A few thoughts on Labour’s Devolution Commission

I am surprised that Labour has backtracked on almost all of the tax proposals it made in its interim report.  I did not expect Lamont to be so thoroughly routed by her opponents in her own party on the need to extend the powers of the Scottish Parliament in any meaningful way.  The final report can be found here and my blog on the interim report can be found here.

The final report does not even go as far as the final recommendations made by the Calman Commission.  Calman recommend 6 new tax powers for the Scottish Parliament.  The Scotland Act 2012, often referred to as “Calman minus” only implements 3 of them.

This is from the final report: “We concluded that, for a variety of good reasons, VAT, national insurance contributions, corporation tax, alcohol, tobacco and fuel duties, climate change levy, insurance premium tax, vehicle excise duty, inheritance tax, capital gains tax and tax on oil receipts should remain reserved.” It is not clear from the final report if the Aggregates Levy will be devolved.  What is meant by the Crown Estate recommendation is anyone’s guess.

With regard to the only tax power left standing when the music stopped; income tax.  The interim report said: “In our view, a strong case exists for devolving income tax in full, and we are minded to do so“.  How Labour got from that point to the income tax proposal announced yesterday is again anybody’s guess.  I will come back to that point.

This announcement must also have exasperated those still arguing for “devo plus” and “devomax”.  These proposals are often misunderstood, often intentionally.  “Devo Plus” would devolve almost all tax and welfare powers.  “Devo max” goes even further. Remember there are over 25 taxes, charges and duties when comparing the Labour proposal to “devo plus” or “devo max”. The Labour proposal such as it is, when taken together with the recent announcements by the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives may well prove to be the final straw for those arguing for the devolving of substantial powers for the Scottish Parliament. That I suspect can only be good news for the “YES” campaign.

Johann Lamont was unable to even answer basic questions on the income tax proposal when she was interviewed on Newsnight Scotland.  A link to this interview can be found here.  To be fair, I am not sure if anyone could easily explain the income tax proposal.  If I was the cynical type I might suggest that this looks like a policy that is intentionally created to make sure it never sees the light of day.  I was also interested to hear that she is opposed to tax competition if it involves Scotland.

This is from my chapter in the Hassan/Mitchell publication “After Independence” and titled: “The continuing battle for Scottish tax powers”.   Nothing it seems has changed.

“So how have the opponents of substantial tax powers for the Scottish Parliament been able to ensure that substantial tax powers are not devolved to the Scottish Parliament?  A template can be seen from Calman, what might be called the “Calman doctrine”. Make a huge fuss about having someone look at the issue, take your time, offer as little as possible, exaggerate any problems, minimise or ignore any advantages and ensure HMRC and HM Treasury remain in control.”

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Charities and Constitutional Change

I was interested to see that OSCR, Scotland’s charity watchdog, has authorised Scotland’s 23,500 charities and voluntary organisations to take an active role in the independence debate if they wish.

One issue that is important to the charity sector is tax.  Charities for the most part do not pay tax.  Another important issue for the charity sector is administration and in particular when applying to become a charity.

It will be a surprise to many that just because a charity is registered with OSCR it is not automatically entitled to the various applicable tax reliefs.  A charity has to make a separate application to HMRC.

This causes two complications.  Charity law in Scotland differs from that of the rest of the UK.   For example Scotland’s list of “charitable purposes” is different. That is the first complication.

The second complication is that HMRC apply English and Welsh charity law principles.  This means that there is potentially less work for let’s say an English registered charity, as its original application to its Charity Commission was based on English and Welsh legal principles. A Scottish charity has to also ensure its application to HMRC meets English and Welsh charity law.

It this a huge issue? No.  Is it an issue that can cause problems?  Yes.  Was there a simple solution?  Of course there was.

The simple solution was if a charity is recognised by OSCR it should automatically be recognised by HMRC.  This was a matter I and others argued for before the Calman Commission.  Tax simplification is often talked about but rarely achieved.  This was an obvious opportunity.

How did I get on I hear you ask?  Not only did Calman not agree to this relatively simple measure but recommended that that some parts of Scottish charity law should be re-reserved.

The Scotland Act 2012 did not in fact re-reserve this area of responsibility in whole or even part.  I suspect that the main reason for this was how this would have looked at this particularly politically sensitive time.   The Scotland Act did in fact do nothing on this particular matter.

Possibly something for charities in Scotland to reflect on.

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Likely timescale for additional Scottish tax and fiscal powers

I  have been asked a number of times recently to comment on a likely timescale for additional tax and fiscal powers if Scotland votes ‘NO’ in September 2014.

Estimating a likely timescale is not that difficult a task.  It may though be a pointless task if as is likely this issue is for all intents and purposes ignored by Westminster.

Recent delays to the devolving of additional fiscal powers to both Northern Ireland and Wales give an indication of the sense of priority these matters even now are given at Westminster. Add to this the background of the 2015 UK General Election and the debate surrounding the UK’s membership of the European Union.  This means that the likelihood of Westminster devoting anything more than a token amount of time and effort to yet another debate on which tax and fiscal powers to, or more realistically not to, devolve to the Scottish Parliament cannot be high.

The debate for additional powers is also not going to be all one way.  Those arguing for additional powers after a ‘NO’ vote will also have to counter those calling for powers to be removed from the Scottish Parliament or even that the Scottish Parliament be abolished.

That said, one recent example does gives us some idea of how long these things take.

  • SNP win May 2007 Scottish General Election
  • Calman Commission set up December 2007
  • Interim report published December 2008
  • Main report published June 2009
  • 2010 UK General Election and change of government resulted in a review of the matter
  • Scotland Act May 2012
  • Powers to be devolved in April 2015 and 2016

So 8 or 9 years and that is where very few powers were being devolved and there was a large amount of consensus between the main UK parties.

8 or 9 years may though be unduly optimistic.  Calman was set up within six months of the SNP’s victory. Would something similar be set up so quickly in the event of a ‘NO’ vote given how close the next UK General Election was?  I suspect not.  That means any additional powers are not likely to be in the control of the Scottish Parliament for at least a decade.

Also worth remembering that three of the six tax powers recommended by Calman were omitted from the Scotland Act 2012.

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Scottish Labour’s Devolution Commission’s Interim Report

There were few surprises arising from the publication of Scottish Labour’s Devolution Commission’s interim report.

The starting point for these commissions is always the same.  They look around for reasons why a particular power should not be devolved.  They do not look at what could be achieved by control of that power being passed to the Scottish Parliament.

The main problem that I have with this report is that we have heard all this before and in fact quite recently.  The Calman Commission taught all of us with an interest in seeing the creation of a Scottish tax system how its opponents behave.   I like to call this the Calman doctrine.

“Make a huge fuss about having someone look at the issue, take your time, offer as little as possible, exaggerate any problems, minimise or ignore any advantages and ensure HMRC and HM Treasury remain in control.”

Calman also taught us that even if a report is produced and its recommendations are accepted not all of those recommendations actually make it to a Scotland Act.  That is why the Scotland Act 2012 is called “Calman minus”.

The absence of common sense is also a problem.  Why not look at which powers are already devolved and then devolve the areas of taxation most closely connected to these already devolved powers.  For example inheritance tax and succession law, tobacco and alcohol duties and health and vehicle excise duty and transport.  This would greatly help the development of policy and at the same time provide the Scottish Parliament with a serious number of economic levers.

Simplification for both the UK tax system and the new Scottish tax system is not even considered.

So what does report say?

The main taxes other than income tax are quickly dealt with and also the largest area of law not yet devolved, welfare.  The report rules out devolving National Insurance and with it any control of the welfare state, corporation tax and North Sea revenue.  That immediately restricts what can be done.    As VAT can only be devolved if Scotland becomes independent, of the 5 major sources of revenue, that only leaves income tax.

The report is quite clear and does not recommend devolving complete control of income tax.  At most it recommends devolving control of the rates, thresholds and allowances.  Almost all of the underlying law that governs how income tax is charged, or the type of reliefs, or the collection rules or who pays and when would not be devolved.   That means that income tax would have two masters.  As with the Scotland Act income tax proposal this is a recipe for disaster.

The report then looks at a number of minor taxes and uses a number of the “usual suspect” reasons as to why they should not be devolved.  They generally do not say that a particular minor tax should not be devolved but rather there is an “issue”.   The main issues are “concerns about avoidance” and “subject to EU law”.  This covers fuel duties, tobacco duties, alcohol duties, stamp duties other than SDLT which is already being devolved, insurance premium tax, betting and gaming duties, most of capital gains tax and a number of other minor taxes on income and wealth.  It is not clear what is proposed regarding climate change levy. Revenue from our TV licences and the National Lottery are simply described as “not relevant”.

So, along with slightly more control of income tax, what is left?  Possibly air passenger duty and aggregates levy as recommended by Calman but not included in the Scotland Act, possibly vehicle excise duty, possibly part of capital gains tax, possibly inheritance tax and possibly control of the Crown Estate.  The recommendations are not that dissimilar to the Liberal Democrat Home Rule Commission proposal.  Please see my earlier blog on this which can be found here.

The conclusion is simple.  The vast majority of tax revenue and taxes will remain controlled by the UK Government.   In any case, the response from a number of Labour MPs to the interim report tells us all we need to know as to the likelihood of these relatively minor proposals being enacted.

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Another few weeks in “tax land”

Where to start.

In a speech to mark her first year as Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson outlined an aspiration to cut income tax by more than 1p when new powers come to Holyrood.  More on this from the Scotsman can be found here.  Now compare this with a survey that claims that three quarters of Scots think taxes should be raised for those with the highest incomes and wealth. More on the survey from the Herald can be found here.  These stories show how Scotland, both the politicians and the general public, are beginning to wake up to the fact that tax is not necessarily just a UK matter.

The Scottish Government has backed the latest call for control over air passenger duty to be passed to the Scottish Parliament.  This is a matter worth remembering when you hear comments from the NO campaign on how they “hope” to give the Scottish Parliament further powers.  Let’s not forget how few tax powers are included in the latest Scotland Act.  It is “Calman minus” just as the Liberals recent Home Rule Commission is “Steel minus”.  More on this can be found here.

First it was Rangers now it is Hearts that is in trouble with HMRC.  The surprise is no-one is surprised.  Hearts owe HMRC approximately £500,000 in unpaid tax.  More on this from the Scotsman can be found here.

The UK Government seems to be doing a fair bit of thinking just now which is always worrying.

The UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, has called for a change in international tax standards to reflect changes in business, such as the rise of e-commerce, which makes it easier for companies to shift taxation away from jurisdictions where profit is being generated.  More on this from the Guardian can be found here.  In addition, Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the UK Treasury, has pledged to crack down on corporate tax avoidance following revelations that the supermarket chain Asda may have used overseas transfers to its parent company Walmart to avoid up to £250m in tax.  More on this from the Times can be found here.  Lots of words but can we expect real action?

The Chief Executive of HMRC, Lin Homer, has been put under pressure by the UK Treasury Select Committee to explain why multinationals have been allowed to pay less tax than small businesses in the UK.  The Comptroller and Auditor-General of the National Audit Office, Amyas Morse, said that large companies often put pressure on HMRC by threatening to pull out of the country altogether.  More on this from the Times can be found here.  A connected story from the Daily Mail and involving Margaret Hodge, chairman of the UK Public Accounts Committee, can be found here.

Under “road charging” proposals being considered by the UK Government, motorists could face a new two-tier system in which drivers would pay a lower rate of tax if they do not use the UK’s trunk road network.  Have any of the UK media outlets considered the fact that this is also a matter for the Scottish Parliament?  Of course not.  The new system would comprise a basic charge for the use of local roads, and a secondary charge for those motorists wanting to use motorways and A-roads.  More on this from the Guardian can be found here.

Is it just me or is it really the case than almost every change in the law is met with the accusation that it breaches some part of EU law?  The latest example is the UK Government’s planned changes to child benefits.  The UK Treasury has dismissed the claims by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales.  More on this from the Telegraph can be found here.

David Gauke, Exchequer Minister to the UK Treasury, has argued that HMRC needs to pay more to recruit the best tax experts in order to combat tax avoidance by major multinational companies.  Edward Troup, Director-General for Tax and Welfare at HMRC, welcomed the proposal, saying: “I think it’s on the record now to have more staff and higher pay”.  More on this from the Times can be found here.  This is an issue that we in Scotland will also have to respond to when setting up our own tax system.

It is often claimed that that the UK Government favours London and the south-east of England. This is another such claim.  The UK Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, has faced criticism from property groups and retailers after his announcement that a revaluation of business rates has been pushed back to 2017.  The British Property Federation said that it was unfair to expect tenants to continue to pay a levy based on “top-of-the-market” 2008 rents. The UK Government argues however that a revaluation would lead to rate increases for many businesses, especially in the south-east.  More on this from Accountancy Age can be found here.

Now to a story that keeps bubbling up to the surface and clearly is not going away.  First it involved government officials such as the head of the Student Loans Company, then it was the BBC now it is teachers.  HMRC has said that supply teachers hired via recruitment agencies using off-shore firms are causing a shortfall in National Insurance contributions.  An HMRC spokesman said: “These kinds of arrangements are not compliant with tax and National Insurance legislation and the end client, or the employment businesses, may be liable for any underpaid tax and National Insurance”.  More on this from the BBC news website can be found here.

Anyone who regularly looks at HMRC press releases will see HMRC increasingly publicising stories such as this.  An Isle of Wight tax advisor who stole £52,000 by claiming tax repayments using his clients’ names was jailed today at Newport Crown Court.  The press release from HMRC can be found here.

Let’s end with matters slightly further afield.  Hong Kong has imposed a 15% emergency tax on foreign buyers of residential property in an attempt to hold back the island’s property bubble. Stamp duty for short-term speculators has also gone up from 15 to 20%.  Similar measures have been imposed by the Singaporean Government.  More on this from the excellent STEP Journal can be found here.

One last point.  Patriotism takes many forms and that includes paying your taxes.

Have a good week.

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A fascinating time in “tax land”

Where to start?  There is so much happening just now it is difficult to keep up.  It is though a fascinating time to be living in Scotland.

The signing of the Edinburgh Agreement ends the “phoney war”.  So besides this historic agreement what else has been happening?

Let’s start with the publication of the report by the Liberal Democrats Home Rule Commission.   The report can be found here.  There are a number of problems with this report.  The first is the likelihood of the Liberals being part of and having a major influence in a future UK Government.  At best the Liberals will form part of a UK coalition government where they will be a junior partner.  Even if they were to persuade the senior party to implement their plans the Scottish Parliament would not see any new powers until at best 2020.

Then there is the accusation: why should anyone take the Liberal Democrats seriously on tax and fiscal powers?  The Liberal Democrats are in power just now and all we have is “Calman minus”.  They are not even devolving control over the Crown Estate in Scotland and that is party policy.

Then there is the report itself.  The report barely goes beyond Calman.  Inheritance tax is to be devolved and also some parts of capital gains tax.  This report does not even go as far as their last fiscal powers report, the “Steel Commission”.

One last point.  It must be remembered that the Liberals have historically been willing to go further than the other main UK parties on devolving power to Scotland and the Scottish Parliament.  The Steel Commission report provides evidence for this argument.  What their latest report shows is that the Liberals are moving away from devolving serious tax and fiscal powers to the Scottish Parliament.  That is disappointing and makes you wonder.  If this is all the Liberal Democrats are offering what will Labour or the Conservatives come up with?

The answer to that question is likely to be not much.  Johann Lamont has finally announced the membership of her “further devolution commission”.  What is the likelihood of this commission coming up with a proposal close to “devo max” or even “devo plus”?  Almost none.  Why?  Remember the struggle to persuade the Labour party to legislate the Calman proposals.  Think of how few powers are contained in the Scotland Act.  Think of the reaction to senior Labour party members to any call for further tax and fiscal powers to be transferred to the Scottish Parliament. Think of Alistair Darling’s recent comments and in fact of any Labour MP who talks on this subject.  An article from the BBC news website on the Labour party’s commission can be found here.

Then there is the Conservative party.  It is clear that most Conservatives see the European Union debate as the main debate.  Scotland is but a side show.  The idea of a “Constitutional Convention” is laughable.  It simply means, let’s kick this matter into the longest of long grass for another generation.  Ruth Davidson has already got her retaliation in first and stated that corporation tax or welfare powers should not be devolved.  In any case, this convention won’t even see the light of day in any meaningful way until after the referendum.  Does anyone actually believe that the Conservatives will even consider any further powers for the Scottish Parliament if Scotland votes No?

Staying with the Conservatives, Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, seems to be everywhere these days.  That includes arguing for greater powers for the London Assembly.  Johnson has asked George Osborne, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, for London to be allowed to retain any stamp duty raised on property sales.  Johnson argued that London inhabitants face higher tax rates than households elsewhere in the UK, and would use the taxes to fund house building and regeneration schemes.  More on this from the Telegraph can be found here.

The BBC is to offer staff contracts to some of its biggest names in a U-turn after months of accusations that it is enabling tax avoidance.  It is claimed that up to 25,000 people employed at the BBC do not pay tax at source.  More on the U-turn by the BBC can be found here and on the background to this story here.

I was interested to see that the Labour party at its recent conference proposed to reinstate the 50% top rate of income tax and apply a two year suspension of stamp duty on properties worth less than £250,000.  I wonder if they realize that these will be matters for the Scottish Parliament to decide as a result of the Scotland Act by the time the next UK general election takes place.

The UK Government is seemingly intensifying its attack on tax planning by corporations and wealthy individuals.  Extra measures include a 50% expansion of HMRC’s High Net Worth Unit, more resources for the Liechtenstein Disclosure Facility and a new policy of refusing to award government contracts to companies that use “aggressive tax avoidance” schemes.  More on this from HM Treasury can be found here.  When thinking about this it is worth also reading about Starbucks.  Two House of Commons committees are due to question tax officials about how Starbucks has been able to avoid paying tax on £1.2bn of sales since 2009.  More on this from the Guardian can be found here.

Plans put forward to add an additional fee to visitors’ hotel bills have been abandoned by the City of Edinburgh Council in response to objections from business leaders.  The Council planned to reduce its spending on festivals, events and promotional initiatives by setting up a “transient visitor levy”, aimed at raising more than £3m a year.  More on this from the Scotsman can be found here.

The McLaren Formula One team have successfully argued that a £32m fine they paid after a 2007 Ferrari spying controversy should be tax deductible.  McLaren had argued the fine was not a statutory penalty but one incurred under Formula One rules, making the fine a business expense.  HMRC disagreed but a tax tribunal has found in favour of McLaren.  More on this from the Telegraph can be found here.

Now to an old favourite, a Financial Transactions Tax.  European Union Tax Commissioner Algirdas Semeta says he is now sure there are enough Member States to force through an EU wide Financial Transactions Tax. Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain, Germany, France, Belgium, Austria, Slovenia, Estonia and Slovakia have committed to this new source of new revenue.  A press release from the European Commission on this can be found here.  The UK Government has also confirmed its opposition to a Financial Transactions Tax.  More on the UK Government’s stance can be found here.  This issue provides further evidence of the growing disengagement with the European Union by the UK Government.

Germany’s Roman Catholics are to be denied the right to Holy Communion or religious burial if they stop paying a special church tax.  Can you imagine this happening in Scotland?  An article from the BBC news website on this can be found here.

The French Government is to revise its 2013 Budget proposal to raise the entrepreneurs’ rate of capital gains tax on equities from 19% to 45%.  The retreat follows a campaign against the tax by an organised group of business owners called Les Pigeons (‘The Mugs’ or ‘Suckers’).   An article on this from Reuters can be found here.

Let’s end with a story from America.  It seems that Chinese immigrants are less keen on an American passport.  Citizens of the People’s Republic of China who emigrate to America used to apply for US citizenship as a matter of course, but now America’s  world wide taxation policy is making some of them regret it.  An article on this story from the South China Morning Post can be found here.


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Another week in “tax land”

Where to start?  I think I will start with the Scottish Futures Trust.  I remember well the negative reaction to the SFT when it was first proposed.  The coverage the SFT has received this week shows how much things have changed.  The fact that the long term costs of PFI are now widely known also shows how good an idea the SFT was.  A report on this from the BBC news website can be found here.

This raises another issue.  Notwithstanding the fiscal powers debate it is clear Scotland is increasingly doing things its own way.  On areas such as health or education the differences are well documented.  Now Scotland is to have its own food standards agency and a new governing body for the Scottish canals.  This is not because of Calman or the Scotland Act but because of the actions of the UK Government.  Add to this the Revenue Scotland announcement and you see the direction in which things are moving.

Now to a subject I have written about before, the Crown Estate.  It is now difficult to find someone against devolving control over the Crown Estate in Scotland to the Scottish Parliament other than the present UK Government.  If the UK Government is not even willing to cede control over this body to the Scottish Parliament then it is easy to accuse them of not seriously engaging in the fiscal powers debate.  A report on the latest ploy by the UK Government to not devolve control of the Crown Estate to the Scottish Parliament can be found here.

Now to the UK Government’s so called “Heritage tax”.  “The Heritage Alliance is disappointed that the UK Government has refused – despite widespread opposition and strong challenges to the rigour of its evidence base – to reconsider its Budget proposal to remove zero rating of VAT on approved alterations to listed buildings.”  No sign yet of a u-turn on this proposal.  More on this can be found here.

The Sunday Times recently reported that Scottish Government advisor Dr Andrew Cameron has advised that a tax break, which would allow wealthy landowners and investors to plant trees in exchange for tax offsets, would help Scotland meet its forest coverage goals. That would of course require further tax powers to be devolved if this was to be just a Scottish tax relief.  Let’s also not forget that the last attempt at something like this was a complete shambles.  Hopefully if this idea is revisited lessons will have been learned.  A story on this issue from 2002 can be found here.

Now to the “shared services” debate.  The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has found that a Whitehall scheme to share resources across departments has cost hundreds of millions of pounds more than it saved.  The scheme ran £500 million over budget, costing £1.4 billion, and of the five departments that took part, only one broke even.  A report on this from the Telegraph can be found here.  Sadly I am not surprised with this report.

Aggregates Levy is one of two other miscellaneous taxes recommended for devolving to the Scottish Parliament under the Calman Commission.  The other being Air Passenger Duty.  The UK Government has so far resisted devolving Aggregates Levy due to a European Court action by the British Aggregates Association.  An update on this from HMRC can be found here.  The UK Government are fast running out of excuses for not devolving Aggregates Levy.

I was not surprised to read that many elderly farmers are working long past retirement age because they fear losing agricultural property relief (APR).  APR is likely to reduce their liability to inheritance tax.  Their worries have been prompted by HMRC’s tactics of challenging APR on farmhouses at every opportunity.  A report on this from the STEP journal can be found here.

Now to matters slightly further afield.

The European Commission’s Brussels IV proposal to simplify the settlement of international successions has received the final backing of the European Union’s Council of Justice Ministers.  The regulation will come into force in 2015 and will apply directly in all member states, other than Denmark and the opting-out members UK and Ireland.  Hopefully this is something that the UK and Ireland will consider again in the near future.  A report on this from the European Commission can be found here.

Now to France.  As expected, France’s new Socialist government has announced a series of increases in personal and business taxation.  They include new wealth taxes and a tax on foreign owners of holiday homes.  A similar idea was floated last year by the Sarkozy administration but it was dropped when the French Government was advised that such a tax would not survive a challenge under European Union anti-discrimination legislation. Hollande may believe he can avoid this by calling the levy a “social charge” rather than a tax.  A report on this from the STEP journal can be found here.

The New York Times has published an article describing just how easy it is to set up a Delaware shell company without disclosing its beneficial ownership.  This is something that the US Government has regularly pilloried many other countries for.  Apparently Delaware has more corporate entities than people.  The article from the New York Times can be found here.

A Berkshire man has been convicted of evading £430,000 inheritance tax on a Swiss bank account he held jointly with his mother.  HMRC obtained Michael Shanly’s account details from the French authorities, who had bought them from a former employee of HSBC Geneva, who had stolen them from the bank.  This is a good example of the increasing co-operation between European countries and the increasing effectiveness of HMRC.  A report on this from the BBC news website can be found here.

Australia has introduced its highly controversial carbon tax, after years of bitter political wrangling.  The law forces about 300 of the worst-polluting firms to pay a A$23 (£15; $24) levy for every tonne of greenhouse gases they produce.  The Australian Government says the tax is needed to meet climate-change obligations of Australia – the highest emitter per-head in the developed world.  A report on this from the BBC news website can be found here.  The environmental taxation debate in the UK, in contrast, has slipped down the political agenda over the last few years.

I think I will end with Cyprus.  The Cyprus government will not agree to cut its 10% corporation tax rate in order to secure a European rescue of its banking sector and public finances.  Cyprus may though have to agree to a further VAT increase as part of these negotiations.  Cyprus is taking a similar stance to the one taken by Ireland over the last couple of years.  A report on this can be found here.

Have a good 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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Just another week in “tax land”?

The term “another week” does not seem appropriate as the title to this blog.

I do not remember all that much about the 1979 referendum and I was living in Chicago during the 1997 referendum.  Odd to think how much I do still remember about Argentina 78.  This week’s announcement ensures that 2014 will now be added to Scotland’s constitutional dateline.  A yes vote in the Autumn of 2014 leads to an independent Scotland by May 2016.  That is why this is not just another week.

What does a yes vote mean?  A yes vote means a Scottish Exchequer.  I have written about a Scottish Exchequer regularly over the last few years including in these blogs and the fiscal powers papers I co-authored with Reform Scotland.  Creating a Scottish Exchequer is not going to happen overnight.  We do though need to start somewhere.  Let’s start with the question: do we need separate HMRC and HM Treasury type bodes?  No.

We also need to look at what other institutions an independent or even a fiscally autonomous Scotland might need.  For example a one stop shop for all Scottish Government legal, registration and tax services.

We also now have to thinking about practicalities.  Would I copy en masse the UK tax legislation as exists in 2014 and declare that no changes will be made for two years?  Yes. This will ensure a degree of certainty for the general public and the business community.  Another advantage is that it would take some pressure off the new Scottish Exchequer.

I am sure I will come back to these and many other issues in the coming weeks and months.

I read with interest that Jeremy Paxman compared Scotland with Zimbabwe in an interview with the First Minister earlier this week.  I remember a similar point being put when I was giving evidence to the Calman Commission.  The transcript for this, page 478, can be found here.

Now to a question I was asked earlier this week.   How would I explain “devo max”.  Two areas need to be looked at.   Government spending and control over taxation.  The percentage that the Scottish Parliament has over each of these areas gives a good idea of how much autonomy it has.   Presently the Scottish Parliament has control over 60% of all government spending but only 7% of taxation.   The Scotland Bill increases taxation control to around 30%.   The latest Reform Scotland proposal, “devolution plus”, moves this closer to 70% for both government spending and control over taxation.  Fiscal autonomy or “devo max” would be around 90% for both government spending and control over taxation.  Fiscal autonomy does not reach 100% because control of VAT cannot be devolved with European Union states and foreign affairs, defence and some economic matters would still be controlled by Westminster.

The Liberal Democrats concerted campaign to dominate the news coverage in the run up to the March UK Budget  continued apace this week.   This week it was the UK Business Secretary, Vince Cable, calling for a mansion tax to be introduced on properties worth over £2 million.  It is estimated that a mansion tax could raise as much as £1.7 billion a year.  Nick Clegg, it is reported, also wants to speed up plans plans to increase the level at which income tax becomes payable, from its current £7,475 to £10,000.   This is presently scheduled for 2015.

Now to Europe.  I have previously blogged on how hard Ireland has had to fight to retain its low rate of corporation tax as a result of its bailout.  What is less well known is how the bailout might impact the Irish legal system.  Excellent article on this in the Law Society Gazette which can be found here.

Now to England and Eric Pickles, UK Communities Secretary, saying that councillors have a “moral duty” to sign up to the UK Government’s council tax freeze.  A moral duty to sign up to government policy.  A tax policy no less.  Interesting tactic.  Not surprisingly this has not gone down well with many English councillors.

More on business rates this week and the debate, for debate read spat, between the STUC and the FSB on the “Small Business Bonus Scheme”.  More on this can be found here.   Good to see that neither side used “morality” in their arguments.

Scottish Water has announced that its charges are to be frozen for the fourth year in a row.  The move means the average annual household charge from April in Scotland will remain at £324.  This is the same level it was in 2009-10.

Some more good news.   The UK Government has agreed to an income tax exemption for non UK competitors at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games.   This is something I have blogged about before and takes away another point of potential conflict between the Scottish and UK Governments.   Now that agreement has been reached on this and the fossil fuel levy fund I wonder which other niggly issue could be dealt with next?  How about adding aggregates duty, air passenger duty, corporation tax and alcohol duty to the Scotland Bill?  Likely to happen?  No.

One last point.  If you have still not dealt with your tax return please do so as soon as possible even though HMRC have effectively put back the deadline for two days due to possible strike action.  HMRC’s new penalty regime is not something you want to have to deal with.

Have a good weekend.

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“Tax land” from the banks of the “Silvery Tay”

Given that I am working in Dundee this week this seems like the best place to start.  Dundee is also my favourite Scottish city.  The plans for the town centre and the waterfront are very impressive.

So why is Dundee in the news this week?  Scottish Finance secretary John Swinney named a series of “hubs” where incentives will be offered to companies in manufacturing, life sciences and low carbon renewable energy.   The ports of Dundee and Leith is one of two low carbon and renewables areas proposed.   A number of questions remain to be answered including what are these “incentives”.  For example a reduction in business rates?  The announcement from the Scottish Government can be found here.

Also on business rates. The Scottish Chambers of Commerce called for the planned rise in business rates to be reconsidered.  The rate is planned to rise by 5.6% in April with the figure based on last September’s inflation rate.  This week saw the CPI rate of inflation fall to 4.2%.

Now to the UK Budget scheduled for 21 March.  The games have begun and the Deputy PM seems to have got his retalation in first.  Nick Clegg is purported to be urging the Chancellor to include a “mansion tax” on homes worth £2m and measures to stop the avoidance of stamp duty land tax on the sale of high value residential properties.  Will Nick Clegg get his two wishes?  The mansion tax is a long shot.  I cannot remember one Conservative politician saying anything positive about that proposal.  Further measures on stamp duty land tax avoidance is much more likely to be included in the UK Budget.

Further evidence of the tension within the UK coalition on taxation matters is shown by this comment by Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay, a Liberal Democrat peer and close ally of the Business Secretary Vince Cable:  “A mansion tax is the real test of whether the Coalition means business on fair taxation. You can’t claim ‘we are all in it together’ when wealth is virtually untaxed.”

This week also saw author Ian Rankin calling for tax incentives to support new writers.  Rankin said that the UK should adopt a scheme similar to the one already in existance in Ireland.  Under the Irish scheme the first 40,000 euros, roughly £33,000, of annual income earned by writers, composers or visual artists from the sale of their work is exempt from tax.  There have been similar calls for this type of exemption in the past.   Likelihood of success?  The response from the HM Treasury does not leave much wiggle room.

A spokeswoman for the HM Treasury said:  “Any new relief adds complexity to the tax system and could come at considerable cost to the Exchequer at a time when the government’s priority is rebalancing the economy.”  The full article from BBC News website can be found here.

Now to the comments made this week by Ed Miliband leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition.  Milliband would like the Crown Dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man to be persecuted as “tax havens”.   For persecution read tougher European Union action.   Milliband is urging the UK Government to force the Crown Dependencies to reveal the names of wealthy UK investors who use tax planning.  If they do not cooperate they would be threatened with being put on the OECD’s (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) blacklist.

This policy might could be included in Labour’s 2015 election manifesto.  Not surprisingly the Crown Dependencies have hit back.   This is from Guernsey’s treasury and resources minister Charles Parkinson:  This is “political posturing by a Labour leader who is struggling in the opinion polls”.  This is an issue that will surface again and again and could eventually result in increased calls for a change in their relationship with both the Crown and the UK.

Now to the fiscal powers debate.  I have for many years suggested that those arguing for fiscal autonomy for Scotland should look to the Isle of Man for some pointers.  That suggestion is as valid as ever as in less than two generations the Isle of Man has achieved almost complete fiscal autonomy.

Also on the fiscal powers debate.  As I have discussed before if you devolve tax and fiscal powers to one part of the UK that might mean tax competition.  How might other parts of the UK react to this?  We have already seen how Northern Ireland has reacted to even the possibility of the Scottish Parliament receiving similar powers over corporation tax.

Another and possibly more interesting example arose this week.  The Scotsman reported that the campaign to gain control of air passenger duty has been undermined by fierce lobbying from regional airports in the north east of England.   The claim is that it would damage their competitiveness.  It seems that the English regions are at last waking up.

I also read with great interest this week that a professional tax adviser has been convicted of a £70m tax fraud that involved donating shares to charities at many times their true value and collecting Gift Aid on the donations.  Yes £70m.  He will be sentenced on 9 February.  I think he should take his toothbrush to the hearing.

I will finish on a statement made by HMRC this week:  “We accept that our service standards last year were unacceptable but all the evidence is that we are turning the corner. “What caught my eye were the words “all the evidence”.  I suspect that I and many others will look at this claim throughout the coming year.

Have a good weekend.






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