LYME Regis Town Council has refused to cover additional expenses incurred by staff working from home during the coronavirus pandemic.
The town council’s office staff have been working largely from home since lockdown measures were first implemented in March. The easing of restrictions allowed them to return on a rota basis during summer, but the office was closed again in September on advice of the government.
To cover additional expenses incurred by employees while working from home, such as increased electricity, gas and water bills, Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC) has agreed that a tax-free payment equivalent to about £300 a year can be paid to those working from home during the pandemic.
As it is difficult to establish the exact expenses incurred by working from home, HMRC has suggested a flat rate allowance of £6 a week, or £26 a month, be paid by employers without evidence to support the actual costs.
If employers decide they do not want to make these payments, staff can claim tax relief direct from HMRC, but council officer Adrianne Mullins said they would have to provide evidence of the costs incurred to do this.
Councillors considered whether they wanted to cover the cost of additional expenses during a virtual meeting on video conferencing app Zoom last night (Wednesday).
The Mayor of Lyme Regis, Councillor Brian Larcombe MBE, opened discussions by proposing that the staff claim direct from HMRC, “rather than have us pay money out that we’re struggling with”.
Mrs Mullins, the council’s support services manager, said that if staff had to apply direct to HMRC they would have to provide evidence of their costs.
“For instance, I would need to trawl through all my electricity bills, water bills, gas bills and try and prove exactly how many units of electricity, water and gas I have used in order to do my work,” she said.
“It creates a lot of extra hassle and work for staff, where as the £26 is a flat rate which HMRC has agreed is a reasonable amount to pay. If an employee wants to do it directly they have to prove those costs.”
Councillor Cheryl Reynolds questioned whether HMRC would pay the council back if they did agree to cover the cost of additional expenses.
Finance officer Mark Russell said they would not be reimbursed, putting this down to “one of the quirks of tax benefits”.
Councillor Reynolds said the system was “ridiculous” and had “no common sense whatsoever”.
Councillor Michaela Ellis commented: “I think we should be supporting our staff and paying this. The money we will be paying out we will be saving because we will not be paying all our normal electric, heating and water costs in the office.
“It will balance itself out and we should be supporting them because this is something they’re having to do.”
The mayor argued that staff working from several different homes would cost more than heating and lighting one, single office.
“It’s costing more to accommodate home working, no doubt about it,” he added.
There was some confusion at the meeting over whether staff would definitely have to provide evidence of costs incurred if they applied direct to HMRC, with Councillor Rob Smith saying he did not believe this was the case.
But Mrs Mullins said that asking employees to claim direct from HMRC put the onus on staff to claim expenses that they wouldn’t normally incur.
In a break in normal council protocol – officers not usually involving themselves in debate – Mrs Mullins spoke out on the matter saying: “You have told us, you have instructed us, you must work from home now. I didn’t make the choice to work from home, none of my colleagues did.
“I would rather be in the office where I’m not having to pay for electricity, water and gas all day. You are instructing me to do that but you’re not going to pay me to be able to do that.”
The mayor then tried to interrupt her, saying her statement was “not quite right”, but Mrs Mullins continued.
“Can I finish my point first?” she said.
“I think there is also an issue of principle here as well because your staff have worked really hard during this period; really, really hard. We have worked from home, some of us with no holiday and doing other people’s jobs and I think it would be a little bit of a gesture to say, ‘actually we recognise you have worked from home, you have committed more time than you would normally, you have used your own bills to be able to do your job’.
“It would be a nice gesture if you paid us for the costs incurred to be able to do our job.”
Councillor Larcombe replied: “We’re not instructing you to work from home, the government has stated that you should work from home if you can. That’s the government instruction, not our instruction, and that’s why the government are allowing HMRC for you to claim that back.”
Councillor Kelsey Ellis said she agreed that they should cover the staff’s expenses, adding: “They have worked hard and they deserve to have this payment made.”
The mayor rebutted: “This is not about working hard, this is not a reward, it’s not about judging whether people are working hard or not – that’s nothing to do with it whatsoever.
“It’s about the government instruction to work from home if you can; it’s not us choosing to do that, it’s the government stating guidelines for working.
“If people are continuing to work from home, HMRC will give a tax allowance to allow you to do so.”
Pushing for the matter to be taken to a vote, Councillor Larcombe asked for no one else to speak on the matter unless they had a new point to bring up.
But tensions were raised with the difficulties of virtual meetings beginning to take their toll.
Councillor Michaela Ellis replied: “No, I am going to speak because you’ve had your say so many times, Brian, after everybody again tonight. We should be supporting out staff.”
Shown on video, the mayor then raised his hands.
Councillor Ellis continued: “Don’t raise your hands like that and make gestures; it’s so demeaning when you do that, you do it every time I speak and I’m not happy about it.
“We should be supporting our staff, they are doing something they have been forced to do because of this epidemic, we should not be asking them to have to file a claim for it.
Councillor Larcombe replied: “And you have made that same point endlessly tonight.’
Councillor Ellis: “And so have you on your point.”
Councillor Larcombe then asked Councillor Ellis not to interrupt him again.
Councillor John Broom commented: “Everybody is saying our staff have been treated badly; our staff have been paid 100% salary all through COVID-19. I know of big companies who have only been paying their staff 80%, which the government paid them.
“I think our staff have been very, very lucky. It’s gone on too long, they ought to wake up and smell the coffee!”
The matter was then taken to the vote, with those voting in favour of covering staff expenses being Cllrs Cheryl Reynolds, David Sarson, David Ruffle, Kelsey Ellis and Michaela Ellis.
Those voting against were Cllrs Stan Williams, Brian Larcombe, Graham Turner, Belinda Bawden, Rob Smith and John Broom. Cllr Gill Stammers abstained.
This means the motion to cover additional expenses incurred by staff working from home failed, and it was instead agreed they should claim direct from HMRC.