A week of U-turns in “tax land”

Not a great week for the UK Government and in particular George Gideon Oliver Osborne.  The problem here for the coalition government is not just the fact that there has been three U-turns in one week, it is the feeling that the March Budget was a bit of a shambles.  I would not go as far as that but it does seem a bit odd to me that so much was made of the so called “pasty” and “caravan” taxes and not that the UK Government did not even consider reducing VAT on repairs and renovations on residential property. 

As suspected the proposed cap on tax relief for charitable donations has been dead in the water for a number of weeks.  All we heard this week was  confirmation of that fact.  One final point on this.  These three U-turns come at a cost of approximately £150m.  Where is that revenue now to come from?   

“Flat rate” taxes were all the rage a few years ago.  Personally I have not been persuaded by the arguments put forward.  That said, as we start to think about how a Scottish tax system might look flat rate taxes should also be considered.  The latest call again came from those generally regarded to be on the political “right”, the TaxPayers’ Alliance and Institute of Directors.  In addition to arguing for a single rate of income tax the usual noises were made for the tax system to be simplified.  No-one is likely to argue against a simpler tax system until specific proposals are made.  For example, recent changes to the amount of personal allowance for those aged over 65.  This change has been termed the “granny tax”.  I did though like the idea of abolishing certain taxes although not necessarily those listed in this report.  It is claimed that the cost of these proposals would be met by prolonging the UK Coalition’s spending cuts by an extra five years.  More on this can be found here.  The report also claims that these changes would increase gross domestic product by 8.4% over 15 years.

Again on tax rates.  According to City A.M. the UK has continued to raise taxes while most other European Union countries tax rates have fallen.  The European Union average top rate of income tax decreased from 44.8 to 38.1% between 2000 and 2012.  In this same period, the UK’s average rose from 40 to 50% although the top rate is to fall from April 2013.  Unless of course we see another U-Turn.  The UK has though followed the European Union wide trend for raising VAT.  The average rate has risen from 19.2 to 21%, with the UK’s up from 17.5 to 20%.  The report from City A.M. can be found here.

Some stories do not surprise you in any way.  This is one of them.  Taxpayers are spending more than £1 million every month on the rent and upkeep of empty fire service control rooms that have never been used.  Details revealed under Freedom of Information legislation show that only one of the nine Fire Control centres is operational, despite the fact that taxpayers will continue to pay for their upkeep for up to 20 years.  This was reported in the Times on 24 May. 

Then there are stories that do surprise you but shouldn’t.  This is one of them and is also a story I have covered recently.  3,000 civil servants are employed by private firms in order to keep their tax bills down.  By remaining off the UK Government’s payroll, thousands of officials are avoiding paying national insurance contributions and are able minimise their overall tax contributions.  The report from HM Treasury can be found here.    

Good news that could have been even better news.  HMRC collected an extra £4.32bn during the last five years.  This is 11 times greater than the investment made for collecting this extra revenue.  However, a House of Commons Public Accounts Committee report claims that another £1.1bn could have been collected without job losses at HMRC.  A report on this from the BBC news website can be found here.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and in particular its managing director Christine Lagarde, is rarely out of the news these days.  Lagarde has said said that the UK economy had underperformed and unemployment remained much too high.  The IMF urged the UK Government to consider cutting interest rates and a further round of quantitative easing.  Ms Lagarde also said that UK ministers should prepare a plan for a worse economic environment which could include a cut in VAT.  However, the IMF also said that the UK Government should not divert from its aim of deficit reduction.  A report from the BBC news website can be found here.    

How to win friends and influence people.  Political parties in Greece have criticised Christine Lagarde for suggesting that Greeks were avoiding paying taxes.  Socialist leader Evangelos Venizelos accused Ms Lagarde of “insulting the Greek people”.  A report, again from the BBC news website, on this can be found here

There may be trouble ahead.  The UK Supreme Court has ruled that HM Treasury breached European Union law by retrospectively blocking tax refund claims.  The amount involved could be as much as £5bn.  Not surprisingly, HMRC has said that it is “considering the implications of this complex judgement carefully.”   A report on this from City A.M. can be found here
Now to what some might consider an overreaction.  Some US politicians are so irked at the idea that Americans are renouncing their citizenship to avoid tax, that they are introducing a new Senate bill to tax them forever.  A report on this from ABC news can be found here.  In addition, Congress is close to approving a law under which the Internal Revenue Service will be able to revoke the passports of Americans who owe substantial unpaid taxes.  An article from the Wall Street Journal on the passport claim can be found here

I think I will finish with fiscal powers.  HMRC is under no obligation to implement any tax proposal made by the Scottish Government under the Scotland Act.  HMRC can effectively veto any proposal if it differs too greatly from the UK system.  A report on this from the Herald can be found here.  I find it worrying that anyone is at all surprised about this.  I would be even more worried if I thought that anyone actually believes that HMRC and HM Treasury are happy to see tax powers being devolved.  I suspect that there are very few people in HMRC and HM Treasury who are happy to see the beginning of the end for a unified UK tax system.  An earlier blog on this point can be found here.     

Also on fiscal powers.  I still think it is unlikely that the so called “second question” will be asked as part of the independence referendum.  What will those who are arguing for “devo plus” and/or “devo max” do?  Will they vote for independence or the status quo and the hope of something more in the future?  This is an issue I will come back to after my well deserved holiday.  

Have a good weekend.

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Another week in “tax land”

Given it is local election time I think the level of funding for council tax benefit is an appropriate place to start.  The Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities have decided to provide £40m to make up a shortfall of council tax benefit funding.  An article on this from the Scotsman can be found here.  The figure that stands out is the 558,000 people in Scotland who receive this benefit.

The Confederation of British Industry has denied that big companies are benefiting from “sweetheart deals” with the taxman.  HMRC has faced criticism over alleged secret deals with the likes of Vodafone and Goldman Sachs over unpaid tax.  The CBI briefing note is well worth reading and can be found here.

The campaign trying to make the UK Chancellor think again over the latest increase in air passenger duty continues.  The latest claim from this group of aviation and business organizations can be found here in an article on the Herald.  Part of this claim is that overseas tourists have been put off coming to the UK during the Olympics because of punitive air taxes.   The group says bookings from Australia and New Zealand are down by 25% compared to the same period in 2011.

The furore surrounding the UK Chancellor’s tax relief cap and how it might impact on charities continues.  I liked this opinion piece found on the website of the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations.  The piece can be found here.  Although I see the need for tax caps and/or investment limits in certain circumstances, for example under the Enterprise Investment Scheme or Venture Capital Trust relief, I would be surprised if this policy in its present form survives the summer.

It seems that mortgage lending rose sharply in March as buyers rushed to complete sales.  The stamp duty land tax exemption for first-time buyers who bought homes valued at between £125,000 and £250,000 came to an end after two years on 24 March.  The UK Government do not think that this relief has been effective in increasing first-time buyer numbers.  A report on this from the BBC news website can be found here.  I continue to be surprised that our politicians fail to campaign for a change to the 1% and 3% stamp duty land tax rates and bands.

A study by the Taxpayers’ Alliance has revealed that 3,000 council employees across the UK were paid six-figure sums in 2010-11, a rise of 13 per cent on the previous year.  The highest paid was in Glasgow where Ian Drummond, formerly executive director of special projects who has since left the post, received a £450,628 package.  Reports like this confirm the view held by some in the private sector that our local authorities completely lost the plot over senior salaries.  An article on this from the Scotsman can be found here.

Scotland appears to be moving towards charging shoppers around 5p every time they use a plastic bag.  This if often referred to as a “plastic bag tax”.  Scottish ministers have again indicated that it will consult on the matter in the near future.  Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland already have such a charge.  It does seem that the Scottish Government is dragging its feet on this.  A plastic bag tax was thrown out by MSPs during the last parliament when Liberal Democrat Mike Pringle tried to push through a 10p levy.  An article on this from the Daily Express can be found here.

A tax fraudster, who fled the UK four years ago after telling a judge in a note that he was unprepared to go to jail and found the idea frightening and upsetting, has been extradited from France and is beginning a six year prison term.  Mark McGovern had pled guilty to laundering £278,340.87 of criminal proceeds in April 2008, following a wider HMRC investigation into VAT fraud.  More on this can be found here.  I would have thought that most people would find the thought of being locked up frightening and/or upsetting.  Not surprisingly that is not a good enough reason to avoid being sent to prison.

New figures from the Office for National Statistics have shown that the UK Government has met its borrowing target for the year, despite borrowing more than expected in March.  An article on this from the BBC news website can be found here.  Worryingly these figures also show that most of the cuts to public spending have yet to be made.

Now to the USA and the announcement of a dramatic increase in citizenship renunciations.  According to Internal Revenue Service figures, at least 1,800 Americans renounced their USA citizenship in 2011, an all-time record at eight times the 2008 number.  The main reasons given are the USA’s worldwide taxation system, the Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts rules and  the Foreign Accounts Tax Compliance Act regime.  An article on this from the Daily Mail online can be found here.  The USA is one of a handful of countries to tax its citizens on income earned while abroad.

Then there were two.  Francois Hollande defeated Nicolas Sarkozy in the first round of France’s presidential elections.  The tax and fiscal policies of the final two candidates, in particular Hollande’s, have received a great deal of international press coverage.  An example of this coverage, from Bloomberg’s Paris correspondent, can be found here

Now to a Budget statement from 1940.  “New British budget announced: higher income tax, increased duty on alcohol, tobacco & matches, to raise an unprecedented £2bn for war costs.”  Thanks to @RealTimeWWII.  Notwithstanding duty on matches interesting to see how little has changed.

Finally I was very sad to hear of the death of Stephen Maxwell.  I got to know Stephen very well over the last few years and he is a great loss to those arguing for greater fiscal powers and the wider independence movement.  A real gentleman at all times.

Have a great weekend.

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Another week in “tax land”

Where to start?

The fall out surrounding the UK Chancellor’s Budget statement continues.  The House of Commons Treasury Select Committee has said that the Chancellor’s plans to scrap the 50p tax rate don’t add up.  In addition it criticized the numerous Budget leaks.  An article on this from the Daily Mail online can be found here.

I am surprised that more has not been made of the change to the 40p income tax band.  One of the arguments put forward for reducing the top rate of income tax was the effect it was having on entrepreneurship.  I cannot see how massively increasing the number of people liable to pay income tax at the 40p rate compliments that argument.

Then there is the charity furore and the apparent contradictions in the arguments put forward by the UK Government in support of this policy.  The fact that some UK Government Ministers fought extremely hard to reduce the top rate of income tax is well documented.  Now the UK Government is criticising the fact that rich people don’t pay a high enough rate of income tax.  In addition, the UK Government has made it clear they wish to increase charitable giving.  Only a year ago, in the 2011 Budget, the UK Chancellor announced proposals to support giving, such as a lower rate of inheritance tax for those leaving 10% of their estate to charity.  The UK Government started by saying that the policy is needed by alleging that high earners are using donations to dubious charities to reduce their income tax bill to almost zero.  Now it is talking about fairness.  Will this policy even survive the summer?  An article from the STEP online journal on this issue can be found here.

HM Treasury has released figures showing the extent of tax avoidance by the UK’s so called “super rich”.  Robert Peston has written an excellent article on this.  His comment on the contrasting approach taken by George Osborne and his Labour predecessors is particularly noteworthy.  If the report does tell us one thing, it is how complicated a picture this is.  One fact does though stand out.  73% of those earning over £250,000 were paying an average tax rate above 40% in 2010/11. Robert Peston’s article from the BBC news website can be found here.

Good to see the Church of Scotland entering the earnings and taxation debate.  A Kirk commission has issued a report on the “greed and inequality” of the bonus culture and tax avoidance.  An article from this from the Herald can be found here.

Now to what is expected of HMRC in the next year.  HMRC’s remit for 2012/13 is:

  • improving tax collection
  • delivering cost reductions
  • improving services for individual and business customers
  • Real Time Information
  • tax policy and the policy partnership

The context to this is fewer staff and a smaller budget.  More on this can be found here.

The Scottish Parliament this week endorsed a legislative consent motion which effectively allows the UK Government to pass the Scotland Bill, also known as “Calman minus”, at Westminster next week.  Have I anything else to say on this?  No.  The term “Calman minus” says it all.  An article from the Scotsman on this can be found here.

The Guardian reported recently that Amazon’s tax affairs are being investigated in the US, China, Germany, France, Japan and Luxembourg.  HMRC have refused to confirm whether it is also investigating Amazon.  Amazon is the largest retailer in the UK.  The Guardian also reports that Amazon paid no UK corporation tax last year.  This is primarily because the US parent in 2006 transferred ownership of the main Amazon.co.uk business to a Luxembourg company.  It is not just the UK Government that is being asked questions about this company.  The Scottish Government is also being asked questions relating to a £10m grant.  Of course if the relevant tax powers were devolved to the Scottish Parliament, the left hand might have more of a chance of knowing what the right hand is up to.  Articles from the Scotsman and the Guardian on this matter can be found here and here.

Another week and another VAT issue.  The Church of England fears church renovation projects could be scrapped because of planned changes to VAT set out in the UK Budget.  From October this year HM Treasury will charge VAT at 20% on approved alterations to listed buildings.  Presently this is exempt from VAT.  The Church of England thinks the change will cost it £20m a year.  HM Treasury says funding will be available to ensure church renovations are not cancelled.  A report from the BBC news website on this can be found here.  The BBC report notes that a “source close to Chancellor George Osborne is reported as saying that this proposal was about ensuring a millionaire wanting to build a swimming pool in the garden of their listed mansion had to pay VAT on it.”

HMRC is improving and streamlining its processes for customers who need to deal with them following a bereavement.  HMRC is creating dedicated teams who will be responsible for dealing with PAYE and Self Assessment for bereaved customers.  The main form which customers use to finalise the tax affairs of the person who has died, R27, has been redesigned following feedback from customers and tax specialists to make it easier to complete.  More on this can be found here.

A “fat tax” is back on the agenda.  The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges has called for stronger measures to reduce obesity in the UK.  The first phase of the Academy’s campaign will try to find out what works.  It will review evidence for diets, exercise, taxation, minimum pricing and changing advertising and food labeling.  The Academy has also blamed the UK Government’s previous strategies and irresponsible marketing for aiding to obesity issues.  An article on this from the BBC news website can be found here.

There are suggestions that the German Government’s recent renegotiation of its withholding tax agreement with Switzerland may tempt the UK Government to try and do the same with its own Swiss agreement.  The UK Government has though already changed it once already.  An article on this from the Guardian can be found here.

Let’s finish with the “Buffett Rule” as it sounds like it might be about food and I am feeling peckish.  Sadly, the Buffett rule is not about food but instead a tax plan that would apply a minimum tax of 30% to individuals making more than a million dollars a year.  An editorial in the Wall Street Journal calculates that the Buffett Rule, which is supported by President Obama, would lose $80bn a year from USA federal tax revenues.  The US Senate has in fact this week voted to block the Buffett Rule.  The article from the Wall Street Journal can be found here and a BBC website news report on the Senate vote can be found here.

Have a good weekend and good luck to all the teams competing at Scottish Rugby’s Cup Final day at Murrayfield on Saturday.

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The UK Chancellor receives a shock in “tax land”

The main story of the week has to be the fact that the UK Chancellor, yes the UK Chancellor, said:  “I was shocked to see that some of the very wealthiest people in the country have organised their tax affairs – and to be fair it’s within the tax laws – so that they were regularly paying virtually no income tax.  And I don’t think that’s right.”

Words almost fail me.  Then again maybe I should be glad that George Osborne has finally realised what was clearly obvious to everyone else.  HMRC provided the UK Chancellor with anonymised copies of the confidential tax returns submitted to them by some of the UK’s wealthiest people.  These returns showed that the 20 biggest tax avoiders had legally reduced their income tax bills by a total of £145m in a year.  According to the report, the very rich have managed to reduce their income tax rate to an average of 10%; less than half the amount paid by the average Briton.  A report on this from the BBC news website can be found here.  Helpfully the BBC news website has also outlined the most common tax avoidance schemes.  This can be found here.

I am not sure that the Prime Minister’s announcement that he will publish details of his taxes is going to help the UK Government out of the hole they are digging for themselves.  As the UK Chancellor noted, these people are acting within the law.  Take for example the proposed cap on income tax reliefs.  The cap will apply only to those reliefs that are currently unlimited, which will therefore exclude pension contributions and EIS investments, among others.  The proposals will cap tax relief to 25% of income or £50,000 whichever is greater.  It is expected the draft legislation will be published for consultation later this year.

HM Treasury has now published more information on this proposal.  The report, which confirms charitable gift relief will be included in the cap, can be found here.  The report notes that current unlimited relief policy allows individuals to pay no income tax at all, which is not permitted in, for example, the US tax system.

Is that the end of the matter?  Of course not.  The Scotsman reports that Sir Tom Hunter has criticised George Osborne’s plans to cap tax relief on charitable donations as “ill-thought-out and punitive”.  The Scotsman article can be found here.  It is quite clear that charities fear their funding is under threat.  This sums up nicely the problem facing George Osborne.  He wants to crack down on aggressive tax avoidance but that is easier said than done.  Almost any proposal to change the tax system results in a campaign to prevent or amend the proposal.

Now to another controversial issue, retrospective changes to tax law.  HM Treasury has published the process it will follow when making unexpected changes to tax law.  The statement gives an undertaking that retrospective measures will be “wholly exceptional”.  The statement from HM Treasury can be found here.  A recent of example of a retrospective change to tax legislation involved Barclays bank.  A BBC news website report on the Barclays bank matter can be found here.  If the UK Chancellor is serious about tackling aggressive anti-avoidance then I am sure we will see many more examples of retrospective changes to our tax law.

Finance Secretary, John Swinney, has announced incentives and actions to stimulate investment, in four enterprise sectors, for green energy, manufacturing and life science.  These incentives include business rate discounts worth up to £275,000 per business or enhanced capital allowances, new streamlined planning protocols across all sites, skills and training support and an international marketing campaign to promote the sites.  A press release from the Scottish Government on this can be found here.

Now to VAT and two issues I have blogged about before.  A great deal has been written about pasties and VAT since the UK Budget statement.  What though of another VAT anomaly.  Why is VAT levied on the renovation of old buildings but not on the sale of new houses?  Does this encourage energy saving?  Does this encourage the building of new homes?  Why not at least introduce a lower rate of VAT on residential renovations and repairs, as happens in the Isle of Man.  Sadly more questions than answers or signs of any change of policy.  A link to my earlier blog on this issue can be found here.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats have urged the Scottish Government to drop their plans for a single police force over concerns that the force will potentially face an annual £22m VAT bill. The eight existing forces are currently exempt from the tax due to their ties to local authorities.  A link to an earlier blog that covers this issue can be found here.  My earlier blog also includes my expectations as to how HM Treasury will view this matter.  Although I can understand the Scottish Liberal Democrats opposition to the single force policy, do they really think that the VAT should be levied?  If not, will they lobby their UK counterparts who, after all, are in charge of HM Treasury on this matter?  I suspect not.  The Liberal Democrats press release can be found here.

To Wales and the news that Welsh supermarkets have seen a massive drop in the use of plastic bags when they charge for them.  A 5p bag levy was introduced across Wales last year.  A report on this from the Daily Mail online can be found here.  Good to see the Daily Mail outlining the situation in the other parts of the UK.

The Spanish Government has announced a general tax amnesty offering taxpayers the chance to disclose irregularities in their past affairs without being prosecuted or penalised. The cost is a one-off payment of 10% of all undeclared assets and rights.  This follows similar measures in Greece and Italy.  More information on the Spanish amnesty can be found here.

Have a good weekend.

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A four day week in “tax land”

For those of you struggling to sleep at night, may I recommend the latest UK Finance Bill.  According to the accountants Grant Thornton, at 686 pages, it is the longest Finance Bill in UK history.  The Finance Bill can be found here.  I am reluctant to even mention the fact that the UK Government has announced 45 tax consultations in case you stop reading.

I enjoyed Jeremy Peat’s comment piece on the UK Budget.  Jeremy comments on the 50p rate of income tax, the 40% income tax band, the economy and lending.  I particularly liked this comment: “What about incentives? Well, one effect of the Budget is to drag very large numbers of folks into the 40p tax band. Logically, I would have thought the adverse effect on the incentives of this substantially larger group would be expected to be [much] greater than any positive incentive effect from reducing the top rate to 45p for a much smaller group.”  If you are registered with the Herald website you can find all of Jeremy’s article here.

Now to the fiscal powers debate Italian style.  It is claimed that Italy’s prosperous German speaking South Tyrol autonomous province wishes to buy its financial independence.  South Tyrol has a population of around half a million and already has a large amount of autonomy. Up to 90% of tax revenue stays in the region, while the other 10% goes to Rome.  South Tyrol was occupied by Italy at the end of the WWI and annexed in 1919.  After WW2 the Allies decided that the province would remain a part of Italy, but would be granted a large amount of autonomy.  The article that I came across on Twitter can be found here.

“Devo max” for London?  An interesting article from the London Evening Standard can be found here.  I am surprised that Boris Johnson has not made more of an issue of this before now.

Last week I mentioned the report by the David Hume Institute on the debts and liabilities that an independent Scotland may be responsible for.  The report also made reference to the fact that the UK has approximately £821bn of “assets”.  I was glad to see that the “asset” side to the fiscal powers debate continued this week.  An article in the Scotsman on this issue by Jennifer Dempsie can be found here.

It seems that any new charge is automatically labelled a “tax”. My first example is from Dundee and a so called “tax on creativity”.  Members of Dundee’s licensing committee have decided to postpone implementing a controversial act that it is claimed could hinder the city’s arts scene.  The rule would have required exhibitions or public shows put on by the artists, gallery owners, musicians or publishers to be licensed from 1 April, even if they were free.  With the cost of a licence ranging from £124 to £7,500, artists said many free shows and exhibitions would simply not take place. The background to this is the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010.  An article from the Courier on this can be found here.

My second example has been termed a “property extension tax” by the Daily Mail.  The Mail reported this week on how planning permission fees for property extensions will increase from £160 to £300 in Scotland.  The Mail compared this with the £150 charge in many English local authorities.

Now to the unsurprising news that charities have banded together to protest at the capping of donor tax relief that was announced by George Osborne in his Budget statement.  Two leading umbrella bodies, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and the Charities Aid Foundation, have set up a website calling on Osborne to exclude charities from the proposed cap.  More than 200 organisations have already signed up to support the campaign, called “Give It Back George”.  Principals of five Scottish universities are among those signatories to a letter asking the UK Government to abandon this proposal.  The campaign website can be found here.  An article on this from the Scotsman can be found here.

An article in the Herald claims that this week’s 8% rise in Air Passenger Duty (APD) will lead to a 46% growth in HM Treasury’s revenue from APD by 2016.  It does seem that APD makes the news every week.  The reason for that is how APD is at the centre of a number of debates.  The airline industry would like to see it abolished or at least reduced.  Then there is the call for it to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.  The UK Government has already signalled its intention to partially devolve APD to Northern Ireland.  Worth also noting that until recently the environment would be mentioned in the context of APD.  That though now rarely happens.  How quickly things change.  An article from the BBC news website can be found here.  If you are registered with the Herald website an article on APD can be found here.

The Guardian reports that the House of Lords Financial and Economic Affairs Committee has warned against the planned European Union financial transaction tax.  That is not a surprise.  What is interesting about this article is that it covers a possible alternative to the proposed financial transaction tax.  The alternative is the introduction of national stamp duties on share transactions, which the UK already has and which France is set to follow in August.  The Guardian article can be found here.

Now to Ireland and news that almost half of Ireland’s 1.6 million households have refused to register to pay the new €100 annual tax on residential property by the 31 March deadline.  The mass non-compliance was organised through an Internet campaign and backed by protest marches.  The levy, which also applies to foreign owners, is expected to rise sharply next year.  A report on this from the Irish Times can be found here.

Swiss authorities have issued warrants for the arrest of three German tax inspectors.  The three are accused of buying a CD containing bank client data stolen from Credit Suisse in Zurich, which led to the investigation of hundreds of German taxpayers with undeclared Swiss accounts.  The Prime Minister of North-Rhine-Westphalia has come to the defence of the tax inspectors and has said that the tax inspectors were only doing their duty.  Given the escalating war of words between these countries in this issue, I suspect that this matter will run for a while yet.  A report from Spiegel online can be found here.

Good luck to Edinburgh Rugby this weekend and also to those competing at the new look Gala RFC sevens.  I wonder if any politicians will be pictured eating hot pasties or sausage rolls at these events.  Have a good Easter weekend.

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A glorious week of sunshine in “tax land”

I will start with where to find one of the most comprehensive and detailed review’s of last week’s UK Budget statement.  The link is to the always impressive Institute of Fiscal Studies and can be found here.  In particular see the “Business tax, stamp duty and anti-avoidance slides”.  Slide 9 on “Forecast revenue from anti-avoidance measures” is particularly revealing.

Now to the fiscal powers debate.  I was disappointed to see that Peter de Vink has been deselected by the Scottish Conservatives.  Peter was hoping to be elected to Midlothian Council in May.  As far as the fiscal powers debate is concerned this shows that there are some on the centre right in Scotland who can see the opportunities that fiscal autonomy or independence could bring.  Peter’s article in the Herald can be found here.

The First Minister has announced the setting up of a “Fiscal Commission Working Group” to establish a fiscal framework for an independent Scotland.  The group will include former World Bank Chief Economist and Nobel Prize winner Jospeh Stiglitz of Columbia University.  My only slight concern relating to this group is that it comprises four economists, albeit eminent economists.  This group needs to ensure it has an understanding of the underlying law and legal framework that is crucial to creating a new fiscal framework for Scotland.  That includes the creation of a Scottish Exchequer.  I will once again reiterate my call for a review of all government tax, law and registration services in Scotland.  A Scottish Government press release on this can be found here.

I was also interested to read about a report by the David Hume Institute which claimed that an independent Scotland would be liable for around £100bn of debts and liabilities.  In particular I was interested to see one of the first references to the “other side of the balance sheet”.  The report says that the UK has approximately £821bn of “assets”. The £100bn figure comes from deducting £69bn of assets from approximately £152bn to £171bn of debts and liabilities.  A Scotland on Sunday article on this story can be found here.  This particular part of the fiscal powers debate has a long way to go.

In advance of May’s local government elections, Reform Scotland has called for non-domestic rates to be devolved in full to local authorities.  This would mean a variable business rate in different areas of Scotland.  The Reform Scotland paper can be found here.  Non-domestic rates is one of two tax powers presently devolved to the Scottish Parliament, the other being council tax.  Although these taxes are administered by the local authorities control rests with the Scottish Parliament.

The proposal would also mean that local authorities would keep the revenue they collect from business rates.  At the moment this revenue is handed back to the Scottish Government.  The Scottish Government then redistribute it as part of its grant to each local authority.  The Reform Scotland proposal could also be used as a framework for when control over the Crown Estate is devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

According to a study carried out by accountancy firm UHY Hacker Young, Edinburgh businesses contribute more to the UK economy per head of population than any other major city in the UK.  The main reason given is that Edinburgh wasn’t hit as hard by the financial crisis as London.  In addition, oil-rich Aberdeen was the only major UK city to see its economy grow during the recession.  This is excellent news for the Scottish economy.  An article from the Scotsman on this can be found here.

Now to corporation tax.  The Financial Times recently reported on how 15 multinational companies are considering locating substantial operations in Britain as a result of UK corporate tax reforms.  What I found most interesting about this report is when tax competition is discussed in a UK context it is a positive thing.  Contrast this with the tone of the debate over devolving control over corporation tax to the Scottish Parliament.

Continuing on the corporation tax theme.  It is not just the headline rate of tax that is important.  The underlying law which deals with, for example, reliefs is just as important.  Further evidence for this is shown by a recent statement by the European Commission.  The European Commission are claiming that the UK is breaking European law by imposing an immediate capital gains tax charge on companies that relocate to another EU member country.  The Commission has requested that the UK abolish this exit tax within two months, or be referred to the European Court of Justice.  I await the reaction to this by the UK Government with interest.  The statement from the European Commission can be found here.

The Unoccupied Properties Bill has been introduced at Holyrood.  At the moment empty and unfurnished residential properties are exempt from council tax for the first six months.  After that period, they qualify for a 10% discount.  Under this Bill local authorities will be given the power to charge up to twice as much council tax on residential properties that are empty and unfurnished.  It is hoped this will act as an incentive for home owners to bring their empty houses back into use.  The Scottish government has also announced a new loan fund which will be specifically targeted at projects bringing properties into use for affordable housing.

The new bill will also controversially reduce the non-domestic business rates discount for some empty commercial properties from 50% to 10%.  The argument put forward is that this will encourage owners to bring boarded-up shops back into use.  A report from the BBC news website on this can be found here.

Now to England.  Over 85% of local authorities have accepted the UK Government’s offer to freeze council tax rates.  This is contrast to the agreement reached between the Scottish Government and all of Scotland’s local authorities.  England’s local authorities were offered a one-off grant worth 2.5% of their budget if they agreed to the freeze.  More on this can be found here.

Let’s end with Wales and the news that the Welsh Government has started to consult on whether Wales should be a separate legal jurisdiction.  The Welsh government will ask the judiciary, lawyers and members of the public whether they want a jurisdiction along the lines of those found in Scotland and Northern Ireland.  An article from the Law Society Gazette on this matter can be found here.

Have a good weekend.

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Budget week in “tax land”

As with any Budget statement, it is best to take a few days before passing judgement.  That said, and even before all of the detail has been analysed, there are a number of issues that stand out even just 24 hours after the Chancellor sat down.

The first concerns the debate, for “debate” read “leak everything”, that has surrounded a large number of Budget issues over the last few months.  We have a come a long way from the days when Gordon Brown did not even tell Tony Blair what was going to be in the Budget statement.

The proposed reduction in the top rate of income tax has dominated the political news coverage over the last few months.  The debate over how much it has raised will not end with the Budget statement.  There is no doubt it has led to a great deal of tax avoidance, aggressive tax avoidance.  That was to be expected.

The changes to the personal allowance and tax rate thresholds, has already begun to dominate the news coverage.  The coalition government must be hoping that the news coverage concentrates on the increase in the personal allowance and not the 300,000 more people who will be drawn into the 40% income tax rate from 2013/14.  To put this in context.  In the 1980’s approximately 5% of people were higher rate taxpayers.  Now it is 15%.

The freezing of age related allowances is also likely to cause problems for the coalition government.  Somehow they need to show that this is a good example of tax simplification.

The claim that does stand out is that by reducing the top rate of income tax, combined with other avoidance measures, five times more tax will be raised from the richest.  The Institute of Fiscal Studies noted today that that this is the third worst Budget statement for measures relating to tax avoidance.  This is measured on how much tax the avoidance measures to be introduced are likely to save.

Now to an old Budget favourite, stamp duty and Stamp Duty Land Tax (SDLT).  The SDLT changes were not unexpected especially for anyone who buys a Sunday newspaper.  The Chancellor announced that the level of stamp duty on residential properties over £2m which were bought via a company would increase to 15% with immediate effect.  In addition, overseas companies that already own UK residential property worth more than £2m will be subject to capital gains tax (CGT) from April 2013.  The CGT point was less expected but nonetheless welcome.  This though should have been dealt with many years ago.  The Chancellor also made it very clear if avoidance of this kind continues, further measures would be introduced without warning which have retrospective effect.

That though is not the main issue with SDLT in Scotland.  In Scotland only around 10 properties a year are sold that are worth over £2m.  The jump from 1% to 3% of SDLT at £250,001 is a much bigger issue.  Hopefully that will be one of the first issues dealt with when this tax is finally under the control of the Scottish Parliament.

One change I was hoping to see, in vain I might add, was a targeted VAT reduction for home repairs and renovations.    

Now to the fiscal powers debate.

The UK and Scottish Governments have agreed a number of changes to the Scotland Bill.  Both Governments will now recommend that their respective Parliaments support the Bill.  A number of minor changes have been agreed.  The Scottish Government has secured changes to the sections of the Bill dealing with borrowing powers and the Supreme Court.  It was also agreed that the measures contained in the Scotland Bill would only be implemented with the agreement of the Scottish Parliament.

The proposed reservations of insolvency procedures and regulation of health professions will also be removed preserving the Scottish Parliament’s existing legislative competence for these areas.  More on this can be found on the Scottish Government’s website which can be found here.  The list of proposed amendments agreed by both the present, and previous, Scottish Parliament Scotland Bill committees is also listed.  These lists show how few changes have been made to this Bill.  A report from the BBC news website on this matter can be found here.

The House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee has said that the Crown Estate’s control of 50% of Scotland’s coast and almost all the seabed should be devolved to Scotland’s local authorities.  The Scottish Affairs Committee said management of the marine environment lacked transparency and public consultation.  It is now difficult to find someone who is opposed to devolving this power.  Does that mean the Scotland Bill will be further amended to include this power?  I suspect not.  More on this can be found on a report on the BBC news website which can be found here.

I was intrigued to see the Secretary State for Scotland, Michael Moore, asking for tax clarity from the Scottish Government and in relation to the independence referendum.  There is a simple answer to this question, and which would provide a degree of certainty for individuals and businesses alike.  There should be no major changes for two or even three years to the tax legislation, and system of administration, that the Scottish Government inherits in the event of a “yes” vote.

I was not surprised to read that the Scottish Government is struggling to persuade HM Treasury that the new Scottish police and fire services should be exempt from VAT.  This is likely to mean an annual VAT cost of between £22 and £36m.  Under the current structure police forces are treated like local authorities and are exempt from VAT.  However, if they merge they may be subject to VAT.  A report on this from the BBC news website can be found here.  My earlier blog on this can also be found here.

The new definition of a charity will apply to all UK charity tax reliefs from April 2012.  More information on this can be found here.  I still find it odd that when it seems that everyone is talking about tax simplification, that bodies wishing to become a charity have to meet various conditions set by OSCR (Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator) and then by HMRC.  The reason for this is that the definition of a charity in Scotland is different from that used in England and Wales.  HMRC apply English and Welsh law.  This means if Scottish charities wish to claim the various UK charity tax reliefs then they also have to submit an application to HMRC.  What utter nonsense.  If the UK Government were serious about tax simplification, the fact that you are registered as a Scottish charity should be enough to allow a charity to claim the various UK tax reliefs.  The same issue applies in Northern Ireland as it now has its own charity regulator.

I was interested to see that the European Parliament has finally voted to approve the cross border inheritance law proposed by the European Commission to clarify which jurisdiction’s succession law should govern an international estate. The UK and Ireland remain opted out of the regulation.  A report on this from the BBC news website can be found here.

François Hollande, the Socialist candidate for the French presidency, has provided more detail of his plan for a 75% top rate of income tax.  He now says there will be a ceiling on the total tax paid by an individual in one year; and that the rate will be only temporary until the public sector budget is balanced.

Finally to Greece and some encouraging news.  The head of the European Union’s Greek task force, Horst Reichenbach, has reported the collection of almost €1bn (£830m) in back taxes.  Almost double the target figure.  A good start but still a fraction of the amount outstanding as they believe there is around €8bn in uncollected tax revenues.  More on this from a report on the BBC news website can be found here.

Have a good weekend.


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An eclectic week in “tax land”

Let’s start with the Scottish Budget.

The Scottish Government’s Budget was passed by the Scottish Parliament yesterday with the support of the Liberal Democrats.  The Budget outlines the Scottish Government’s £30 billion spending plan for the next financial year.

The amendment that stood out concerned the public health levy also known as the  “Tesco tax”.  The change will mean that instead of collecting £30m, £40m and £40m over the next three years it will bring in £5m less in each of these three years.  The Scottish Government claims that only 240 retail premises, around 0.1% of all business premises in Scotland, would pay more.  It will be interesting to see the reaction to this amendment.

Now to the news that over one million taxpayers face a penalty of £100 for failing to submit their self-assessment tax returns on time.  The figure of 1.1 million is the lowest since online filing first started and compares with 1.4 million last year and 1.6 million the year before.  These taxpayers will have to pay the £100 fine unless they have a reasonable excuse.  Valid reasons include serious illness, a bereavement, or a loss of documents because of theft, fire or flood.  After three months, additional fines of £10 a day start to accrue and could eventually amount to a maximum of £1,600.  More on this can be found in an article from the BBC news website which can be found here.

Two non football tax avoidance stories this week.  HMRC announced that its next planned crackdown will target construction workers.  Traders who carry out roofing, joinery bricklaying, window fitting and carpentry will be targeted.  The clampdown  follows other campaigns with doctors, dentists and tutors in the spotlight.  Interested but not surprised to see HMRC making it clear that they will use web searches to target those dodging tax.

The second story was extremely embarrassing for the UK Government and in particular Danny Alexander the Chief Secretary to HM Treasury.  This story concerned an arrangement reported to have allowed the Student Loans Company’s chief executive, Ed Lister, to avoid thousands of pounds in income tax and national insurance.  HMRC had authorised the SLC to make gross payments to Lester’s personal services company.

How could anyone at HMRC or HM Treasury think this was a good idea or could be justified? Am I surprised? No.  It seems that there is a section in these any other government organisations who just don’t get it.  The UK Government’s handling of the Network Rail bonuses is just another example of this attitude and I suspect, sadly, won’t be the last.  Thanks due to the BBC’s Newsnight programme for bringing the SLC issue to a wider audience.

BBC Newsnight journalist Richard Watson summed this issue up very well:  “In the current climate of national austerity and financial hardship, it’s hard to imagine a more politically charged story.  One of the most senior public servants in the land, paid by the taxpayer, granted special concessions to be paid gross through his private service company based at his home address.”

Now to an example of the carrot and stick approach to taxation and behavioural change.  I blogged about this issue last week.   The Scotsman reported this week that Scots who do not insulate their homes should be forced to pay higher council tax or face increased stamp duty land tax on their property.  Not sure about the stamp duty land tax point as it is the purchaser who pays that tax.  Nonetheless Alex McLeod, chairman of the Association for the Conservation of Energy told the Scotsman:  “… sticks as well as carrots are needed to encourage people to conserve energy in their homes.”

Interestingly the idea was attacked by a diverse range of bodies.  The TaxPayers Alliance branded the idea as “outrageous” and Friends of the Earth Scotland said that the Scottish Government should pay for everyone to have free insulation.  The article from the Scotsman can be found here.

Now to Westminster.  The jostling for position prior to the UK Budget in March continues.  This week it was Nick Clegg saying that Conservative plans to give married couples a tax break must take second place behind a proposed tax cut for low earners.  The UK Deputy Prime Minister, it has also been reported, wants his party’s plans to increase the threshold for income tax to £10,000 to take precedence over any move to recognise marriage in the tax system.

The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has criticised HM  Treasury for the way it monitors government spending.  It seems that almost £11bn in unpaid tax has been written off without HM Treasury knowledge.   A report on the first set of “Whole of Government Accounts” by the Committee said that HM Treasury’s ability to identify financial risks needed to improve.  An article from the BBC News website on this can be found here.

Now to a worrying trend.  An increasing number of businesses are struggling to pay their tax bills after new figures show a growing number are using credit cards to make their payments.  During 2005/06 businesses made just over 6,000 credit card payments to HMRC for PAYE, corporation and personal tax bills.  This had increased to 365,000 for 2009/10.  The credit card payments in 2005/06 totalled more than £2m.  In 2009/10 it had increased to just under £486m.  Thanks to the Ashworth Law firm which conducted a Freedom of Information request to collate the data.

Now to Englandshire and a matter I have covered before.  Eighteen local authorities in England have rejected an offer of UK Government money that would allow them to freeze council tax.  You may remember Eric Pickles,  the UK Government’s Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, recent comment that councils in England had a “moral duty” to freeze the council tax.  Clearly some councils in England beg to differ on this point.  I was going to say “let battle commence” but battle clearly has commenced.

So to Europe and an old favourite.  The Ernst & Young Item Club has calculated that the UK would be liable to pay 75 per cent of the revenues from the European Commission’s Financial Transactions Tax because of the size and scale of Britain’s financial services sector relative to the rest of Europe.  Even if the UK opts out it seems that the UK’s financial sector would still have to contribute about 60 per cent of total revenues if a “reverse charge mechanism” was applied.  Something for our politicians to think about.  They might also want to consider abolishing charging stamp duty and SDRT on shares transactions if a deal was done on FTT.  I suspect there is plenty of mileage left in this particular debate.

An interesting week for football north and south of the border.  The more interesting sport stories of the week also seemed to involve tax.  This should not come as a surprise given the amount of money that exists at the top end of this particular sport.  In simple terms it was ever thus.

Have a good weekend.

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Autumn Statement takes centre stage in “tax land”

Let’s start with the Autumn Statement or in old money the pre-Budget Report.

There were only a few tax announcements of note.   January’s planned rise in fuel duty has been cancelled.   Not yet heard whether next August’s increase is also to be cancelled.  There have been further calls for the fuel duty escalator to be abandoned.  It will be interesting to see how the Scottish Government responds to the increase in business rates by the UK Government.  Tax competition within the UK; surely not.  There was also a tiny increase in the Bank Levy.

The Autumn Statement was of course dominated by the poor growth and debt figures.  It seems the reality of how we have got to this point and what lies ahead is slowly dawning.  According to figures published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies household incomes will fall by 7.4 per cent between 2009/10 and 2012/13 due to inflation and austerity measures.  This reportedly represents the worst fall in living standards since the three-day week in the 1970s and it would see an average family lose nearly £2,500 over the period.

Has the UK been living beyond its means?  Yes.  Is it going to take a number of years for the debt to work its way through the system?  Yes.  Do we now have a two tier public sector where the top tier earns more and has far greater benefits than the vast majority of those who work in the private sector?  Yes.  Will the UK and Scottish Governments have to deal with public sector wages, bonuses and benefits as well as pensions?  Yes.  Is there a quick fix.  No.

Now to the fiscal powers debate.  Interesting to see “devo max” being mentioned on the BBC’s One Show on St Andrew’s Day.  Did not expect  that.    The quality of the debate also surprised me.  Further evidence that this debate has now reached new pastures.

Interesting news report on the BBC website pages concerning the glacial process of devolving some parts of the corporation tax legislation to Northern Ireland.  It seems that a joint ministerial meeting is to take place before Christmas.  Three key points are to be addressed.  These are cost, how would this be administered and what form would the legislation take.  Not sure who is credited with first saying this but they are right.  “The main difference between evolution and devolution is that devolution takes longer.”  The article can be found here.

Now to Europe.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said: “Europe is working towards setting up a fiscal union in a bid to resolve the eurozone’s debt crisis.”  How quickly this debate is moving.   For example the European Union’s council of finance ministers has endorsed European Commission proposals for tax policy coordination through the so-called “Euro Plus Pact” concluded in March by 23 of the 27 member states. The report calls for avoidance of ‘harmful’ tax practices.

Interesting article on the proposed European Financial Transactions tax and how not everyone from the city of London is opposed to this proposal.   The article from the Scotsman can be found here.

One last point.  If you did not see this week’s Panorama programme on PFI and I would recommend you do so.  A school without light switches!  No transparency.  “Dodgy accounting”.  You could not make this stuff up.  This issue is not going away.  How lucky we are that we are now doing things differently in Scotland.   That said, the huge cost to us in Scotland is still going to be with us for a least a generation.   The programme can be found here.

 Have a good weekend.


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Another week in “tax land”

Let’s start with the fiscal powers debate.

The fact that Douglas Alexander, shadow foreign secretary and Scottish Labour MP, has now entered the debate provides further evidence of a possible change in direction by the Labour party.  If you add to this the recent comments by Malcolm Chisholm MSP, former First Minister Henry McLeish and George Foulkes, former MP and MSP and presently a member of the House of Lords, something is clearly going on within the ranks of the Labour party.  Clearly plenty of opposition still exists but it seems that a number of senior figures are acknowledging that: arguing ‘the Scotland Bill and no further’ is not a realistic option.  The question is will Labour break the Calman consensus?

Now to England.  Research by the Local Government Chronicle has shown that up to a fifth of councils in England may not accept the UK Government’s offer to help pay for a freeze in council tax next year.  That is interesting as Scotland has had a council tax freeze for a number of years now. Although a number of councils have questioned this policy each council has in the end gone ahead and implemneted this policy.

That said this cannot go on forever.  At some point we will need to decide how we fund local government in Scotland.  The Scottish Government still favour a local income tax.  As I mentioned in a recent speech at Holyrood’s Scotland Bill conference this would now be possible under the proposals contained in the Scotland Bill.  Not that it is certain that the Scotland Bill will become the Scotland Act.  My speech can be found here.  Other options should include a Land Value Tax.  My preference is to allow councils some choice in the matter.  Some councils may prefer a form property tax over an income tax or possibly even both.

Now to the UK Chancellor’s Autumn Statement.  This takes place next Tuesday.  How much room to manoeuvre does he have?  Not much I suspect.  Recent debt and growth figures confirm that.  I cannot imagine him deviating from the view that reducing the national debt is his priority.  Although I have a fair bit of sympathy for that position it is equally clear that if the economy is to grow some additional investment or one or two targeted tax cuts is needed.  That is why I am hoping to see a reduction in VAT for home repairs and improvements as already happens in the Isle of Man.

What about the top rate of income tax?  The Eurozone crisis and in particular the possible introduction of a European financial transaction tax have pushed the 50p rate debate from the front pages.  I suspect this is only temporary and battle will soon commence again.  I do not expect to see any specific announcement on the 50p rate next week but I do expect to some comments along the lines of this needs to be looked at and how much if any revenue does it bring in.

I am sure we will see more anti-avoidance measures announced and possibly a consultation on a general anti-avoidance rule.

I will finish on an issue I wrote about a few weeks ago.  My earlier piece can be found here.  Ales Belyatski’s, one of the leading opponents of the Belarus government has been sentenced to four and a half years in jail.  He had been charged with tax evasion.  The Belarus government had obtained details of his bank accounts by invoking an information exchange agreement with Poland.  Several senior Polish government officials lost their jobs over the affair.

Have a good weekend.

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