Alan Mak is MP for Havant and Founder of the APPG on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Improving Britain’s productivity is key to both our economic recovery after Coronavirus and enhancing our global competitiveness post-Brexit. The best lever for firing up Britain’s productivity is incentivising more investment in the latest IT and software, new plant and advanced machinery – all proven catalysts of growth and efficiency. Failure to direct billions of pounds into these fundamental building blocks of our economy will hold back our recovery.
The State cannot be expected to do all the heavy lifting, especially given the Government’s substantial spending commitments to help the country through the lockdown and beyond. Instead, it must be businesses that take the lead, especially SMEs who have traditionally made up the “long tail” of unproductive companies.
Rather than a safety-first approach of hoarding cash, postponing investment and hunkering down, businesses must be incentivised to invest more in the coming months. This must be an economic recovery powered by bold investment decisions that create jobs, upgrade technology and boost productivity.
The dampening effect on capital expenditure (capex) and investment caused by Coronavirus is already large and destructive. One investment bank estimates that £23 billion has been slashed from this year’s capex budgets already, whilst the Bank of England predicts a 26 per cent drop in business investment for 2020. In 2009, as the financial crisis erupted, the fall was 16 per cent by comparison. Some of the country’s biggest employers such as BP and HSBC have already started cutting investment.
In practice this means IT systems and software – now at the heart of every business – being used for longer. Machines normally replaced every decade will have their life extended. Trucks and vans will be allowed to age. Outdated buildings that offer no room for new employees will be kept on. Research and development (R&D) could stall.
Reductions in investment not only have negative consequences for our country’s GDP, jobs and productivity, it also damages our capacity for R&D and our reputation as a nation that innovates for the future – key to our leadership of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Reforming and adapting two existing incentive schemes – the Annual Investment Allowance and the R&D Tax Credit – would have a major impact in reversing this decline in business investment and productivity.
Introduce a new Annual Investment Allowance ceiling for green or digital investments
Capital allowances enable a business to deduct the cost of qualifying items from their profits, lowering their corporation tax bill. This incentivises investment in key productive goods from machines to laptops.
The Annual Investment Allowance (AIA) is the annual cap on such deductions and its level has varied dramatically in recent years from £25,000 in 2012 to £500,000 in 2015. Until December 2018, the AIA was £200,000 but it was raised to its current £1M level from January 2019. The £1 million level is due to expire this December.
To encourage a green recovery and investments that focus on digitisation, the AIA could be allowed to fall back to the previous £200,000 ceiling, except for certain types of capital expenditure that achieve environmental or digital goals which would still benefit from the £1 million special ceiling. Replacing a diesel-powered machine on the factory floor with one powered by electricity, or digitising a production line by adding new software powered by artificial intelligence (AI), could be examples of investment that would be rewarded by the new special AIA ceiling.
Alongside the introduction of a special £1 million ceiling, the scope of what can be claimed through capital allowances should also be expanded to take account of the growing digital dimensions of every business. For example, digital tools purchased on a subscription basis (such as monthly website hosting costs) should benefit from relief not just one-off investments in physical goods (such as buying a new machine).
Increase R&D tax relief rates for SMEs and widen the scope of the reliefs
R&D tax reliefs support companies that work on innovative projects in science and technology, and enables the cost of qualifying projects to be reclaimed from HMRC. They’re especially effective for digital start-ups, who get a tax break and much needed cashflow back for critical work.
From April this year the relief rate is 13 per cent, but the lion’s share of R&D tax relief is claimed by large, research-intensive businesses. SMEs can currently claim up to 14.5 per cent in certain circumstances, but incremental increases such as this do not have a dramatic effect on investment appetite.
Often the most cutting-edge innovation, especially in the digital sphere, is carried out by small teams and growing start-ups – not just multinationals. To encourage more micro businesses and SMEs to pursue more R&D, new and much higher rates of relief should be introduced. For example, a rate of 25 per cent for SMEs with fewer than 150 employees, and 35 per cent for SMEs with fewer than 50 employees.
What qualifies for relief must also be broadened to include more of the digital tools that software developers use, including software testing tools and data analytics software. In addition, cloud storage fees, user experience development work and the cost of buying data sets needed to train algorithms for AI-driven start-ups should also be tax deductible.
Britain is currently 19th out of the 37 industrialised nations in the OECD when it comes to R&D investment, spending 1.7 per cent of GDP against the OECD average of 2.4 per cent. To match world leaders including Germany and Japan, who invest over three per cent, we must urgently update and expand our R&D tax relief regime.
This is the second in a three-part series on how to boost our economy after Coronavirus.