In the news: February 2023

In this month’s Enews we look at changes to the government’s energy support schemes and the latest analysis of inflation. We also update you on reforms to Research and Development (R&D) reliefs and the results of the ICAEW’s Business Confidence Monitor. With news on SME exports and the skills shortage, there is a lot to update you on.

Energy bill support for firms to be reduced from April

Businesses will receive reduced support for their energy bills from April as the UK government attempts to cut the cost of compensating for soaring gas and electricity prices, the Treasury has confirmed.

The Treasury said that the government will cap support at £5.5 billion for businesses over 12 months from 1 April 2023.

Bills will automatically be discounted by up to £6.97 per megawatt hour (MWh) for gas bills and by up to £19.61 per MWh for electricity bills, a statement said.

Heavy energy-using sectors, like glass, ceramics and steelmakers will receive a discount reflecting the difference between a price threshold and the relevant wholesale price.

The energy support scheme is mainly used by businesses but is also for charities and public sector organisations such as schools and hospitals.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said:

‘My top priority is tackling the rising cost of living – something that both families and businesses are struggling with.

‘That means taking difficult decisions to bring down inflation while giving as much support to families and business as we are able.’

Internet link: GOV.UK

Bank of England raises interest rates to highest level in 14 years

The Bank of England (BoE) has raised the base rate of interest to the highest level in 14 years.

The BoE raised interest rates for the tenth consecutive time on 2 February with a half point increase taking the base rate from 3.5% to 4%.

The decision was taken after the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) voted by a majority of seven to two to increase the base rate by 0.5%.

The MPC said it is confident that inflation has peaked and its approach is the right route to get it back under the 2% target.

David Bharier, Head of Research at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), said:

‘The Bank’s decision to raise interest rates for a tenth consecutive time continues its hard-line approach to inflation, but this is not without serious side-effects.

‘Our research shows that while inflation remains by far and away the top concern for businesses with 80% citing this in Q4 2022, concern about interest rates has risen sharply with 43% now citing this.

‘With the Bank expecting inflation to slow to around 4% by the end of the year, further rate rises could now simply add to the risk of a deeper recession, outweighing the benefits.’

Internet link: Bank of England website BCC website

Government launches consultation on R&D relief

The government has launched a consultation on simplifying the UK’s research and development (R&D) tax relief system, driving innovation and growing the economy.

The consultation runs to 13 March 2023 and sets out proposals on how a single scheme could be designed and implemented.

This would replace the two R&D tax relief schemes currently in place – the Research and Development Expenditure Credit scheme and the small and medium enterprises R&D relief.

This is part of the government’s ongoing R&D tax reliefs review, and follows changes announced at Autumn Statement 2022 where the generosities of the two R&D tax schemes were broadly aligned.

Victoria Atkins MP, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, said:

‘We are focussed on growing the economy – with thriving businesses bringing more jobs, higher pay and more tax revenue to fund our precious public services.

‘Getting R&D tax relief right and fit for the future sits at the heart of making sure the UK remains a competitive location for cutting edge research – helping new firms grow.

‘I welcome views on the option to simplify the scheme, especially from those who have experience of the existing tax reliefs.’

Internet link: GOV.UK

Fewer firms investing in training despite skills shortage

Fewer firms are increasing their investment in training and development despite a skills shortage, according to a survey by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).

The survey found that the proportion of firms intending to increase investment in training and development over the next year has fallen.

It also showed a widespread lack of awareness of key government skills reform programmes, including around the Lifelong Loan Entitlement and the Local Skills Improvement Plan.

Of the firms that do not offer apprenticeships, the key reasons for not doing so were identified as a lack of compatibility between current apprenticeship standards and skill needs; the complexity of administration; and greater relevance of other forms of training.

Matthew Percival, Programme Director for Skills and Inclusion at the CBI, said:

‘Businesses and government need to be pulling every lever to tackle the labour shortages that are holding back growth and putting business investment at risk.

‘Increasing business investment in skills is important and possible, but will require government and businesses to work together to remove the barriers that stand in the way. For example, by remodelling the Apprenticeship Levy into a Skills Challenge Fund – a measure strongly supported by the business community – we can boost employer skills investment and business performance while supporting the government’s skills reforms.’

Internet link: CBI website

UK business confidence plummets to 13-year low

The UK’s business confidence has dropped to a 13-year low, according to a survey conducted by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW).

The ICAEW’s latest Business Confidence Monitor (BCM) showed that record high inflation and rising costs, including energy and the cost-of-living crisis, have adversely affected business confidence.

The latest monitor showed confidence had fallen to -23.4 for Q1 2023, the lowest since the global financial crisis of 2009. This has dropped considerably when compared to -16.9 for Q4 2022.

Most sectors have shared this decline, with construction, property, retail and wholesale and manufacturing the least confident. Annual growth in domestic sales was slowest in the manufacturing and engineering (3.9%) and retail and wholesale (4.8%) sectors.

Michael Izza, Chief Executive of the ICAEW, said:

‘Financial challenges have had a big impact on certain sectors and across the board investment is set to fall over the next year, but it is notable that sentiment could be starting to level off.

‘With confidence at a decade low, it’s time for the Chancellor to outline his long-term vision for growth for Britain, injecting resilience into the economy and bringing in a period of renewal for the future.’

Internet link: ICAEW website

Small firms ‘facing challenges when applying for financing’

Many small firms in the UK face challenges when it comes to finding and applying for funding, according to a report published by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB).

The FSB’s report found that ‘widespread uncertainty’ exists among small businesses in regard to where to get information on the types of finance available to them.

Two thirds of small firms stated that they are planning to make some form of investment in their business by 2024. However, only 49% said that they have information on the different types of financing options available to them.

The FSB has urged the government to ‘take action to improve the financing landscape for small businesses’. It recommends introducing a VAT-based capital investment incentive; encouraging the use of the Bank Referral Scheme; and expanding the Start Up Loans Scheme from 11,000 to 15,000 loans per year.

Martin McTague, National Chair of the FSB, commented:

‘Small businesses that cannot access finance are small businesses that are cut off from opportunities to grow and expand. It’s that simple.

‘As a country, we cannot afford to have a repeat of the post-credit crunch scenario, where the dreams of thousands of entrepreneurs and business owners were crushed by a withdrawal of finance options, leaving them unable to continue and deepening the UK’s economic woes.

‘Many small firms now are in a highly precarious position, carrying debts from the pandemic, with the Bank of England raising the base rate, and with funding options getting scarcer and costlier.’

Internet link: FSB website

BCC warns SME exporters ‘under tightening pressure’

The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) has warned that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that export are facing ‘tightening pressure’ as a result of decreasing export sales.

The BCC’s quarterly Trade Confidence Outlook report, which polled more than 2,300 SMEs, showed that 27% of exporters recorded decreased export sales during the fourth quarter of 2022.

The survey showed that 26% of businesses saw increased export sales, whilst 47% reported no change. 36% said they expect to see increased profitability in the next 12 months; however, 35% anticipate a decrease.

William Bain, Head of Trade Policy at the BCC, commented:

‘Last autumn the World Trade Organisation forecast global trade growth of just 1% in 2023, down from 3% in 2022. This is creating huge headwinds for smaller UK firms battered by the pandemic, Brexit and energy price shocks.’

Internet link: BCC website

Pensioners outnumber young people for filing self assessment tax returns

HMRC has revealed that more pensioners filed a tax return for the 2020/21 tax year compared to young people.

Overall, those aged 65 and over accounted for 16% of individuals who submitted a tax return, whereas 16 to 24-year-olds made up 2.7% of total filers.

The new data is part of an analysis by HMRC into the demographic data of self assessment taxpayers. The largest group of self assessment filers were 45 to 54-year-olds, who accounted for 24% of all tax returns submitted.

Men accounted for 62% of those who submitted a return last year, compared to 38% who were women. The data also showed that almost 146,000 people submitted their tax return at the earliest opportunity between 6 and 11 April 2021.

Internet link: HMRC press release