TAX WITHOUT TEARS

The government has promised to kill the tax return. Casting himself as the champion of tax payers, in 2015 the then Chancellor, George Osborne said: the tax return ” is complex, costly and time-consuming. So, today I am announcing this. We will abolish the annual tax return altogether. Millions of individuals will have the information the Revenue needs automatically uploaded into new digital tax accounts.”

I can almost hear the cheers in the pubs, clubs and tea rooms of the nation – but let me add an important caveat before you celebrate with another Earl Grey. The single annual return is being replaced by 4 on-line returns.

The idea is that the scheme starts this year on a voluntary basis and become mandatory for millions of people next year. If you run a company or are a freelancer – this will almost certainly apply to you.

But the plans are not going down well.

The Treasury Select Committee Report on the policy said: “The cost is likely to be significant for a small business…Evidence given to the Committee suggests that under the current timetable, the total cost to business…might exceed the total benefits in improved tax yield.”

In other words, it may cost businesses more but might not save the government much.

Over 100,000 people signed a petition claiming that “The conservatives are not working for small businesses in bringing such legislation but adding burden.”

WHO THIS AFFECTS: This will apply to the vast majority of businesses, landlords and freelancers. If you fill out a tax return – this is something you need to know.

TIMING: They are starting a trial in April this year with volunteers. It becomes mandatory from 2018 for smaller businesses. Gradually more and more companies will be included in the scheme, adding in companies who pay VAT and Corporation Tax so that more and more companies get involved. By 2020 all companies will have to be using the system.

IMPLEMENTATION CONCERNS: The Treasury Select Committee said: “In the view of the Committee, a start date of April 2018 for mandatory MTD (Making Tax Digital) is wholly unrealistic.” In response, HMRC told me they “do not believe the current timeline is unrealistic. We believe it is achievable.”

COSTS: HMRC say they predict it will cost on average £280 per business as a one-off cost to move to the system. But thereafter, they say businesses will make a “modest saving”. Despite concerns that doing returns 4 times a year will be costly and complex – the HMRC say this is not true and it should be easier for people.

BENEFITS: This is all about what is known as the ‘tax gap’ which is the difference between the amount of tax that should, in theory, be collected by HMRC, against what is actually collected. HMRC estimate the gap is £8billion per year. They believe this new system will help eradicate the gap.

WHAT DIFFERENCE WILL IT MAKE TO TAX PAYERS: Presumably if it raises more tax – it means tax payers will end up paying more, but only what they are meant to pay.

In terms of process, in future it means that businesses and freelancers will have to keep their records digitally – in other words on a computer using some accounting software. Taxpayers will need to upload the data 4 times a year to HMRC. HMRC say it will help businesses get their tax right and avoid investigations.

FIRST STARTERS: The smaller businesses will be the ones to get moved onto the system first. HMRC say smaller businesses get their tax wrong most, so they need to use this system. There are fears that smaller businesses don’t have the resources to do it – but HMRC is staying firm. All companies will be using the system by 2020.

PAYING TAX: The HMRC say there are “no plans to change the time when people have to pay their tax. We will be offering voluntary option for people to pay as they go… they will be free to make that payment as they wish but it won’t be mandatory…”

Sceptics might think that because it puts the right tools in the hands of government, that they could in the future force people to pay tax more often. But HMRC said: “The government has no plans to change when businesses pay tax as a result of these measures.”

SOFTWARE: If you are keeping your records on pen and paper – you might well consider moving to computer records so you get used to the system before it’s needed. HMRC say they will tell people “in good time” about the changes they need to make. But it is not clear that all software will be HMRC compliant. They say there will be free software available. However they were unable to tell me which products available now will be compliant. They say “From 1st April there will be software products will do the updates….spread sheets can still be used as long as they link to software.” However that is only just before the trial starts and at most one tax year in advance of many companies being forced to adopt the system. Since it takes some time to get used to new software it might be worth trying to start using compliant software as early as possible.

Despite some difficult history of I.T projects within government, HMRC say this is “not that large” a project and they are sure it will go off without a hitch.

For more information find the Money Box Live on 1.2.17 on BBC Radio iplayer

 

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FOOD FIGHT

At my house there is an almost daily battle. It’s a three-way fight between me, the fridge and the bin.

Trying to ensure the family is fed before we hit the sell-by dates – is an ongoing food fight.

I hate to throw food away – it feels so wrong. But in many parts of the world, the fight over food waste is not just a moral issue, it’s an issue of survival.

I was in Kenya, in a town called Nakuru near the shores of lake Naivasha. We were there to film a story about how insect infestations and disease were devastating crops. It was causing huge amounts of food wastage and resulting in the misery of millions of Africans.

I had travelled to the outskirts of Niavasha to meet a small-scale farmer called Purity. She lives in a small house with a few surrounding fields. Showing us through her front garden, we had to step around the graves of two of her children and her husband. Here, hardship is so common as to be unremarkable and people regularly die young from disease and illness.

Purity grows maize, one of Africa’s staple crops. But disease has devastated her harvest and when a crop fails so does her family.

With no crop, she had to sell her only marketable asset – the family cow. The money they got, enabled her to keep her remaining children in school. But if the next crop fails – there will be nothing for it but to take the children out of school and put them to work.

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The culprit which had attacked her fields was Maize Lethal Necrosis Disease or MLND. The disease seems to have started in Kenya but has spread to Tanzania, Uganda and South Sudan. It can be devastating and there is little small-scale farmers can do about it.

The answer to Purity’s problems may lie not far from her door. Earlier on in the day I had met Dr. Boddupalli Prasanna, the Program Director of the Global Maize Program at CIMMYT which is trying to develop new crops, resistant to disease such as MLND.

But in Africa there is a large gap between what happens in the world of science and big agricultural firms and what happens in the fields of small scale farmers.

New crops are very expensive for ordinary Kenyans and many who scrape together enough money to buy them, are conned by small time crooks who say they are selling new disease resistant seeds, when in fact they are not. It is after all, very hard to tell one seed from another.

This scandal of counterfeit seeds wasn’t the story I had come to report on, but as is often the case – the more interesting and important tale is not always the one you turned up to tell.

Having heard the BBC were in town, a small group of women had gathered outside Purity’s house and were clearly waiting to talk to us.

The most vocal of the ladies grabbed my hand. “There is a scandal here.” She said. We have to buy our seeds in the local market. They say these are the new varieties but they sell us old rubbish seeds and our crops fail.” She implored me to try and help.

I held her hand and said I didn’t really know what I could do.

It’s a cruel crime which takes money from poor farmers and sells them a promise of disease resistant seeds which are nothing of the sort.  They fail, leave the farmers penniless and hungry with neither money or crops.

One lady in particular wouldn’t let go of my hand. The crew were already in our car waiting to leave and I was trying to edge my way towards them without being rude to the lady who had come to see us.

“Please tell our story” she said repeatedly. Tell people how ordinary Kenyans are sold old seeds and our crops fail and our families are destroyed. “Please tell them.” she said.

They were words she kept repeating as I got in the car. “I’m not sure I can do anything to help” I said.

“If you tell them, they will know our hardship and maybe something will happen to help us.” She implored, not keen to let go of my hand.

The crew were in the car. The story we had come to film was in the can. But standing outside the car was another, perhaps more important story. “I don’t know if it will make a difference” I said, “but yes I will try and tell your story.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An Unusual FTSE Boss

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Interviewing Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever

(I think my questions are sticking out of my back pocket)

Paul Polman is an unusual man for at least two big reasons. Most obviously, he is unusual because he is Chief Executive of one of the world’s biggest consumer brand companies, Unilever. But in many decades of interviewing senior executives he also strikes me as very unusual because of his willingness to engage in subjects of global concern such as environmental threats.

Much of the time of a CEO is spent trying to keep the support of major shareholders. Polman has been CEO for longer than most and it’s interesting therefore to know that in his early days running the company, rather than trying to keep shareholders on board, he spent much time trying to get rid of them. Many shareholders want short term returns, he told me. What he wanted was owners who were willing to look to the long term and so he tried to change the ownership of the company to those who would support those long term aims.

Polman appears to be a boss genuinely concerned about the environment and believes that companies can play a constructive role in helping improve it.  To that end he is tackling the problem of waste head on. Unilever says all of its factories now have zero waste – 600 factories globally recycling materials to create no waste at all, they say.

That’s quite a claim and something many believe is a model which others could follow,

The world produces nearly four million tonnes of municipal waste every day. If this trend continues, the daily amount is set to more than double by 2050.

CLEANER WORLD

GLOBAL WASTE GENERATION

2010                2020                2030                2040                2050

3.8                   4.1                   6.7                   6.9                   8.5

Unit: Million tonnes per day
Source: Hoornweg, Bhada-Tata & Kennedy, World Bank

 

2060                2070                2080                2090                2100

9.3                   10.2                 10.5                 11.0                 11.6

Source: Peak Waste: When Is It Likely to Occur?
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/enhanced/doi/10.1111/jiec.12165/

Looking over the river Thames on the roof of Unilever’s headquarters, Polman explained his corporate philosophy to me:

“Our role here is to look after the globe for future generations. Whilst we’ve been incredibly successful lifting enormous amounts of people out of poverty, unfortunately we’ve done it in a way that has resulted in quite a lot of over-consumption, acidification of oceans, plastic in oceans, air pollution, water pollution and frankly, leaving too many people behind.”

I asked him whether he felt it was too much to describe the environmental challenges we face as a crisis?

“No it’s not too much. Only 5% of packaging gets reused. So what we’ve now discovered because of population growth, this enormous level of consumption that has happened is that we need to move to a more circular model, where someone’s waste is someone else’s input.”

So just how is Unilever creating zero waste factories? One of its success stories involves a popular British food – Marmite. This savoury yeast spread is itself a by-product of the brewing industry – And now workers in Burton on Trent have come up with a use for the by-product of the marmite-making process.   They’re turning the sludge left in machines – which would previously have been washed away or been sent into landfill – into biogas.

That’s just one example of a different approach to manufacturing. I put it to Polman that this was rare. Indeed, perhaps it was an approach that other bosses shouldn’t take. After all their job is to make money for their shareholders who are trying to get a return for pensioners and their investors who need the company to make money rather than make an environmental statement.

He disagrees. He tells me that companies are corporate citizens who have a responsibility to lead change. But in leading change they don’t have to stop making money, indeed it’s just a new even more efficient way of creating sustainable profit.

He tells me “You have to believe in the goodness of people, which I sincerely do. You need to educate CEOs themselves to be able to verbalise to the financial community why it is important to invest for the longer term.”

One of the big challenges facing the world is sanitation, or the lack of sanitation. I asked Polman what companies like his do to help that?

“Yeah, it’s a tremendous opportunity actually” he says. “Despite the tragedy that 2.3 billion people don’t have access to clean drinking water or sanitation. We have set a goal to actually reach 1 billion people in the world with handwashing. The simple act of handwashing can cut infectious diseases like pneumonia, diarrhoea, by 75%. Currently we see every year 650,000 children die unnecessarily of these infectious diseases.

There’s over a billion people that don’t have access to sanitation in the sense of open defecation. Since our bleach cleaner Domestos is single-mindedly focused on building toilets, the brand is growing double digit.”

I asked him whether he felt such acts were part of the company’s charitable works – and he interrupts me before I’ve even finished the question.

“No, it’s not a charitable act for us. It’s an integral part. The more people have toilets, the better it is for Domestos. The more people wash hands, the better you sell your bar soaps.”

There are many in the world who try to make it better. There are many in the world who try to build companies, offer employment and improve economies. Paul Polman is a man who believes you can do both. Almost his final words, before we shook hands and left were these:

“We find out that every brand that has a strong social mission, because ultimately brands should be there to address issues in society, otherwise why should we accept them to be there? But the brands that have the stronger social mission grow at twice the rate of brands that don’t, and are actually more profitable as well. It makes good business sense.”

 

The interview and report on how to create a cleaner planet can be seen (only outside of the UK I’m afraid)  on BBC World News. For regular updates and behind the scenes pictures of our filming trips – follow @AdamShawBiz

 

 

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A Slice of The Sun

Energy – limitless, abundant and clean. That is the goal of scientists trying to create new energy sources.

Nuclear power has for a long time been the centre of much controversy. Although it doesn’t create the pollution associated with fossil fuels, it does leave us with an almost unimaginable period of radioactive waste, Radioactive isotopes eventually decay, or disintegrate, to harmless materials. Some isotopes decay in hours or even minutes, but others decay very slowly. Strontium-90 and cesium-137 have half-lives of about 30 years (half the radioactivity will decay in 30 years). Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years.[1]

So whilst nuclear power might provide a short term fix to pollution problems it can also create other problems which might last longer than modern man has existed. That’s why so many people are so worried about it.

But a tantalising possibility has been raised by nuclear scientists to create a form of nuclear power that provides almost limitless power with few side effects. This nuclear power is based on fusion. Traditional nuclear power stations are based on fission. The difference may sound little more than the replacement of a few vowels – but that is very misleading.

Fusion nuclear power is a world away from the fission power we know today and it involves creating a bit of the sun right here on earth.

The race is now on to design a fusion reactor. In France, they’re building one of the largest machines the world has ever seen. .

Burn one kilo of fusion fuel, it will generate the same amount of energy as ten million kilos of fossil fuel.

The problem is that nuclear fusion has for years been held up as a possible solution to our energy problem. It has always been the next big thing, but it’s never been the thing. However, there now does appear to be a critical mass of scientists, a new generation of brains determined to crack the problem.

So here is how it works. At the moment all of our nuclear reactors rely on nuclear fission. This process relies on the ability to split atoms to produce lots of power, but also, lots of radioactive waste.

A fusion reactor will join atoms together. It’s likely to be Hydrogen to form helium, like our sun. Any radioactive waste, they say will be relatively short-lived.

And the fuel? Well hydrogen is found readily in water, abundant the world over.

The proponents of fusion power have for years been promising us a plentiful and relatively safe form of new energy – well here at ITER in France they are starting to make good on that promise.

Over 200 experimental reactors have been built worldwide. But to date they’ve all consumed more energy than they produce. In other words they can make fusion happen but it takes so much energy to make it happen, that its pointless. You put in more energy than you get out.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, hopes to turn this situation around.

It is an enormous project. It’s going to cost at least 15 billion euros. It involves 35 nations and when it’s done they say it will be the largest experiment ever conducted by man.

It will be a 23-thousand tonne nuclear laboratory. Three times heavier than the Eiffel Tower.

The man heading up this remarkable scientific test bed is Bernard Bigot, ITER’s director general.

I asked him on the grand scheme of human innovation and science, how significant he thought this project was? His answer was unequivocal. “It is one of the most striking change in the history of technologies.”

That’s quite a claim. He and the other supporters of this project believe it could transform the world’s relationship with energy. He believes it will happen within the next 40 – 60 years. It’s not quick but science that might change the world never is.

The journey to a new energy source – is our Horizons programme this week. Do watch it and tell me what you think on Twitter at @adamshawbiz

 

[1] http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/radwaste.html

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A Hug and A Shot

We experience the world through our senses. Sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.  A problem with any one of them and you need help – a pair of glasses for instance. Or even a hearing aid. Well, we’re about to enter a new world of sense technology aided by Virtual Reality.IMG_0950.jpg

The sense of touch doesn’t really get the attention that the other senses get like sight and sound and yet it’s incredibly sophisticated. It enables us to tell between wet and dry, hard and soft, it gives us pleasure and pain – so could we create a second skin which creates sensations through electrical impulses? Well I’m about to find out.

I’ve arranged to meet the people behind a Tesla Suit. It looks like a wet suit but enables users to interact with the virtual environment and actually “feel” what’s going on inside a computer. It’s been designed by a group from Belarus who are now based in the UK.

The Tesla Suit uses something called haptic feedback – which is the mechanical stimulation to recreate the sense of touch and mimic sensations we experience in the real world so that we can feel them in the virtual world. At present the technology is, in the main, being advanced by the gaming industry, but there are potentially other far-reaching applications.

Before we started filming, there was much talk of my chest measurements and arm lengths so the team could ensure the suit fitted. I was under the impression there might be a range of them for me to try. As it turned out – there was only one. It was so tight it took three men to push me into it and do it up. Amazingly, once inside, I was so held together by the rubber – it did make me look rather buff – definitely worth the pain of forcing myself into it.

Dimitree Marozau is one of the founders of the Tesla Studios. He says it’s taken three years to create the suit and he let me put it through its paces.

I put on some virtual reality glasses and started a shooting video game. The different was that when my character in the game was shot, I actually felt a pain in my real body – delivered by the suit I was wearing.

It works – you don’t like being shot in the virtual world – because it delivers real pain in the real world.

But it’s not just for gamers. Dimnitri says it could deliver a virtual hug to you from your family – if you are abroad. He demonstrated by hugging the empty space in front of me – saying I would now feel a real hug through my suit.

In reality I just felt lots of small electric shocks. It wasn’t like any hug I’ve ever had. But the fact that it works at all is a small miracle.

The company says that the technology is just opening up a range of possibilities.  Dimitri says “Our vision was to send it over to space, because muscular atrophy is the biggest problem in space because people are not working out as much or they have to forcefully work out. Electrical signals conveyed by the smart fabric could be used to make the muscles of astronauts contract, compensating for the lack of gravity, and giving them a work out.”

There is research going on at the moment with people who have strokes. The recovery process involves electrical stimulation in certain parts to help the muscles to regain their memory, how they work, and to stimulate different parts of the body. And probably this one could take it to a next level.

This sensory technology may have started in the world of gaming but it’s already slowly moving into the world of medicine. Now that kind of science really does have the possibility to change the world and our experience of it.

 

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Me – The Great American Quarterback

 

IMG_0866Adam Shaw – the new High School Quarterback in Training.                                                                     Who said shoulder pads had gone out of fashion.

At school I played in the rugby team. But at my school you only played rugby if you were rubbish at football. We were so bad – at one point my captain got so confused he ran the wrong way down the pitch. I saw him run past me and delicately put the ball down across our own line, thus scoring points for the other side. This may have been the first time in the history of rugby that such a feat has been achieved. In fact it wasn’t a feat so much as an anti-feat.

I tell you this only to explain that I am not used to the triumphs and kudos that come from sporting achievements or the all-round adoration that attaches to the macho stars of sports.

However rather later in life than it comes to most, in this programme I was to become the quarter back star of an all-American football team.

I was there to test a new safety device which is supposed to reduce head injuries. It comes in the unlikely and rather underwhelming format of a sticker.

The lab behind the invention is based at the Simon Fraser University  Mechatronics Department – which is mechanical and electrical engineering combined.  Daniel Abram has been busy carrying out research to see if it’s possible to reduce injury to that fragile organ, the brain, which is made up of multi-billion neurons.

Adam and Daniel Abram, CEO BrainshieldDaniel Abram – leading the team to invent a sticker to help protect against brain injuries

I have to say when I was told we were visiting the lab – to see a company that has invented a sticker that you put onto a helmet that improves its safety, I was very, very sceptical that it would work.

Daniel told me there’s no magic to his team’s invention which is called the Brainshield sticker. It is all, he says, based on science.

To test the device, we put an American football helmet in a clamp and dropped a heavy block on it to see what happened. It was imitating the effect that a far too cool American teenager might have on my when he jumped on me to wrest a football from my hands.

In the lab under test conditions, we could see what happened with the impact on a dummy head inside a helmet without the Brainshield sticker. The head itself rotated causing potential damage to the brain. However once we put an ordinary sticker on the helmet and repeated the experiment, much to my surprise there was a lot less rotation of the dummy head. That reduced the sharp twisting to the brain that leads to injury.  The spread of force also means there’s also much less compression to the brain.

The sticker is made of microengineered layers. The layers are stacked on each other. And once it receives an impact, the layers move across each other. And by moving, the sticker doesn’t allow the phenomenon that causes that sharp twisting of the brain. Lots of layers within the sticker all shear apart absorbing the twisting motion –so the sticker takes the pain and your brain doesn’t. At least that’s the claim.

There are currently no independent research results for Brainshield, but they’re on the way.

So having tested it in the lab, in the spirit of Horizons, my producer thought it would be a wonderful idea for me to put the sticker to the test on the field. We headed to Handsworth High and their head coach Jay Prepchuk – who was about to put me through my paces as the teams newest yet oldest Quarterback.

He helped me into my kit and then much to my surprise – he started hitting me around the head  with the words ” This last test is just to kinda smack you. How does that feel?”

“Well, you’re hitting me in the head! Stop doing that, it’ll be fine!” I replied in what I hoped was a suitable sense of British reserve.

Adam and Jay Prepchuk, Football Coach

Coach Jay Prepchuk and his new Quarterback for the Wandsworth School team

Jay says the stickers have helped reduce the number of head injuries the team has had. That itself is not enough to prove the value of them – but the evidence we saw was certainly intriguing and looked like it would help.

One thing is for sure, the stickers might save your brain, they don’t make a middle aged Englishman a great American footballer.

 

 

 

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MEETING THE MAN ON THE MOON

A Rendezvous with Buzz Aldrin

The Real Rock Star

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I have interviewed the world’s richest men, have grilled the chief executives of some the country’s biggest companies and peered at test tubes with many of the world’s leading scientists – but my family have never been excited by the prospects of what I was going to do until I told them I was off to meet a man who walked on the moon.

Buzz Aldrin was the second man to walk on the lunar surface. In fact only 12 people have shared that adventure in the whole history of mankind.

It’s taken some time to set up this interview and despite offering to fly to wherever he was, it turns out that the most convenient time for him to meet me is when he is in London.

Buzz is 86 years old but he walks into our room like a rock star – which of course he is in a very literal way. He wears a short leather biking jacket and his fingers are covered in chunky rings. He has some large bracelets and star spangled braces. He drapes his leather jacket over the chair to reveal a trim body and a tight black tee-shirt.

He must have told his stories thousands of times but his eyes remain bright and he’s full of an energy that belie his 86 years.

I wanted to meet him not so much to talk about the adventures of his past but of his ideas for future space travel and in particular his designs to enable astronauts to travel to Mars.

Mars is roughly 225 million kilometers from earth. In a Jumbo Jet it would take more than 30 years, one way. With our current space technology we’re talking six to eight months.

To get round the problem of having to carry huge amounts of fuel to power the long journey to Mars – the Aldrin-Cycler spacecraft would use the gravitational orbit of earth and Mars to help keep a vessel on a continual orbit between the two planets.

Earth bound astronauts would then only need a rocket to leave Earth and join the Aldrin Cycler on which they are hitching a ride. Once the Cycler gets near to Mars they would then use their rocket to jump off and make a relatively small journey down to the Red Planet.

The Cycler relies on the right alignment of planets, so it couldn’t be used on a whim. And it would still take more than 5 months to get to Mars – nuclear propulsion –  which in theory uses a series of nuclear explosions to create thrust – could be much faster at around 30 days.  The Florida Institute of Technology, in the United States is working with Buzz to develop his ideas.

His idea, he says, is being taken seriously but I asked him whether it felt rather old fashioned to worry about putting people on Mars when robots could do the job as well. Wasn’t this idea a but stuck in the philosophy of the Apollo missions of old.

Not old fashioned and not silly, he says. Buzz talked about how we already built 2 Mars Rovers. In the space of 5 years he says they did the work  that an astronaut could have done in 1 week. Humans are still better than machines.

As Buzz’s family and assistants start looking like they need to move him to his next engagement, I asked how confident he was we would eventually land a person on Mars.

Getting there is the easy part, he says. It’s getting back that might be more difficult. With that he was rushed off to meet a party of school children at the Science Museum’s space exhibition.  With that, Buzz and his leather jacket bobs off into the distance followed by a comet-like tail of fans, family and advisors.

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