UK Recovery Slower Than Expected 
In its latest forecast, published today, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) has warned that weaker economic growth and consumer spending will mean that public sector borrowing will shrink less than the Chancellor hopes.

Similarly to the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) assessment this week, NIESR says that the UK economy will grow by just 1.3 per cent this year and by 2 per cent in 2012. It had predicted growth of 1.4 per cent in April but the figure for next year remains unchanged.

However, unlike some analysts, it is slightly more optimistic about inflation and predicts that this will fall from 4.2 per cent this year to 1.9 per cent in 2012.

Like the IMF, NIESR says that the biggest risks faced by the UK’s economic progress come from abroad, and the eurozone in particular, as “a disorderly default in Greece, or the need for debt restructuring in other euro area countries, cannot be ruled out”.

Unlike the IMF, which is broadly in favour of the Government’s plan for recovery, NIESR calls on the Chancellor to slow the pace of reform in order to give the economy a short-term boost. Measures the think-tank suggests include targeted income tax breaks for those on lower wages.

Some of its bleakest predictions centre on unemployment, calling the current rate a “permanent scar” on the UK economic landscape. If structural unemployment settles at 6.2 per cent, as it forecasts, then 300,000 more people would be permanently unemployed than before the crisis.

However, NIESR also predicts that unemployment will peak at just 8.3 per cent next year, which is lower than its April forecast of 8.7 per cent. This is much better than the 10 per cent experienced in the last two recessions.

Overall, NIESR’s prediction is that it will not be until 2013 that “the recovery takes hold”.


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SMEs To Access Equity Finance 
As of yesterday, two deregulatory amendments to the EU prospectus Directive have been brought into effect to help small businesses access equity finance more cheaply and effectively.

According to Mark Hoban MP, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, bringing these measures into force a year early is a demonstration of the Government’s commitment to help UK SMEs access the finance they need.

Small firms will now be able to raise equity finance up to €5m before a costly prospectus must be produced. This rate has been doubled and the number of investors allowed to be targeted has also gone up from 100 to 150.

Mr Hoban said: "I’m delighted to announce that the UK is taking the lead in Europe by introducing these deregulatory measures early, saving UK SMEs £12 million per year. Reducing the regulatory burdens faced by business is vital in making the UK the best place in Europe to start, finance and grow a company."

"In order to play their part in the wider economic recovery, small businesses have to be able to access the finance they need - that includes making it easier for such businesses to tap into capital markets,” he added.

The news has been welcomed by business owners and analysts alike. And John Walker, National Chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, said:

"We welcome the fact that the Government is leading the way in Europe by making it easier for small business to access finance. More small firms should look at equity finance as an alternative route to accessing credit, and these simple changes will help firms who are looking to grow and invest."

"Extending the number of investors and increasing the prospectus value will help more small businesses access equity finance and show there are more options than just going to the bank for credit. What’s important is that small businesses are aware of the alternative routes to finance," he added.

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Head of HMRC Apologises For Poor Performance 
Chairman of Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC) Mike Clasper, apologized to taxpayers last week after the Treasury Select Committee uncovered a raft of problems with the service in 2010.

The apology came following the release of the ‘Administration and Effectiveness of HM Revenue & Customs’ report, which concluded that there was a “serious risk” that if communicating with HMRC became too time-consuming, difficult or expensive, “respect for the tax system and, with it, voluntary compliance, may be undermined”

MPs slammed HMRC’s performance and found a list of problems including bad management and demoralized staff. MPs also attacked HMRC for scrapping printed tax advice leaflets and putting all the information on-line.

Other problems highlighted in the report included unacceptable waiting times for replies to letters, over 50 per cent of telephone calls going unanswered and callers regularly being given incorrect information by inexperienced call centre staff.

The report said that “HMRC's delivery of services to the general public has fallen to unacceptable levels in several areas. There is considerable dissatisfaction among the public and tax professionals with the service provided by the department.”

The Committee also noted that the “flawed implementation” of the PAYE system had done “significant damage' to the public perception of HMRC and the general tax system.”

Amongst recommendations made to HMRC to improve its service are improving its telephone system, looking into an alternative to 0845 numbers and offering alternatives to on-line communication.

Mr Clasper admitted that HMRC had not been good enough in 2010 but added: “In 2011 we've been working very, very hard to improve things. We're handling the calls immediately much more frequently than we did in 2010 and as far as individual customers are concerned you know the post levels have dropped in half. That's not where we want to be but it's a lot better than where we were in 2010.”

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Changes To PAYE Will Affect SMEs 
The current PAYE system, which relies on employers submitting their tax return annually is being changed from April next year but according to a recent survey, many small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) have no idea that the changes or coming or of how they will impact on them.

Research from business software provider Sage UK has revealed that a majority of small and medium sized enterprises are not prepared for the impending changes to the system, called PAYE Real Time Information (RTI).

RTI aims to collect the information about tax codes and deductions automatically each time an employer runs their payroll. This information would then be submitted electronically to HMRC when the employees are paid. The employers would still calculate the tax codes and deductions but as it is Real Time Information it should lead to fewer errors at HMRC, as the information would be submitted at the same time the employees are paid.

All businesses will be affected by the changes, yet Sage’s UK Omnibus, which surveyed 1,100 small businesses, found that 76 per cent of them admitted to having no knowledge of the alterations.

HMRC will be piloting the Real Time Information system in April 2012 with the hope that all companies will be migrated over by the end of 2013. Employers will still be responsible for tax deductions and calculations but instead of submitting this data once a year they will be required to do so at the same time as their payroll, be that weekly, fortnightly or monthly.

Employers will need to ensure that their payroll systems are able to support RTI and upgrade them accordingly. But whilst these changes will initially require employers to outlay extra time and money, the RTI initiative should be a benefit in the longer term, in that their end of year processes will be significantly reduced and more accurate.


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Banks Need More Competition 
According to the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) the banking sector needs more competition rather than lending targets if it is to give small firms a better deal.

Figures show that the number of banks in the UK has fallen by 20 per cent in the last 10 years and the financial crisis could mean that there will be an even bigger reduction in the choice of banking services for small firms.

The FSB believes that the Independent Commission on Banking’s (ICB) proposal to separate the investment and retail divisions of banks will help small businesses get a fairer deal.

In February, the country’s five largest banks promised to lend £190bn to companies this year, including at least £76bn to small and medium-sized firms, under the Project Merlin agreement.

However, lending to businesses with a turnover of less than £25m is down by 4 per cent year-on-year, according to the Bank of England’s quarterly Trends in Lending report, published last week.

The FSB is urging that promoting competition in the banking sector should now be emphasised over Merlin targets.

National Chairman of the FSB, John Walker said: “The lack of competition in the sector is the most important thing that the ICB should focus on in its full report in September. The lack of competition gives small businesses less choice, and it also means that the cost of finance is more expensive.”

In a bid to promote competition, the FSB is calling on the ICB to recommend, amongst other things, that any moves to force the state-owned banks to sell off more branches than the EU Commission recommends should be used to help new entrants.

"Allowing new or even specialised banks to buy branches from the state-owned banks would boost competition on the high street; helping to drive down costs and gives the smallest of businesses a fairer deal,” Mr Walker added.

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