Extraordinary times call for extraordinary effort from publishers
A guest blog by Andrew Hubbard, Editor in Chief of Taxation magazine.
You hardly need me to tell you that these are extraordinary times for tax advisers. Ever since the Chancellor’s initial announcements of support for business through the tax system phones have not stopped ringing as clients, some in dire financial straits, press for information about how much they are entitled to and when will they get it. And therein lies the problem. How do advisers get hold of the information that they need to do their job in these unprecedent circumstances, when all of the tax rules we have grown up with seem to have been thrown out of the window?
As tax publishers our business at Tolley is to provide information and guidance. We recognised very quickly that we had a responsibility to put something in place on the Covid-19 tax measures. We have many different on-line resources, but those are subscription based and we took the decision early on that we should do something for the whole of the tax community, by providing a service open to anybody who wanted to use it. It had to be stand-alone but linked into our existing digital infrastructure. Easy to say, of course, but the reality was that we had to build a completely new website from scratch in a matter of days – a challenge which we manged to meet through long hours of working and very close collaboration between our tax writers and our technology teams. We’ve spent a long time building those internal relationships and the mutual understanding that we have fostered has proved invaluable as we work together in a pressured situation.
The design of the system raised some thorny issues. For a start how should it be organised, given that we had very little idea of how much material we would end up with or what it would cover. Should it be structured by tax or by topic? Should, for example, managing cash flow be a topic in its own right or should we deal with cashflow issues on a tax-by-tax basis? Should we cover benefits, grants and credits? These are not something we typically deal with in our tax publications, but they are of real concern to advisers at the moment. What about purely legal content? How best should we link up with our colleagues in legal publishing? We had to make a series of ad hoc decisions in order to get things up and running knowing that we had built in the scope to make future changes. We’re already making some tweaks in the light of our experience of how people are actually using the site.
Even more difficult was how we actually wrote content. There is little point in repeating word for word what has already been published – we want to help readers understand what they actually need to do in practice. Herein lies a big problem. As tax professionals we are used to starting with the legislation and then reviewing HMRC guidance as an aid to interpretation. Here of course there is no legislation: only guidance, which simply does not have the same precision of language. For example the initial guidance on the job retention scheme used the terms “employee” and “worker” almost interchangeably: was there a distinction? Similarly, when the self-employed scheme referred to “trading profit” what measure of profit was actually to be taken? Without tight definitions it has been very difficult to write definitive guidance. This is not to criticise HMRC, who in my estimation have handled matters well so far. It had to get some general guidance out to taxpayers as early as possible to give them some indication of what could be expected: it would have been no use whatever to have produced reams of impenetrable legislation. As time has gone on the guidance has expanded and some of the gaps have been filled in. I expect that process to continue.
That brings me to my final point. How do we ensure that we keep things up to date? Since the early announcements HMRC has revised its guidance several times and it has not always been easy to keep track of what has changed. But guidance is only one source of information. Bits of information crop up all over the place, from formal ministerial statements to anecdotal evidence shared second or third hand: it can take time to get to the bottom of where the latter has actually come from and what reliability can be placed on it. Speculation can also get in the way. A few weeks ago a story was doing the rounds that the government had published new rules for a self-employed support scheme: in reality somebody had pick up on an amendment proposed by the opposition and had not realised that it was not government policy. Trying to keep on top of everything in a fast-moving situation has not been easy, but our writers have worked very well as a team to ferret out as much information as possible and turn it into practical guidance. I’d like to thank them publicly here for their hard work and dedication.
In these very difficult times we in the profession have to stick together and support each other. I know from many conversations with advisers just how tough it is out there for businesses, and if we can help just a little by pulling together the information which advisers need to help them guide their clients through these unchartered waters then I for one will consider that all of the effort involved in creating the site will have been well worth it.
Andrew Hubbard is editor in chief of Taxation magazine. Taxation is published by LexisNexis and has a wider editorial role across many Tolley publications. Andrew is also past president of both the CIOT and ATT.