for small companies which find that their larger debtors are deliberately delaying payment to boost their own cash flow. Such practices are wholly deplorable; and, while there is no easy solution, my right hon. Friends and I have looked hard at what the Government can do to help. I have a number of proposals to announce.
First, the Government propose to require larger companies to state in their annual report and accounts how quickly they pay. Second, my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor will be proposing simpler procedures in small claims and debt recovery cases.
Third, I want to see the Government's good record on the payment of bills extended to firms which win Government contracts. From next month, those successfully negotiating a contract with a Government Department will be required to include clauses in their own contracts with subcontractors which provide for the prompt payment of bills, ordinarily within 30 days of receiving a valid invoice. I believe that Government have set a good example, and I hope that large companies will follow.
For businesses facing cash flow difficulties, value added tax penalties can be the last straw. It has been put to me on many occasions that the VAT penalty regime is too strict. The serious misdeclaration penalty is catching too many minor mistakes. This must stop. In future, Customs will not normally charge penalties on underdeclarations of tax of up to £2,000. That will take over three quarters of cases out of the penalty regime, although the largest mistakes will still be penalised.
Last year I reduced the rate of penalty from 30 per cent. to 20 per cent. I now propose to cut it further, to 15 per cent. But there are other aspects of the regime which require more consideration, and Customs are issuing today a further consultation document on the options for longer-term reform.
I believe that the highest rates of default surcharge levied on traders who submit late VAT returns or payments cannot be justified. I therefore propose to reduce the maximum rate from 30 per cent. to 20 per cent. These measures, taken together, will reduce the penalties businesses might otherwise have had to pay Customs by £35 million next year.
One of the other complaints I have heard most frequently over the years is that it is unjust that taxpayers cannot be awarded costs when they appeal before the special commissioners. I now propose to introduce a measure which would give the Lord Chancellor power to make new rules about the hearing of appeals, including the powers to award costs where either party has acted wholly unreasonably.