HMRC's press release heralds the decommissioning of the stamp duty press machines as the "end of an era" as the 300-year old process of manually stamping documents to evidence that the required transfer tax has been paid is (officially) going digital from 19 July 2021.
The process which used to require that hard copy originals be sent by post (or, in some cases, on the train, accompanied by a rather nervous trainee lawyer) to the Stamp Office in Birmingham had been unofficially digitalized since the outbreak of the pandemic, "effectively amount[ing] to a successful trial [convincing HMRC] that this was the right time to end the process of physical stamping". And that must be the right decision.
It was hard to see how, following the successful operation of a digital process for over a year, HMRC could have gone back to the outdated paper procedure. In this way, the press release merely confirms what most of us would have suspected in any event - especially after references tying the digital process to the pandemic were removed during an update of HMRC's guidance on completing a stock transfer form earlier this year.
The press release does, however, shed light on two questions I had been asking myself. What happens with the stamp presses? And how will they square the digital process with the wording of the legislation?
Three presses will be retained by HMRC to be displayed in the newly-created regional centres, but another five are now looking for new homes. If this made you think "perhaps something I could display in my office", you should probably think again - the press release warns that, at more than half a tonne, the presses are "very heavy", "will require careful handling and strong flooring". But if you're still undeterred, rehoming enquiries may be sent to email@example.com.
As regards the legislation, it looks as if no changes will be made - at least for now - given that the switch from a paper-based to a digital process has somehow been shoe-horned into section 22 of the Stamp Duties Management Act 1891 on the discontinuation of dies. Official announcements dated 18 June 2021 in the London, Edinburgh and Belfast Gazettes confirm that, with effect from 19 July 2021, "all physical stamp dies" will be discontinued and replaced by the new electronic procedure. Regarding a return email attaching a pdf confirmation as equivalent to a "stamp" with a lawful "die" still seems to me like a bit of a stretch on the natural meaning of those terms, but hopefully the announcements will be a mere stop-gap until stamp duty is finally merged with stamp duty reserve tax into one coherent digital system.
In many ways it is sad to see the presses go, almost like seeing a life-long colleague retire... (Angela MacDonald, HMRC’s Deputy CEO and Second Permanent Secretary)