EDITORIAL

Welcome tax relief for elders

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The Finance State Minister is reported to have said that the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) has decided to refund the five per cent withholding tax levy (WHT) deducted on the interest income of senior citizens after September 10 in case the interest income is less than Rs. 100,000 per month. He said this decision was taken with the Finance Minister, who is also the President, after considering the situation of senior citizens and the many requests to refund the WHT.

The State Minister also said, “We negotiated with the Inland Revenue Department (IRD) to refund the five per cent deducted as WHT for senior citizens, and accordingly, they agreed to refund the amount deducted from September 10.”

The decision by GOSL will undoubtedly bring some cheer to those who stand to receive the refund. By enforcing a five percent WHT at source, the GOSL collected taxes even from those not liable to income tax, assuming their total income for the year was less than Rs. 1.2 million.

We need further details on how the refund will be operationalized because getting any refund of taxes overpaid from the IRD has been historically nearly impossible. It is possible that the GOSL may ask the Banks who initially deducted the WHT to effect the refund to the senior citizens. In return, the banks will be either refunded this amount or allowed to set it off from future WHT to be remitted.

However, the State Minister or IRD must clarify an important question. How will the IRD or the Banks ascertain whether a senior citizen who claims a refund has multiple fixed deposits across banks where the monthly interest will exceed the threshold of Rs. 100,000 per month? It will be recalled that the President recently stated there are nearly 55 million fixed deposits amongst the population of 22 million.

Given that many within the 22 million don’t hold any fixed deposits, the probability of a person having multiple fixed deposits across more than one bank is relatively high.

Another problem that will be encountered is where interest is paid on FD’s maturity and where the tenor might be three, six months or twelve months. Who will monitor whether the cumulative interest for the year will be less than Rs 1.2 million and whether WHT should be refunded or not deducted? The State Minister did not say whether a senior citizen claiming a WHT refund should have a tax file opened at the IRD. If such a requirement exists, most senior citizens hoping for a quick refund will be disappointed.

An alternative would be to obtain a signed declaration from the deposit holder that his monthly income is less than Rs 100,000 or that his annual income is less than Rs. 1.2 million. This was the methodology used when the GOSL requested the Banks to pay an interest of 15% to senior citizens on a single deposit of Rs. 1.5 million. Whether there was widespread abuse, with senior citizens submitting multiple declarations to several banks and earning the enhanced interest rate, is unknown. However, many banks have complained that they are yet to receive the amount due to them from the GOSL.

The GOSL annual estimate for the collection of Income Tax was Rs 100 billion, of which Rs. 70 billion has been collected in the first six months. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the annual target will be well exceeded. As such, the GOSL can afford to extend some concessions to the senior citizens and those in the middle class with only salaried income who have been most affected by the new tax rates and reduced thresholds.

The Member of Parliament and Chairman of the Sectorial Oversight Committee has, over the last year, on several occasions disclosed some abysmal figures in terms of the number of tax files opened by individuals, the paltry amount paid by them as taxes and that of the 105,000 companies in the books only 15,000 pay any taxes.

He has also alluded that certain Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise Department officers are under performing in collecting taxes, and GOSL must restructure all three to achieve the goals in terms of tax collection. It will be interesting to know how many MPs have a tax file and how many file their annual returns and pay taxes.

Undoubtedly, the lack of digitization in the country is a severe drawback in many aspects, including collecting taxes and refunds due to taxpayers being processed. In most developed and developing countries, citizens need a tax file number when dealing with financial institutions. In Australia, when an individual fills out their electronic tax return, the box where bank interest income needs to be disclosed is already filled with the interest income earned from various banks. This is possible because the banks have submitted the relevant information to the tax authorities based on the tax file number of the deposit holder.

The importance of the country’s digitization can not be overemphasized, and the recent initiative by the GOSL to commence this with assistance from India is a step in the right direction. However, once again, a statement made by the Minister of Public Security that he will not allow a foreign company to have access to the blood group of our citizens indicates that there will be unnecessary delays based on unfounded concerns.

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