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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A busy month in “tax land”

Let’s start with the independence debate.  Michael Moore has confirmed that the UK Government will not be bringing forward a proposal for further devolution.  I wonder if that will change if the opinion polls change.  This at least gives us a clear choice.  The choice being between “Calman minus” combined with the extremely unlikely scenario of Westminster devolving serious tax and fiscal powers after a ‘NO’ vote, and control over all tax and fiscal powers by 2016.

I think the ‘NO’ campaign has made a mistake here.  How those whose preferred choice is ‘devo plus’ or ‘devo max’ vote holds the key to which side wins in 2014.  Are they more likely to vote ‘NO’ as a result of Michael Moore’s statement?  The ‘NO’ campaign has not had a good start to the year.  The independence will cost £1 gaffe, support for the Scottish Government’s timetable for the transition to independence, the ridiculing of the claim that Scotland would need to ratify 8,500 treaties and then there was the loss of the UKs ‘AAA’ rating.  A serious proposal for further tax and fiscal powers would at least been a positive move by the ‘NO’ campaign and a change from the continuing negativity.

Now to a man who it seems can do anything.  Olympics gold medals, not a problem.  Forcing the HM Treasury into a u-turn, not a problem.  The UK Government has after all decided to grant a tax amnesty to non-resident athletes attending the London Grand Prix event this July. Olympic champion sprinter Usain Bolt announced that he would not attend unless his global earnings from sponsorship and endorsements were exempted, but until now HM Treasury had resisted the demand.  More on this from the STEP Journal can be found here.

A report by the House of Commons’ influential Public Accounts Committee says that promoters of so-called boutique tax avoidance schemes are “running rings around HMRC in a game of cat and mouse that HMRC is losing”.  It suggests that HMRC should publicly name those who sell ‘abusive’ schemes to as many clients as possible before HMRC shuts the scheme down.  This is estimated to cost the HM Treasury £5bn a year.  The Committee claimed that HMRC only knows about 46% of tax avoidance schemes, and that promoters who run the schemes find it unacceptably easy to put forward a “reasonable excuse” for not disclosing the scheme in order to escape a fine.  More on this from Accountancy Age can be found here and the Guardian here.

The UK government is to disqualify companies and individuals from bidding for public contracts if they have taken part in failed tax avoidance schemes.  This applies from 1 April 2013. Bidders will have to notify procurement departments if any tax return in the past 10 years has been found incorrect as a result of an HMRC challenge, or has contravened the Disclosure of Tax Avoidance Scheme rules.  More on this from HM Treasury can be found here.

A mansion tax is back in the news.  Although as it is a local taxation proposal it is not just a matter for the UK Parliament.  Local taxation is controlled by the Scottish Parliament.  A point missed by most reports.  The Liberal Democrats proposal would see either a 1% levy on homes worth over £2m or the introduction of new council tax bands for expensive homes.  More on the Liberal Democrat proposal from the Guardian can be found here.  The Labour Party has also announced plans to introduce a mansion tax on all homes worth more than £2m in order to fund the reintroduction of the 10p tax rate abolished in 2007.  More on the Labour proposal from the BBC News website can be found here.

An ongoing programme of jobs cuts helped play a major part in HMRC exceeding their cost-savings target for 2011/12, according to a report by the National Audit Office.  The report can be found here.  The figures give an indication of the scale of the cuts suffered by HMRC.  Spending slashed by £269m over the 12 months to 31 March 2012.  This was 19% more than the anticipated £249m.  A reduction of £140m was made by axing 2,400 full-time equivalent members of staff. The department plans to have lowered its running costs by £950m between the UK Government’s 2010 sending review and the end of the 2014/15 tax year.  It expects to see the loss of 10,000 full-time equivalent employees and 300,000 square metres of estate.

Press reports indicate that the inheritance tax nil rate band is to be frozen for several more years beyond the already announced date of April 2015, as part of the UK Government’s plans for funding elderly care in England.  More on this from the Herald can be found here and the BBC news website here.  Another example of the problem that can arise under devolution when the tax power remains at Westminster, inheritance tax, and control over an associated area such as social care is devolved.

Now to the least surprising story of the month.  The Confederation of British Industry has warned that the new Financial Transaction Tax announced by the European Commission may have a detrimental effect on UK jobs and growth.  Matthew Fell, the CBI Director for Competitive Markets, said: “it is particularly worrying that the increased scope of the tax will now cover businesses’ risk management activities, as well as hitting financial services in non-participating member states, like the UK, because of extra-territoriality”.  More on this story from the Telegraph can be found here.

Now to Europe and how the EU is demanding action against tax-planning.  The European Parliament’s Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs has published a report proposing that member states revoke the banking licences of financial institutions that help their customers evade taxes.  More on this can be found here.

The heavy tax increases imposed by the Greek Government last year have actually caused a sharp fall in tax receipts. January’s tax revenues in Greece fell to €4.05bn, 16% down on the January 2012 figures, due to a collapse in consumption and a corresponding decrease in indirect tax payments.  More on this can be found here.

An interesting opinion piece can be found in the New York Times challenging the ‘Myth of the Rich Who Flee From Taxes’.  It was prompted by US Masters golf champion Phil Mickelson’s recent threat to decamp from California because the state’s top rate of income tax is increasing from 10.3 to 13.3%.  I agree with the conclusion reached.  It really is a myth although it does not stop those arguing against serious tax and fiscal powers for the Scottish Parliament from using it. The piece from the New York Times can be found here.

And lastly, well done to the Scottish teams who beat Ireland at the weekend.

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Another few weeks in “tax land”

Where to start.  So much has already happened in 2013.

Let’s start with the independence debate.  I had finally finished my chapter on “the battle for a Scottish tax system” and then another devolution proposal appears and Ruth Davidson almost says something of interest on the tax and fiscal powers debate.

The latest devolution paper is called “devo more” and it is from The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).  I know it is difficult to keep up.  Again it starts from the premise of what is best for the UK not necessarily Scotland.  Personal income tax, partial control of VAT, excise duties on alcohol and tobacco and air passenger duty would be devolved.  Alan Trench, of the University of Edinburgh, who wrote the report, said it was “clear devolution must go further to meet popular demand and his plan minimises the adverse effects on other parts of the United Kingdom.”  The IPPR report can be found here.

It is a pity that there was not more interest shown in putting together a serious proposal for tax and fiscal powers for the Scottish Parliament during Calman.  Let’s not forgot that none of the “NO” parties  has come close to arguing for the powers recommended for devolving in “devo plus”, let alone “devo max”, to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.  The Liberal Democrats have even gone backwards form what they proposed under the Steel Commission.  See my earlier blog on this which can be found here.

Then we had Ruth Davidson’s speech which promised a lot and delivered almost nothing.  Davidson promised no new tax or fiscal powers, no timetable for even considering the issue and no confirmation that she has moved on from saying that corporation tax and welfare powers should not be devolved.  What did she say, or rather what did she hint at:  “Sources close to Davidson confirmed that she will consider setting up a new commission to examine the devolution of more powers to the Scottish Parliament.”  For more on Davidson’s speech see Alan Cochrane’s report in the Telegraph which can be found here.

The stance of the “NO” parties is a continuation of what I call the “Calman doctrine”.  Do nothing unless under pressure, then if under pressure 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.

Time, and credibility, is fast running out for the “NO” campaign parties if they are to come up with a serious tax and fiscal proposal.  The most recent “Scottish Social Attitudes Survey” was clear.  Independence had 35% support and “devo max” 32%.  That is a clear majority for almost all powers, including tax and welfare powers, to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

Now to the UK tax system.  It seems that no-one is happy.

Two recent stories show why a Scottish tax system is needed.   The first one relates to carbon capture.  The article on this from the Herald can be found here.   The second relates to air passenger duty.  The article on this from the Scotsman can be found here.

Then there is the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee.  It has called for the re-establishment of a single annual UK Budget, saying that the UK’s Autumn Statement has increasingly taken on the character of a second Budget resulting in uncertainty and costs for business and the economy.  A report published by the Committee says:  “The primacy of the Budget as the main focus of fiscal and economic policy making should be re-established”.  More on this from the BBC news website can be found here.

The impressive chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, Margaret Hodge, has claimed that new tax laws are excessively influenced by major corporations and accountancy firms.  Hodge has argued that working groups set up by the UK Government to discuss tax reforms were overly dominated by those with vested interests in reducing their tax contributions.  More on this from the BBC news website can be found here.

Even business leaders are seemingly unhappy.  The UK Government’s plans to reform tax laws forcing large companies to be more transparent regarding their tax affairs have been criticised by business leaders.  The fear is that such laws would stifle the UK’s economic recovery as businesses would be reluctant to locate in the UK.  More on this from the Guardian can be found here.

HMRC offers poor value for money, according to a report by the National Audit Office.  The report claims that more than 20 million phone calls went unanswered last year, whilst callers who did get through were made to wait on average 282 seconds, up from 107 seconds last year, costing the public £33 million on call charges.  More on this can be found here.

It has been claimed that the UK Government will have raised taxes 300 times and ordered 120 tax cuts by the end of their proposed term of government.  More on this claim from the Telegraph can be found here.  One of the more controversial UK tax proposals is termed a “bedroom tax”.  More on this can be found here.

David Cameron has told the World Economic Forum conference in Davos that he will use the UK’s G8 presidency to launch a campaign against ‘unethical’ tax avoidance by multinational companies using ‘an army of clever accountants’.  The accountancy profession whilst I am sure not unhappy at being termed clever, took umbrage with what Cameron said.  More on this from the STEP journal can be found here.  Interestingly Cameron again brings ethics into the tax debate.  That said, does he intend to include the Crown Dependencies and the British overseas Territories in this campaign?  If not, this is nothing but a press release.

Members of France’s socialist cabinet have denounced the famous actor Gerard Depardieu, who has shifted his residence just over the Belgian border in order to escape the Hollande government’s tax rises.  Depardieu has retorted with an open letter to the newspapers, accusing the French Government of punishing success and talent, and offering to give up his passport.  More on this can be found here.

Let’s end with some news on a Financial Transaction Tax.  Eleven EU member states are to introduce a tax on financial transactions expected to generate £35bn in annual revenues.   As a tax avoidance measure, the European Commission has amended the relevant directive to catch any transaction where either of the parties is domiciled in the tax area, or is trading on behalf of a client in the tax area.  That will mean that this will also apply to some UK transactions.  The European Commission is now expected to present proposals on the detail of this new taxation scheme which will need to be accepted by unanimous agreement of the participating states.  More on this can be found here.   Whether to introduce a Financial Transaction Tax is just one of the many tax decisions Scotland will be able to decide for itself if it decides to vote “YES” in 2014.

Have a great weekend and in particular to all those representing Scotland this weekend.

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Tax avoidance debate takes centre stage in “tax land”

Let’s start with an issue that is at last beginning to reach the top of the political agenda, tax avoidance.

The UK National Audit Office has released a report suggesting that HMRC is being “overwhelmed” by the scale of tax avoidance, claiming that the UK is losing out by more than £10bn in lost tax revenue.  The Comptroller and Auditor General, Amyas Morse, stated: “HMRC must push harder to find an effective way to tackle the promoters and users of the most aggressive tax avoidance schemes”.  But according to the NAO, between 2004 and 2011 approximately 2,300 avoidance schemes were disclosed to HMRC.  A report on this can be found on the BBC news website which can be found here.  The NAO report can be found here.

That shows the scale of the problem.

Then there is the sight of a number of Chief Executives from several of the world’s top companies giving evidence to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee on the issue of tax avoidance.  Representatives from Google UK, Starbucks and Amazon were answering questions on tax arrangements for multinational companies.  Their responses show how big business views this issue and interference by politicians.  More on this from the BBC news website can be found here.

Also on this issue.  The Managing Director of John Lewis, Andy Street has said that the failure to resolve the issue would risk driving UK firms out of business.  Street’s comments were aimed at Amazon, which is accused of failing to pay the correct rate of UK corporation tax. He said that UK companies would be “out-invested” and “out-traded” by the US-based internet retail giant.  More on this from the Telegraph can be found here.

There is also some evidence that HMRC is losing this “battle”.  The European Court of Justice has ruled that the UK Government must refund several UK-headquartered multinationals up to £5bn worth of corporation tax.  The companies, led by British American Tobacco, were found to have been treated unfairly by HMRC which retrospectively blocked tax refund claims dating as far back as 1973.  HMRC said it was “very disappointed” at the ruling.  Glad that it was not “happy”.  More on this, again from the Telegraph, can be found here.

Then there is the tax tribunal decision in favour of the former Rangers Football Club.   The decision of the first tier tribunal was not unanimous and HMRC is considering an appeal.  More on this from the Scotsman can be found here.

An example of what HMRC is trying to do also highlights the scale of its task.  HMRC has launched a taskforce to pursue landlords in the south east of England who fail to declare rental income.  It is expected to recover £4m out of the estimated £550m of tax evaded annually by landlords across the UK.  A press release from HMRC on this matter can be found here. 

The statement from UK Business secretary Vince Cable sums up nicely the quandary for politicians.  Cable has called for action against corporate tax avoidance but also stressed the need to encourage investment.  He pointed to anger amongst small and medium sized businesses that multinational corporations are able to avoid tax without consequence.  More on this from the Scotsman can be found here.

I liked this: “High-street shops turn fire on Amazon’s tax avoidance”.  More on this can be found here.

Now to the fiscal powers debate.

Edward Troup, the person responsible for the collection of the Scottish rate of income tax at HMRC, has told MSPs that the Scottish Government would have to pay the costs of any changes to the Scottish rate of income tax.  More on this from the Scotsman can be found here.  This is in fact one of the reasons why I think a tax needs to be devolved in its entirety.

Also on this issue, and some sensible observations by Iain Gray, convener of Holyrood’s Audit Committee.  Gray said that the Scottish Parliament must be able to exercise greater oversight of HMRC when the Scottish Parliament will become responsible for raising half the income tax in Scotland from 2016.   More on this from the Herald can be found here.

The Devo Plus group, which was set up by Reform Scotland, has published its latest paper on further powers that could be devolved to the Scottish Parliament as long as Scotland votes NO.  More on this from the Scotsman can be found here.  The paper  can be found here. Notable that the Conservative representative acknowledged that he was there in a personal capacity and not representing his party.  Ruth Davidson has of course made her opposition to further powers clear.  The problem with this approach is an obvious one.  Can anyone say with a degree of certainty that major powers will be devolved to Scotland if Scotland votes NO.  To see how far apart the opposing sides in the independence debate are have a look at one of my recent blogs.  This blog lists the tax powers that Westminster has already said no to.  My earlier blog can be found here. Even the Liberal Democrats, the party that historically has went the furthest on this issue, now wishes to devolve only a handful of additional tax powers.

Now to some commentary on the recent Institute for Fiscal Studies report on the economic possibilities of an independent Scotland.  The excellent piece by Ian Bell in the Herald can be found here.  The argument that Scotland’s oil wealth is a potential problem for Scotland is simply ridiculous.

The Times has reported that sales of homes valued between £2m and £5m in Greater London have fallen by 29% per cent in the third quarter, according to figures from the Land Registry.  I was interested to read thatindustry experts” have blamed the fall on changes to stamp duty land tax in the last UK Budget.  London Central Portfolio, a high-end residential property investment fund, said: “The fall in transactions is almost definitely a result of the uncertainty and negative sentiment caused by the tax changes announced in the 2012 Budget”.  It seems that uncertainty can be caused by something other than the debate on Scottish independence. The report in the Times can be found here.

And finally to France.  The French Government has announced new measures against tax avoidance and fraud for companies and individuals. Failure to disclose the origin of offshore assets will attract an automatic 60% tax rate.  The French tax authorities will also demand an explanation of all individual payments exceeding €200,000.  Vive la France.

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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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An interesting few weeks in “tax land”

Let’s start with the independence debate.  I would normally refer to this as the “fiscal powers” debate but there seems little point as that ship appears to have sailed.  Some things are becoming clearer.  There is not going to be a second question.  The likelihood of serious additional fiscal powers being devolved to the Scottish Parliament if Scotland votes ‘No’ also now seems increasingly unlikely.

It is not difficult to imagine the appetite for even listening to arguments for additional fiscal powers at Westminster in that event.  That is where the Devo Plus campaign has got it wrong.  And I say this as one of the authors of the Reform Scotland Fiscal Powers papers on which their proposal is based.  Devo Plus are arguing for a ‘No’ vote and also that there should not be a second question.  Do they really think Westminster will seriously consider devolving further powers to the Scottish Parliament if Scotland votes ‘No’?  An article by Jeremy Purvis who leads the Devo Plus campaign can be found here.  On a personal note it is disappointing to see that Reform Scotland have now taken a stance on Scotland’s constitutional question by its support for Devo Plus.

The fact that only the Liberal Democrats are going to have a further devolution proposal by the time the referendum takes place reinforces this argument.

So if there is not to be a second question, what do those who have supported devo max previously do?  The impact and importance of Jim McColl’s announcement in favour of independence should not be under estimated.  A BBC news website report on this can be found here.

Now to taxing the wealthy.  Just now politicians seem to talk of little else.  Let’s ignore for now what actually constitutes wealth.

Let’s start with an article by George Kerevan on the Scotsman.  Kerevan argues against taxing the wealthy, believing that it is arbitrary, complicated to administer, and does not raise enough money relative to the trouble it takes to collect it.   His article can be found here.

Nick Clegg wants to ensure that the rich “pay their fair share”.  He has vowed to block further welfare cuts until a mansion tax is agreed with his Tory coalition partners. Vince Cable has also spoken out against tax havens and non-domiciles.  Then there is Danny Alexander.  He has promised tax investigations for all those who own assets worth more than £1 million.  The cynic in me says: I have heard a lot of this before and not just on tax reform.  What about the banks.  Has anything of substance actually been done?

Then there is the evolving love in between Ed Balls and Nick Clegg.  Ed Balls told the Independent newspaper that a future Labour UK Government could impose an annual levy on expensive properties, unlike Nick Clegg though, he favours a permanent rather than temporary wealth tax.  The article in the Independent can be found here.  This does seem more like mischief making than serious policy making given how long the last UK Labour Government were in power.

One reason for my cynicism is a claim made by the SNP this week.  The claim is that there are fewer, not more, tax inspectors.  I have blogged before on how HMRC’s budget has been reduced and of the large number of HMRC redundancies.  If we are serious about tackling tax evasion then you need a properly resourced tax collection agency.  Transparency would not go a miss either.  How about publishing tax returns?  The SNP press release on this can be found here.

So what can be done?  HMRC’s High Net Worth Unit has brought in £500 million in extra tax from the UK’s 5,000 wealthiest people since it launched three years ago. The amount collected is well over the original target of £100 million a year.  A press release from HMRC on this can be found here.  And of course this was achieved in a time where HMRC’s budget has been cut.

Finally on this issue, an excellent article by Iain MacWhirter in the Herald.  MacWhirter points to the relative insignificance of the cost of the so called “free services” as compared with the salaries and pensions of the higher-earning public sector workers.  The article in the Herald can be found here.

These services are of course not “free”.  They are paid for by taxation.  Taxation is simply a series of political choices.

The introduction of a 15% rate of stamp duty land tax on corporate buyers in this year’s UK Budget, it is claimed, has had a dramatic impact on the high-value London property market.  The article from the online STEP journal can be found here here.  I must admit to struggling to see why this is a bad thing.

About 60% of all taxpayers’ complaints against HMRC are upheld on appeal, according to figures from Pinsent Masons. Some 58,110 complaints were made last year, of which more than 33,000 were accepted either by an internal HMRC review or by the Adjudicator’s Office.  A report on this can be found here.

Barclays Bank is to cut back on its UK tax planning unit, after a dispute with the tax authorities over ‘aggressive’ schemes tarnished its public image.  A report on this can be found here.

Now to matters slightly further afield.

Firstly to America and the never ending saga of Mitt Romney’s tax affairs.  Romney has at last published his 2011 tax return.  It turns out Romney and his wife paid $1.936 million in taxes on gross income of $13.7 million.  That is a tax rate of 14.1%.  The article from the online STEP journal can be found here.  I suspect that this is not the end of this matter.

Francois Hollande has revealed details of his 75% top rate of income tax for France’s wealthiest citizens.  Newspaper reports suggest there are likely to be concessions for married couples, performers and sports stars.  Meanwhile the richest man in France, Bernard Arnault, has applied for Belgian nationality to escape the tax.  An article on this from the Guardian can be found here.  Again, I suspect that this is an issue that is going to run and run.

A Spanish newspaper has reported that the country is about to double capital gains tax on short term gains to 52%.  This gives a sense of the level of problems now faced by Spain.  An article on this can be found here.

Have a good weekend.

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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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