Small businesses’ debt to ATO soars

The COVID pandemic has seen collectible debt owed to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) reach $34 billion, most of which is owed by small business at $21 billion. This has raised concerns that small businesses may be subjected to harsh debt-recovery actions by the ATO, along the lines of the measures they employed before the COVID-19 crisis erupted.

The Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman, Kate Carnell, has urged the ATO to refrain from returning to heavy-handed tactics, despite debts owed hto them hitting a record high.

“The ATO rightly took a softer approach towards small businesses during the COVID crisis, but we don’t want to see a return to the extreme enforcement actions my office brought to light just a couple of years ago,” Carnell said.

The Ombudsman noted that previous actions, such as garnishee notices, resulted in the crippling of small businesses, and said that it is critical that the ATO now use its powers proportionately and appropriately so as not to negatively impact the SME sector.

Carnell also called for a range of reforms to address concerns regarding the ATO’s treatment of small businesses raised in the ASBFEO report A tax system that works for small business. Recommendations include the waiving of interest and penalties for a first offence, restricting ATO review and audit periods to one year when a small business is using an accredited tax or BAS agent, and immediately ceasing debt recovery action against a small business that is seeking a review of its tax position, regardless of whether the dispute is before the AAT.

“It’s important that small businesses in dispute with the ATO are given a fair go,” Carnell said. “The ATO quite reasonably sees its role as an enforcer of taxation laws, but too often it loses sight of the people running the business. This is particularly evident in the area of debt collection, but it’s exacerbated by our overly complicated tax laws.”

The report also highlighted the small, achievable changes to the tax system that would make a huge difference to small businesses. This includes making compliance easier by allowing small businesses to opt-in to GST being collected and remitted directly to the ATO at the electronic point of sale, and income averaging measures that would help small businesses pay the right amount of tax in good years and bad.

“Tax compliance costs small businesses about $90 per $1000 turnover, about 225 times more than the cost for big business ($0.40 per $1000 turnover),” Carnell pointed out. “Under the current system, small businesses are the ATO’s unpaid tax collectors including everything from the GST to PAYGW.

“Over the past few decades, administration responsibilities have shifted from the government to small businesses, which face significant penalties and interest if an honest mistake is made,” Carnell added. “That’s why our report makes a number of recommendations to take this unnecessary burden off the shoulders of small businesses. At the end of the day, the taxation system should be easy to get right and hard to get wrong.

“Now is the time to deliver a system that works for the small-business sector and will allow them to achieve greater productivity, return to profitability and grow employment – especially given so many small businesses have endured enormous challenges over the past 12 months,” Carnell concluded.

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