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Start-up Companies: Tax Incentives

Volume 837: debated on Monday 29 April 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the pressure experienced by start-up companies arising from delays in accessing tax incentive schemes designed to support them, including the Enterprise Investment Scheme and Research and Development tax credits.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and draw your Lordships’ attention to my entry in the register of interests.

My Lords, HMRC is currently exceeding its published customer services aim to process R&D claims and EIS applications within 40 working days. In some cases, this will involve contact with a company to undertake further checks, rather than immediate approval or payment. This is necessary to ensure that relief is claimed only by those who are eligible.

My Lords, I understand the need to check claims in certain areas. I am chair of the Finance Bill Sub-Committee of the Economic Affairs Committee, and we have reported on extensive R&D fraud, but there is no history or evidence of fraud in respect of EIS. However, there is evidence of heavy-handedness by HMRC in restricting claims, so will my noble friend agree to set up a working party that includes EIS fund managers to consider best practice and to reduce costs and unnecessary delay in granting EIS relief?

I am grateful to my noble friend. I know that HMRC regularly engages with industry and endeavours to work collaboratively with industry to improve guidance such that EIS applications can get through as quickly as possible. I hear his plea to set up a working group. I am not entirely sure whether a formal working group will be possible, but I will very happily take back his request that perhaps he and some of his colleagues can meet officials from HMRC to outline their concerns.

My Lords, there appears to be a dissonance between the Minister’s answer and the experience that industry is reporting to us. I spoke to Tech UK this morning and it said it had recently made representations to the Treasury, with worked examples of real-life situations that absolutely uphold the issue the noble Lord has raised today. This is not just about payment; it is about retrospective payments and it really puts businesses in danger when their cash flow dries up in these situations. So I ask the Minister to harness her natural curiosity, go back to her department and dig a little deeper, because it may be publishing results, but the experience on the ground does not match that.

I hear what the noble Lord is saying and I will very happily look at the evidence that he has provided to officials in the Treasury. Perhaps he would like to join the meeting with my noble friend Lord Leigh.

My Lords, in January the National Audit Office reported that error and fraud in SME research and development tax credits had increased to 24.4% or £1.04 billion. It added:

“There are too many examples where these reliefs either do not achieve their economic objectives or are subject to significant error and fraud costing the Exchequer billions of pounds”.

Can the Minister explain why the Government have failed to monitor benefits of tax reliefs?

The Government have actually monitored the benefits of the tax reliefs and indeed published independent reports at the 2023 Autumn Statement into EIS and SEIS. We have also published annual reports into R&D on whether the schemes are appropriately designed. However, the noble Lord raises a really important point. He is right that there has been an enormous amount of error and fraud, so HMRC has taken action and has boosted the number of people working in fraud from 100 to 500 people who are very much focused on those things. It was also the case that much of the fraud or error was happening using nominated bank accounts. HMRC has now closed the ability for companies to use nominated bank accounts, which will have an impact.

My Lords, further to the previous question, I ask the Minister: when will the Government conduct an impact assessment on both the EIS and SEIS investment schemes, specifically on the sustainability of businesses funded through these tax incentives? I ask because start-ups have a failure rate of around 90% and we should be clear about the costs/benefits when some £30 billion—so far—of taxpayers’ money has been involved.

As I said in answer to the previous question, an independent report has been published fairly recently on the design of the two schemes. It is the case that start-up companies sometimes fail and we need to make sure that we get the best value for money for the taxpayer. The Treasury is very focused on that.

My Lords, when these start-up companies grow, they may need additional funding. However, one of the main sources of capital for them in the past—the UK’s Small Cap stock index—is shrinking as firms list overseas or go with private equity. So I ask my noble friend the Minister: what are the Government doing to reinvigorate the Small Cap index, help our start-ups and keep them here?

London remains one of the leading financial centres in the world. The Government are incredibly focused on our domestic equity markets to ensure that they meet our ambitions of ensuring we have capital available to small companies. My noble friend will know that the noble Lord, Lord Hill, did a review into UK listings and we are taking forward his recommendations.

My noble friend will also know that the Government are proceeding through looking at all our regulation to ensure that it is fit for purpose for the UK and UK listings under the smarter regulatory framework. He will also have seen the reforms announced by the Chancellor in Edinburgh and at Mansion House. We are seized of the opportunity we have with domestic equity markets, whether they be for large cap or small cap companies. However, we recognise that there are things we can do to make them better.

My Lords, speak to any SME owner or business network and you will hear concerns about HMRC: contact wait times of over an hour, backlogs to review tax credit applications, delays of eight months to claim tax reliefs and phone lines closed for an entire summer. Tax incentives are a lifeline for many young companies. With nearly 50,000 SMEs reported to be in financial distress, does the Minister believe the problems at HMRC are now hindering economic activity?

I think the noble Lord has conflated a number of issues there into one thing. HMRC is an enormous organisation that deals with many types of individuals and corporates. Companies can contact HMRC via the corporation tax helpline—that phone line has not been closed at all—where they can get general advice on R&D or on EIS.

HMRC has also set up non-statutory advance assurance services for both elements under debate today. It means that companies can get in touch with HMRC before they make an application to make sure that, when they do make an application, it gets through first time—and, as I said in my opening answer, HMRC is working to its aims.

The noble Baroness told us earlier that small businesses occasionally go out of business—which I think is something of an understatement. In the last 25 years of these tax-supported schemes such as EIS, can she tell us what percentage of those businesses are still in business? If she does not have the data to hand, could she write to me?