Another few weeks in “tax land”

There are signs that the quality of the Scottish independence debate is at last improving.  The ‘NO’ campaign’s relentless negativity is now being commented on and it is also being asked questions concerning what happens if Scotland votes ‘NO’.  The ‘YES’ campaign also seems to be finding its feet and the Scottish Government has published a number of detailed policy papers.  It is though it’s “White Paper” that is eagerly anticipated.    

Further evidence for this improvement comes from the Law Society of Scotland.  The Law Society published its paper titled: “Scotland’s Constitutional Future Views, opinions and questions” this week.  The paper can be found here.  This is an excellent contribution to the debate and asks questions of both sides.

In particular I liked its comments surrounding Scotland’s membership of the European Union.  It is quite obvious to anyone but the most one-eyed commentator that it is going to be very difficult to get more clarity on this issue without the cooperation of the UK Government.  It seems, and for purely political reasons, that the UK Government does not want clarity on this issue.

The following quote from the paper is also telling: “Scotland, as part of the United Kingdom, complies with the European Union treaties and the EU acquis ((all the EU laws, treaties, declarations and resolutions, international agreements and the decisions of the European Court of Justice, i.e. Europe as it is). Whether by way of accession or amendment to the treaties following negotiation, Scotland should be able to qualify, in legal terms, for EU membership in its own right.”  I was also pleased to see that Sir David Edward’s (a former judge of the European Court of Justice and one of the foremost European lawyers in Scotland) common sense analysis of this issue being quoted.

As someone who spent a great deal of time researching and writing about the options for the devolving of substantial tax and fiscal powers to the Scottish Parliament, I was also very pleased to see the ‘NO’ campaign being asked some basic questions such as “which powers” and “when” if Scotland votes ‘NO’.

Now to Wales.  It seems that the UK Government is going to consult again on whether control of SDLT is to be devolved to the Welsh Parliament.  The following story on this from the BBC website shows the increasing frustration at the UK Government’s continued delaying tactics.  The reality is that Westminster only devolves power as a matter of last resort.  All the usual tactics are being used here and in particular the need for yet another consultation.  The latest consultation can be found here and the report from the BBC news website can be found here.

Let’s now take a minute and compare and contrast the next few stories.

An independent Scotland would offer tax incentives to film and TV productions according to Scotland’s Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop.  More on this can be found here.

The Scottish Government has condemned a High Court decision that ruled applying a cap on housing benefits for disabled people lawful.  Firstly it would be helpful if the news reports explained or clearly stated that this was the “High Court” of England & Wales.  That said, Scottish Housing Minister Margaret Burgess has demanded, and it seems has had some success, that Scotland gets a fair share of the £35m funding pot set aside for those hardest hit. 

Interestingly she also said:  “The bedroom tax will hit the poorest hardest and it is wrong that it applies to people in crisis such as those in temporary accommodation and some supported accommodation.”  “Scotland is disproportionately disadvantaged because much of Scotland’s temporary accommodation is affected by the bedroom tax, unlike in England. The majority of our temporary accommodation is local authority owned, which is not the case in England.”  That begs the question:  Would a Scottish court have come to a different decision?  More on this can be found here.

The UK Government has outlined plans to give tax breaks to companies involved in the UK’s nascent shale gas industry.  It has proposed cutting the tax on some of the income generated from producing shale gas – found in underground shale rock formations – from 62% to just 30%.  This proposal has been criticised by environmentalists, with Friends of the Earth calling them a “disgrace”.  Just how generous are these tax breaks? Gas production is typically taxed at 62% although in some parts of the North Sea long standing operations are taxed at up to 81%.  More on this from the BBC news website can be found here.

Sometimes you have to wonder if Scotland exists.  Will the so-called “Mansion Tax” apply to Scotland?  No.  Do almost all the news stories refer to “Britain”?  Of course they do.  See for example this one from the Independent which can be found here.

11 of the 22 high-value settlements reached by HMRC last year were considered inadequate by the Tax Assurance Commissioner’s office, according to its first annual report. The office was created in February 2012 in response to criticisms of HMRC’s handling of big-money tax disputes.  More on this from Pinsent Masons can be found here.

Now to matters slightly further afield. 

Jersey fights back?  A report commissioned by Jersey Finance has found that Jersey helps the UK generate £2.3bn in tax revenues each year and supports 180,000 UK jobs by channelling foreign investment into the UK. It estimates that losses to the UK Treasury through legal tax avoidance via Jersey are well under £480m a year, while annual evasion costs are less than £150m.  More on this can be found here.

The French Government is to extend the capital gains tax exemption for second homes to properties owned for 22 years, rather than the current 30 year requirement. The 30-year rule was introduced by the previous Sarkozy government in February 2012 to replace the previous qualifying ownership period of only 15 years, but it accelerated the slump in France’s residential property market.  More on this from the Telegraph can be found here.  A good example of the schizophrenic relationship that exists between certain parts of the UK and France.

Early data collected by Swiss banks from their UK clients under the UK-Swiss tax regularisation agreement suggest that it may reveal far less untaxed income than the UK Government has claimed.  More on this from STEP can be found here.

An Irish parliamentary committee has voted down calls for multinational companies to be grilled in Dublin about their tax affairs, in the wake of a string of controversies at firms such as Google and Apple which use the Irish tax regime. Some of Apple’s largest Irish subsidiaries were found not to be tax resident anywhere, prompting Carl Levin, chair of the US Senate subcommittee on investigations, to call Ireland a tax haven.  More on this from the Guardian can be found here.

The Australian Tax Office will next year conduct 680 reviews and 115 audits of people suspected of using ‘secrecy jurisdictions’ to avoid paying tax.  This is in addition to 1,500 income tax reviews and audits of wealthy individual taxpayers.  More on this can be found here.

The US Internal Revenue Service has begun a drive against multinational companies whose permanent establishment strategies result in some profits not being taxed in any country, so-called “stateless income”.  More on this from Reuters can be found here.

The Spanish government is threatening to open tax investigations into the 6,000 Gibraltar residents who own property in Spain.  This is seemingly in retaliation for the Gibraltar Government’s attempts to exclude Spanish fishing vessels from its waters.  Spain is also considering imposing a €50 tax on vehicles entering or leaving Gibraltar; restricting the use of Spanish airspace to planes bound for Gibraltar; and taxing the many Gibraltar-based Internet gambling companies.  More on this from the BBC website can be found here.

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Another few weeks in “tax land”

Where to start with so much happening in “tax land” just now.

Let’s start with the increasing interest by the UK and other governments in offshore tax havens and in particular the creation of “beneficial ownership registers”.  The issue here is that it is often very difficult to find out who the actual owner of an asset is.  The “legal owner”, the name stated on a land register or a share register, may be different to the so-called beneficial owner, the person who actually benefits from the asset in question.  This distinction can also be of use when trying to avoid tax and in particular hiding ownership and/or benefit from a particular tax authority.

This issue was on the agenda at the recent G8 summit in Northern Ireland.  Partial agreement was reached but it is not clear if trusts as well as companies will be included, which countries will actually set up these registers, who will have access to these registers and how long this is going to take.  More on the “Loch Erne Declaration” from the BBC news website can be found here.

There is no shortage of ideas surrounding tax these days. For example, Justin King, the chief executive of Sainsbury’s, has called on the UK Government to follow the US by introducing a “marketplace fairness tax” for online retailers and predicted that the need to revamp the corporate tax system will be a battleground at the next election.  More on this from the Telegraph can be found here.

Google only seems to be in the news these days when its tax affairs are being discussed.  The House of Common’s Public Accounts Committee has called on HMRC to fully investigate Google’s tax arrangements in a report critical of the company’s corporation tax avoidance. More on this from the Scotsman can be found here.

Ed Miliband and George Osborne have traded charges of hypocrisy over party funding as it emerged that Labour had received a donation of shares from TV shopping channel magnate John Mills. Mr Mills admitted he had given the party shares rather than cash because it was “tax efficient”. Labour suggested the Chancellor’s involvement in the matter was hypocritical, given the Tories’ own efforts to seek donations that avoided tax. More on this from the Guardian can be found here.

Now to the ever increasing range of Scottish taxes, charges and duties.  Scotland is to follow the Republic of Ireland, Wales and and Northern Ireland in introducing a charge on plastic bags.  The charge is to be 5p and the funds are to go to good causes.  Regulations will be introduced in the Scottish Parliament in time for businesses to start charging by October 2014. The information released so far seems sensible and well thought out and in particular the effort to reduce any burden on small businesses is to be welcomed.  More on this can be found here.                                                                                 

More than half-a-million Scots are in danger of being worse off when the Scottish Parliament gains new powers over income tax because the current system would not allow them to claim tax relief on their private ­pensions.  More on this from the Scotsman can be found here.  This simply confirms how ill thought out the Scotland Act’s income tax proposal is.  Dividing control of a tax between two legislatures is rarely sensible or workable.

Now to the Scottish Conservatives and their never ending debate on further powers for the Scottish Parliament.  Coverage of their recent conference was dominated by the differences of opinion on this issue within the Scottish Conservative party.  More on this can be found from the Scotsman here and the Telegraph here.

The Scottish Green party is urging the Scottish Government to be bolder on land reform and to look at measures including land value tax.  I agree that this is something that needs to be looked at.  More on this can be found here.

When I read stories such as this I know that tax simplification is never going to happen.  David Cameron has said that married couples are to be given a tax break in the near future.  The tax break will be worth up to £150.  The income tax legislation is already complicated enough and, given the state of HMRC just now, I can guess its  private reaction to ideas such as this.  More on this from the Telegraph can be found here.

I wonder what the rest of Scotland thinks of this suggestion.  If Edinburgh’s £776m tram system is to have any chance of making even a small profit over the next fifteen years a tax concession will be required.  It is claimed that a large part of somehthing called the “sinking-fund” might be tax deductible but the City of Edinburgh Council has confirmed that it has not yet made approaches to HMRC to confirm that this is indeed the case.  More on this can be found in the Times of 27 June.

Now to matters slightly further afield.  The European Commission has published its plans to require EU member states to automatically exchange information about all forms of taxpayers’ income including dividends and capital gains, as well as the bank balances of all EU residents.  This is further evidence of the increasing role the EU is playing, and intends to play, in tax and financial matters.  More on this can be found here.

In addition, Italy, Belgium, Greece, Poland and Finland’s Aland Islands have failed to implement the European administrative co-operation directive, which requires member states to automatically exchange information on their residents’ taxable income. The implementation deadline expired six months ago, and the European Commission says it will take the countries to the European Court of Justice if they persist in ignoring the directive, which is soon to be extended to cover other types of income.   More on this from Reuters can be found here.

Taxpayers have brought litigation against the Canada Revenue Agency’s use of its general anti-avoidance rule (GAAR) on 52 occasions since it was introduced, and won exactly half of them, according to new CRA figures. Three-quarters of the litigated cases turned on whether there was misuse or abuse of the GAAR or another statute.  More on this can be found here.  This is of particular interest given that we will soon have a UK GAAR.

Now to the USA and back to the “beneficial ownership” issue.  The US President’s office has promised to introduce comprehensive legislation requiring the disclosure of beneficial ownership information, which currently does not exist in the US either at state or federal level. The promise is part of an action plan issued after last week’s G8 summit.   More on this from STEP can be found here.

The US Supreme Court has held that the surviving spouse of a same-sex marriage must be granted the spousal estate tax exemption, despite provisions of the Federal “Defense of Marriage Act” restricting federal benefits to traditional mixed-sex couples.  More on this from STEP can be found here.

Lastly to Cyprus.  An expert commission appointed by Cyprus’s central bank has concluded that its financial centre can only survive if it is reformed to be less dependent on tax breaks for clients in particular countries, with strictly and visibly enforced anti-money laundering controls, and able to offer an international standard of wealth management services.  More on this from STEP can be found here.

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Another few weeks in “tax land”

Let’s start with the incredible revelation that large multi-national companies put a great deal of effort into paying as little tax as possible.  The debate surrounding this issue is long overdue.  I am also glad to say that there has been some great commentary on this issue.

Examples include:  Ian Bell’s: “It’s not an accident Westminster’s financial system allows tax avoidance … it’s designed that way”.  His article from the Herald can be found here.

Joyce McMillan outlines the wider debate and criticises the focus at Westminster on benefit fraud rather than tax avoidance.  Her article from the Scotsman can be found here.

George Kerevan’s article titled: “Taxing questions for complicit governments” from the Scotsman can be found here.  This is from the article: “The current generation of highly profitable internet companies have taken (legitimate) transfer pricing to extraordinary new limits. Google manages to operate almost tax-free in the UK, France and Germany, despite generating more than £35 billion in revenues in all three countries.”

Alsion Rowatt writing in the Herald comments on the increasing evidence of multinational corporations’ tax avoidance and criticises the HMRC for not keeping up with the internet age.  This article can be found here.

And from the Guardian: The bosses of some of Britain’s largest multinational corporations have urged David Cameron to stop moralising and rein in his rhetoric on tax avoidance.”  The article in full can be found here.

For an example as to how far some companies will go look no further than our utility companies.  More on this from the Telegraph can be found here.

To summarise.  Companies rarely consider “morality” when deciding how much tax to pay.  I use the word “decide” intentionally.  These companies after all have a duty to their shareholders.  The fact is that UK and international taxation law is full of holes and has always been.  The politicians know this.  The politicians have always known this.  In the so called good times this issue was simply ignored.  Is there an easy answer? Of course not.  Do the politicians desperately want to be seen to be doing something? Of course.  Is there a huge amount of hypocrisy around this issue?  Yes.  Do governments want inward investment?  Yes.  Will they offer tax breaks to achieve this?  Yes.  Is the headline rate of tax the only deciding factor for companies?  Of course not.  Is there a growing perception in the UK that the taxation favours certain sectors over others?  I believe so.  Is this debate going to continue?  I hope so.

Now to the fiscal powers debate and two stories on the Scottish Conservatives.  The headlines contain the phrases “under attack” and “under fire” and show how difficult a position Ruth Davidson is in.  It seems she is damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t.  The Scotsman article can be found here and the Herald article here.

The head of one of the UK’s largest quarries has accused tax collectors of “arrogant and high-handed behaviour” ahead of a case this week involving millions of pounds in unpaid aggregates levies.  Aggregates levy was of course one of the taxes recommended for devolving under Calman.  The article from the Scotsman can be found here.

Now to London.  Boris Johnson continues to argue that London should have the same fiscal powers as those available to the devolved parliaments in Scotland and Wales.  This is a debate that is going to run and run.  More on this can be found here.

HMRC has begun a campaign to make professional football managers and coaches regularise their tax position. It has forced the English Football Association to provide a list of its 3,300 registered coaches, and has written to them all warning that “we have received extensive data about coaches from sources in the football community”.  Presumably HMRC knows that football is played in Scotland as well.  More on this can be found here.

Now to Europe and another example of the increasing role it is playing in tax matters.  The European Commission will present a legislative proposal to require the EU-wide automatic exchange of all types of information on taxable incomes, including dividends, capital gains, salaries, directors’ fees, pensions, life insurance and rents, rather than just interest as now. It will be implemented by an amendment to the EU Directive on Administrative Cooperation which came into force in January.  More on this can be found here.

Now to the USA.  Criminal investigations by the Internal Revenue Service rose 9% to 5,125 in the last fiscal year.  The number of convictions has risen to 2,634 aided by a 93% conviction rate.   More on this can be found here.  I suspect the trend is similar in the UK.

Again from the USA and a story that will I am sure run and run.  The IRS has admitted that its staff gave special scrutiny to the tax-exempt status of organisations supporting the conservative Tea Party alliance during the 2012 presidential election campaign. The IRS says it was trying to distinguish between political organisations as such, and social welfare organisations that are not allowed to engage in political campaigning as their primary activity.  US President Obama has now sacked the Head of the IRS, Steven Miller and the FBI has launched a criminal investigation into the affair.  Two articles on this from the Wall Street Journal can be found here and here.

And finally to France.  The French Government has dropped plans for corporate governance legislation to cap executive pay. Instead the 2014 Budget will introduce the long-threatened 75% levy on employers who pay salaries over €1m.   More on this from Reuters can be found here.

Have a great weekend.

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Walton (Appellant) v The Scottish Ministers (Respondent) (Scotland), 17 October 2012 – Challenge to validity of schemes and orders allowing Aberdeen bypass

Supreme Court decision considering an appeal from the Inner House in respect of a challenge to the schemes and orders made by the Scottish Ministers (under the Roads (Scotland) Act 1984) to allow construction of an Aberdeen bypass.

The bypass, as initially promoted by the Ministers, had its origins in a regional transport strategy published in March 2003 which, in addition to the bypass, had also considered various other proposals for reducing congestion in Aberdeen.  The Ministers decided to undertake the bypass. However, in December 2004, following a campaign against the routing of the bypass via Murtle of Camphill, previously discarded options were reconsidered and became part of a public consultation. Prior to making a decision the Minister for Transport, commissioned a report on an option which was a hybrid of two of these previous options.  That hybrid option (known as the Fastlink) which linked Stonehaven to the bypass was adopted (in December 2005) on the grounds it would also reduce congestion between Stonehaven and Aberdeen on the A90. The ministers then published Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) on the basis that the scheme fell within the scope of the Environmental Assessment Directive.

Following objections from Mr Walton[1] and others, a public inquiry was held into environmental and technical issues concerning the bypass. However it did not consider the more fundamental question of whether the bypass should be built at all.  Litigation then followed through the courts.

In the Supreme Court, Mr Walton’s primary contention was that the Fastlink was adopted without the public consultation required under the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive[2].  Mr Walton also argued that common law principles of fairness required that the public inquiry should have considered the (economic, social or strategic) justifications for building the Fastlink.  Although Mr Walton only sought to quash the schemes and orders in so far as they concern the Fastlink, the Ministers maintained that if the schemes and orders were to be quashed to any extent, the scheme for the bypass would fall as a whole.

Requirement for a Strategic Environmental Assessment
In coming to its conclusion, the court took account of the differences between EIAs and Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEAs). It was noted that the EIA Directive is concerned with the assessment of the effects of “projects” on the environment. The SEA Directive, which was adopted 16 years later, is concerned with the environmental assessment of “plans and programmes” (which set the framework of future development consent of “projects”) and is intended to give consideration to environmental considerations at an earlier stage in the process[3].

The Supreme Court considered that, whereas the regional transport strategy (in March 2003) was a “plan or programme” in terms of the SEA Directive, the Fastlink was neither a “plan or programme” nor a “modification”[4] to a “plan or a programme” and did not trigger the consultation requirements under the SEA Directive.  It was instead a modification to a “project” and thus subject to the EIA Directive rather than the SEA Directive.

Compliance with common law principles of fairness
With regard to the common law principles of fairness concerning the holding of the public inquiry, in terms of the Roads (Scotland) Act 1984, the Ministers are under a duty to hold an inquiry if an objection is made to an order or scheme by any person who requires notification of the scheme (in terms of the 1984 Act) or any other person appearing to them to be affected.

As Mr Walton did not require to be notified of the scheme and nothing before the court indicated that he was regarded as a person affected, there was no suggestion that the Ministers were statutorily obliged to hold an inquiry into his objections. There was also no suggestion that he had any legitimate expectation that the remit of the inquiry would encompass the (economic, policy or strategic justifications) for building the Fastlink. No material before the court suggested that the Ministers were bound as a matter of fairness to include the justifications for the building of the Fastlink within the remit of the inquiry.

Whether remedies should have been available to Mr Walton
In the Inner House it had been observed that:

  1.  if Mr Walton’s contentions had been accepted, the court would have exercised its discretion (under to the 1984 Act) to decline to grant him a remedy, the court noting that it was not contended that the schemes and orders would substantially prejudice his interests or affect his property;
  2. Mr Walton was not a “person aggrieved”[5] in terms of the 1984 Act; and
  3. Mr Walton would not have had standing even if the test were the same as would apply to a judicial review at common law.

Whilst reserving its opinion on the correctness of Inner House’s approach, the Supreme Court noted that, in terms of the Scotland Act 1998, the Scottish Ministers do not have the power to make subordinate legislation or exercise a function which is incompatible with EU law. It would therefore be necessary to consider the terms of the 1984 Act and the exercising of discretion under it in that context.

The Supreme Court also found that Mr Walton was a “person aggrieved” in terms of the 1984 Act. In coming to this conclusion, it noted his representations to the Ministers and his role in the local inquiry the fact that he lived in the vicinity of the bypass (if not the Fastlink) which would be busier as a result of the Fastlink. Also, his role in local environmental organisations and Road Sense helped to demonstrate that he was more than a “mere busybody interfering in things which did not concern him”.  As a consequence, the Supreme Court found him to have a genuine concern in what he argued was an illegality in the consent for a project which would have a significant impact on the environment.  In Lord Reed’s words he was “indubitably a person aggrieved within the meaning of the legislation”.

As regards the common law test, the Supreme Court found that the same factors which brought him within the definition of a “person aggrieved” would apply and he would have had standing to make an application for judicial review. Lord Reed also said:

 “Not every member of the public can complain of every potential breach of duty by a public body. But there may also be cases in which any individual, simply as a citizen, will have sufficient interest to bring a public authority’s violation of the law to the attention of the court, without having to demonstrate any greater impact upon himself than upon other members of the public. The rule of law would not be maintained if, because everyone was equally affected by an unlawful act, no-one was able to bring proceedings to challenge it.”

 The full text of the judgement is available here.

All of our property and conveyancing case summaries are contained in the LKS Property and Conveyancing Casebook here.

[1] Mr Walton was chairman of campaign group Road Sense which opposes the bypass.

[2] Strategic Environmental Assessments apply to “plans and programmes” Environmental impact assessments apply to “projects”.

[3] The SEA Directive was introduced as it had been found that, under the EIA Directive, at the time of the assessment of projects, major effects on the environment were already established on the basis of earlier planning measures. They could therefore be taken fully into account when development consent was given for the project. Under SEA the effects on the environment can be examined at the time of preparatory measures and taken into account in that context.

[4] Under the SEA Directive “plans and programmes” includes “modifications” to plans or programmes.

[5] A “person aggrieved” is entitled to challenge the validity of orders or scheme’s made under the 1984 Act in the Court of Session.

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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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Local government election week in “tax land”

Where to start?  Tax and morality seems as good a place as any.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien has accused David Cameron of acting immorally by favouring the rich ahead of ordinary citizens affected by the recession.  The cardinal also denounced David Cameron’s opposition to a “Robin Hood tax” on financial institutions.  Those arguing for a European financial transaction tax have gone a bit quiet recently.  The cardinal’s interview has though brought this proposal back into the news.  Whether a tax such as this is introduced is though only part of the debate.  As with most taxation debates the secondary debate involves how the revenue should be spent.  The cardinal would like it spent helping the poor and vulnerable at home and abroad.  Others want an emergency fund for the next banking crisis.  An article from the BBC new website on this can be found here.

Now to the London mayoral debate. Included in Boris Johnson’s manifesto for a second term is a proposal to set up a commission that would explore the possibility of a “Barnett” style formula for London.  Johnson wants to keep more of the tax raised in London to be spent in London.  An article on this from the Guardian can be found here.  This is further evidence of how quickly the fiscal powers debate is moving.

The Scotland Bill has received its Royal Assent.  An article on this from the BBC news website can be found here.  A missed opportunity?  I think so.  That said, even under the Scotland Act (2012) we are going to have a Scottish tax system.  I am of course looking forward to the Scottish Government’s consultations on the tax powers being devolved but why stop there?  It is surely now obvious that we need to start thinking about the type of tax system we want.  That must include a review of all government tax, law and registration services and the creation of a Scottish Exchequer.

Good to see an article in the Herald on something I have written about recently.  Businesses in new Scottish enterprise zones will be able to claim up to 100% business rates relief as part of new incentives to stimulate investment in the economy.  Other measures announced by the Scottish Government include more efficient planning procedures, improved broadband, targeted capital allowances and international marketing.  The article in the Herald can be found here.

Another article from the Herald, this time on an “unprecedented” number of business rates appeals.  The article reports that court cases have been launched by retailers in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Kirkcaldy and elsewhere as firms contest the size of their rate bills.  The article from the Herald can be found here.  The main argument being used is that the current rates were calculated in 2008, before the extent of the downturn became apparent.

For those of you interested in tax statistics, the relevant HMRC page can be found here.  For those of you interested in tax consultations, current HMRC consultations can be found here and current HM Treasury consultations here.  There will be many more consultations added over the next few months as the UK Chancellor in his Budget made reference to approximately 45 consultations.

Approximately 12,000 people who had been told that they no longer needed to fill in self-assessment tax forms have been sent penalty notices in error.  To put this in context, 130,000 people were taken out of the self-assessment process for this tax year.  Some 850,000 people were sent penalty notices for failing to submit their tax returns on time this year.  This is 550,000 fewer than a year ago.  An article on this from the BBC news website can be found here.  As mentioned in this article it is likely that “HMRC’s resources” played a part in this latest error.

Nearly 60,000 more Scottish pensioners than first thought will be hit by the UK Government’s decision to freeze age related personal allowances according to new figures published by HM Treasury.  The figures show the so called “granny tax” will impact 423,000 pensioners in Scotland by 2015-2016.   The article from the Herald can be found here.

David Cameron has backed proposals for an “airline levy” to ease waiting times at London Heathrow Airport border control.  Airlines using London Heathrow would pay higher landing fees to pay for additional UK Border Force staff to help remedy the long queues currently occurring.  You would be forgiven for thinking there was an election in London this week.  The UK Government is not making many friends in the airline industry just now.  The spat over increases in Air Passenger Duty continues.  More information on this can be found in an article on the BBC news website found here.

Now to Europe and the “debt crisis” debate.  Financial Times journalist, Gideon Rachman continues to argue against European countries trying to spend their way out of their debt crisis.  This is a quote from his article:  “There is, of course, scope for argument about the pace of deficit reduction.  But in a highly-taxed, highly-regulated, highly-indebted continent like Europe, more state-funded public works would simply build another road to nowhere”.  The full article can be found in the Financial Times on 1 May.

I will finish on a matter I have blogged on before.  More than 2,000 public sector workers could be avoiding the full rate of income tax through special contracts, UK Government research has found.  An article on this from the BBC news website can be found here and my earlier blog here. This is an incredible figure as it does not include those in the NHS or local government.  Danny Alexander is seemingly “shocked”.  It seems that “shock” is becoming the default reaction for UK Government Ministers.  You may remember George Osborne’s was also recently “shocked” at the extent of tax avoidance.  Tax and morality it was ever thus.

Have a good weekend.  “Tax land” will be back in three weeks time.

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Scotland takes centre stage in “taxland”

Where shall I start?

I think I will start with the small matter of Scotland’s constitutional future.  The news coverage this week shows that this is no longer a strictly Scottish debate.  I personally have found it fascinating watching and listening to UK political commentators trying to get up to speed as quickly as possible.  It won’t be long before they realise that a yes vote will mean tax competition, a Scottish Exchequer, the end to the Barnett formula and less Liberal MPs (there is a bigger loss in percentage terms of MPs to the Liberals than Labour).  I am sure I will come back to this topic regularly throughout 2012.

Not to the sudden upsurge in interest on tax avoidance and the likelihood of the UK Government introducing a general anti-avoidance rule (“GAAR”).  Recent statements by both the PM and Deputy PM strongly suggest that such a provision will be approved this year. The Deputy PM has said: “there should be a general rule that you can’t play the system” and that a “simpler, more open, fairer tax system in which everyone pays their fair share should be created.”  The UK Government’s own report on GAAR came out in favour of a narrowly focused GAAR.  It seems after many years of lurking in the shadows GAAR’s time has come.  I for one welcome this as it is a step on the road to a simpler tax system.

Now back to an old favourite from 2011.  The PM has insisted that the 50p tax rate on higher earners is “temporary” and has hinted that the issue will be reviewed in the run-up to the UK Budget.  The news coverage on this issue suggests that the PM is coming under pressure from business leaders and backbench Conservative MPs.  The question is who will the PM listen to?  There is an equally strong lobby arguing for its retention.  This includes his coalition partner.  I expect to see a report within the next few weeks pointing out how little revenue the higher rate produces.  That though is only part of the debate.  The bigger picture cannot be ignored and I am sure the PM is well aware of this.

Now to a Scottish Government tax proposal.  This proposal was dubbed the “Tesco tax”.  The Scottish Government prefer to refer to this as a “public health levy”.  The supermarkets’ campaign against this proposal started in earnest this week.  The supermarkets claim that the new levy on all major stores selling alcohol and cigarettes will reduce their profits by 10%.  This debate, for debate read battle, has just begun.  An article from the Scotsman on this can be found here.

I like to remind people from time that on one side there is taxation and on the other there is public spending.  The National Audit Office produced another eye watering figure this week.  They said that more than £31 billion of taxpayers’ money has been wasted across government departments in the past two years.  They analysed more than 70 reports and found both annual overspending and waste from delayed and abandoned projects in areas ranging from welfare and capital projects to farm payments.

Now to HMRC and two positive stories.  Following a concerted campaign from numerous business and other professional bodies HMRC is reconsidering its Business Records Check project under which small businesses can be fined £3,000 for not keeping full records during the current tax year even if it later turns out that their tax affairs are in order.  While the review is under way HMRC will not penalise taxpayers and agents for poor record-keeping “except in extreme cases.”  This announcement is to be welcomed.

HMRC is also piloting a new method of resolving its disputes with small business. The Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) procedure will use ‘independent’ HMRC facilitators to resolve certain kinds of dispute during a compliance check but before a decision or assessment has been made.  More information can be found here.  Again a positive move by HMRC.

Europe is rarely out of the news for long.  I was interested to read that President Sarkozy is insisting that France must press ahead with a tax on financial transactions to force the issue in Europe.  It seems that the French will introduce legislation next month even without knowing if other countries will follow.  Expect to see this raised at the next European summit.

Finally to football and HMRC’s continuing interest in the so called “beautiful game”.  HMRC has sent a questionnaire to all of the UK’s leading football clubs asking about remuneration and perks for players and their families.  Can you imagine what might be disclosed?

Have a good weekend.


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A year in “tax land”

A year in which we were told the economy would grow and the recovery would begin in earnest.   A year ending with almost everyone predicting hard times ahead.

The past year has been dominated by the economic crisis and the fiscal powers debate.  Let’s start with the economic crisis.

The link between what a government spends and how it funds this spending is an obvious one.  Whatever the government spends it needs to match by taxation or borrowing.  The consensus now is that we have a “debt crisis” rather than a recession.  The main political debate is between those who wish to restrict government spending and those who argue for more government spending to grow the economy.

I agree that spending must be reduced.  There is little doubt that the UK has been living beyond its means.  Even when the UK Government manages to balance its books the national UK debt needs to be serviced and at some point paid off.  The scale of the task is such that even under coalition government plans it is going to be at least another five years before the books are balanced.

If there is to be additional spending on say infrastructure then public spending in another should be reduced.  Growth is important but so is reducing the debt mountain.  The trick is to somehow do both.  Is there a simple answer to this conundrum?  Of course there isn’t.

There is though a related issue that needs to be addressed.  We are often told “we are all in this together”.   The problem with that statement is we keep hearing about sections of society that seem to be treated differently.  Bankers and their bonuses is close to becoming a cliché but what of those in senior positions in the public sector.  Can it be right that salary levels, bonuses and the numerous associated benefits of many of those who work in the public sector are so high and wide ranging and far in excess of the majority rest of the workforce?  One example.   Dave Hartnett head of HMRC is to take early retirement next summer with a pension pot of £1.7 million.  I have blogged on Mr Hartnett before.  It seems he may even get a bonus this year.

That is where the public spending debate is moving.  If public spending needs to be reduced, and let’s be clear it does, then the starting point cannot be reducing those who in the public’s eyes actually do the work.  First things first.  I keep hearing and reading about highly paid public sector managers who earn lots but no one is sure what they do.  My question is a simple one.  Is this actually true?

Then there is HMRC and the claim by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee that there is £25bn in tax owed by large companies.  HMRC has “previous” with this Committee of which I have blogged on before.  The taxation of large companies is complicated but that is a huge sum of money.  Again this makes me wonder if we are all in this together.

The taxation of large companies is complicated but does HMRC treat all businesses the same?    Evidence gathered by the law firm McGrigors showed that HMRC is increasingly using legal powers to force the settlement of unpaid tax bills in Scotland.  The use of similar powers in England and Wales fell over the same period.  Does this mean that not all businesses are treated equally?  I don’t know but the question needs to be asked and answered.

What about the richest in our society?  Our governments, both in London and Edinburgh, along with HMRC must do more to defeat the perception that for the wealthy paying tax is a choice.  One example.  The avoidance of Stamp Duty Land Tax on valuable residential properties via offshore companies should be stopped.

Are we all in this together?  It does not seem so.

One last point before I move on to the fiscal powers debate.

The UK Government’s decision to waive VAT on the Military Wives Choir Christmas single is an example of what is wrong with how we decide as to whom and what we tax.  Is this a great cause?  Yes of course.  Are there lots of other equally great causes?  Yes there are.

Now to the fiscal powers debate.  The result of the Scottish General Election has ensured that the fiscal powers debate in Scotland has taken centre stage.  The Scottish Parliament may even refuse legislative consent for the Scotland Bill.   I like to refer to the Scotland Bill as “Calman minus”.  My own opinion is that the Scotland Bill was never meant to be fit for purpose.

The fact that the UK Government will not even agree to devolve air passenger duty or control over the Crown Estate shows how out of touch they are.   The debate has moved on.  My last few tax blogs show how quickly the debate is moving.  Even senior members of the Labour party in Scotland favour “devo max”.  Hopefully in 2012 we will learn more of what “devo max” actually means.

The fiscal powers debate is no longer confined to Scotland.  I must admit I did not see this coming.  The Eurozone crisis and proposals such as a European Financial Transaction Tax has stirred the euro sceptics and that was before the call for greater fiscal union amongst the Eurozone countries.  The analogy between Scotland’s relationship with the UK and the UK’s relationship with the European Union is an obvious one.  The European angle to the fiscal powers debate has the potential to cause problems for those who arguing for major fiscal powers for the Scottish Parliament and those who oppose this.  I suspect I will be blogging on this regularly throughout 2012.

A quick word on Ireland.  How far will countries such as Ireland be willing to go to stay a member of the Eurozone?  Will Ireland give up its treasured low rate of corporation tax?  Does Ireland have a choice?

Lastly what am I hoping for on the tax front in 2012?  Now is not the time to be greedy.  A VAT reduction for home repairs and improvements is much needed.  A tax exemption for the governing body and the competitors of Glasgow 2014 is essential for the success of these games.  Less specifically I would like to see some evidence from the powers that tax us that we are all in this together.

Merry Christmas and best wishes to you and yours for 2012.   See you again in the New Year.

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The Scotland Bill again takes centre stage in “tax land”

Let’s start with the fiscal powers debate.

Another interesting week.  When I started writing about the fiscal powers debate I was of course writing about Scotland and its relationship with the rest of the UK.   That debate is now reaching maturity and the end of the Scottish “Phoney War” is in sight.  That being the Scotland Bill.  The real debate between “devo max” and independence is just about to break through the Ardennes.

What I have found fascinating this week is the emergence of a second fiscal powers front into the public domain.  This is no longer just an issue for a relatively small group of Euro sceptics.

Prior to WWII the Germans feared a second front.  Even though they feared it, that is what they ended up with.  The UK now finds itself fighting on two fiscal powers fronts.  The second front being its fiscal relationship with the European Union.  This goes further than the proposed European financial transaction tax.  How much fiscal union will Germany and France press for?  That is the elephant in the room.

As I have blogged on before, the analogy between these two fiscal powers debate is an obvious one and poses difficult questions for each side in the debate.   Just to add to the complexity of this matter, two other fronts could flair up at anytime: Northern Ireland and Wales.

So what has been happening here in Scotland.  The Scottish Parliament’s Scotland Bill Committee has now issued its final report.  The report can be found here.  The Committee has said it is “unable to recommend” the Bill.  The  Committee also found that the plans were “not yet fit for purpose”.

What will the UK Government do?  I suspect many in Westminster and not just in the coalition would like to see the Bill fail.  Excellent blog by Alan Trench on this point.  Alan’s blog can be found here.

The report shows perfectly how the gulf between the UK Government and those arguing for “devo max” or independence is as wide as ever.  One example.  The UK Government’s refusal to devolve complete control of the Crown Estate to the Scottish Parliament.  Last week a similar announcement was made concerning air passenger duty.  Even the Labour, the Tory and the Lib Dem members of the Scotland Bill Committee want control over the Crown Estate to be devolved.

The UK Government, and the Labour party, will also have to deal with an amendment by George Foulkes to the Scotland Bill.  His amendment calls for all fiscal powers to pass to the Scottish Parliament.

As I said another interesting week.  Also difficult to keep up with all that is happening.

A quick point on Europe.  Glad to see that the Prime Minister finally started to talk about Scotland and Birmingham in the context of financial services.  He clearly realised that continuously banging on about the City of London was not going down well in other parts of the UK.

Now to other matters.  Finance Secretary John Swinney has announced that business rates will rise by 5.6% next year.  The rate currently stands at 42.6p, and will rise to 45p.  An opportunity missed?  Possibly.  We might not have heard the last on this.

HMRC have published information on the new “Rural Fuel Duty relief scheme” for retailers of road fuel on the Inner and Outer Hebrides, the Northern Isles, the Islands of the Clyde and the Isles of Scilly.  This is being introduced on 1 January 2012.  More information can be found here.  This has received relatively little publicity.

I was not surprised to read that the controversial head of HMRC, Dave Hartnett, will “retire” in the summer of 2012.  Mr Hartnett is no stronger to controversy.  His recent apology to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee MPs for the tax deal negotiated by HMRC with Goldman Sachs was I suspect the final straw.

Finally, I found myself agreeing with the claim made by McGrigors that tax officials are increasingly using legal powers to force the settlement of unpaid tax bills in Scotland.   Information obtained by McGrigors under the Freedom of Information Act showed the number of petitions for bankruptcy filed by HMRC in Scotland increased by 97% over a three-year period.  The use of similar powers in England and Wales fell over the same period.  The story from BBC News can be found here.  Excellent work by McGrigors.

Have a good weekend.

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Another very interesting week in “tax land”

Let’s start with Edinburgh.

It has been a better week for Edinburgh as we are talking about pandas and not trams or statutory repairs.  Even its pro rugby team is winning.  But what about tax?  The City of Edinburgh Council have taken the idea of a “tourist tax” a stage further.

The policy and strategy committee of the Council has agreed in principle to this revenue raising plan.  The committee has asked officials to look into the proposal in more detail.  It is estimated that the Council could raise up to £10m a year by charging between £1 and £2 per room each night.  If formally adopted Edinburgh would be the first place in the UK to levy the charge on visitor accommodation.  The exact nature of how the tax would be raised is as yet unclear.  The officials have also to look at both a compulsory and voluntary version of this idea.

Now to the fiscal powers debate.  I was not surprised to see that the UK Government has ruled out devolving Air Passenger Duty to the Scottish Parliament.  This simply provides further evidence that the Scotland Bill is “Calman minus”.

The attitude of the UK Government is though of more interest.  The UK Government seem quite happy to go against the wishes of many businesses and business organisations in Scotland on APD.  Also by refusing to devolve APD they are failing to implement the extremely modest Calman proposals of which they said they would implement in full.

To put this in context.  Who would have thought even a few months ago that  we would see senior members of the Labour party arguing for “devo max”.  The election of Ruth Davidson to lead the Conservatives in Scotland and the stance of “Scotland Bill and no further” shows, at least in the short term, where they stand.  The Liberal Democrats are trying to distance themselves from the Conservatives and that is why they created yet another Commission on this issue.  Hopefully their recommendations will not end up as “Steel minus”.

What does this mean?  The unity surrounding Calman, the previous UK Labour Government’s proposals and now the Scotland Bill is crumbling.   It may be that the Conservatives are becomming more and more distracted by Europe and just simply do not see, or maybe do not want to see, how fast the fiscal powers debate is moving.

Now to Europe and that other fiscal powers debate.  There is so much happening here it is difficult to keep up.  The call for greater fiscal union as a means of solving the Euro crisis.  The call for a European Financial Transactions Tax.  The call to safeguard the City of London and the European single market.  The call for a referendum on UK membership of the EU.  The call for powers to be repatriated to the UK.

Before the summit Ken Clarke was urging the Prime Minister to concentrate on maintaining financial stability and to forget about the repatriation of powers.   The Prime Minister is sticking to the view that any changes would only impact upon the 17 Euro countries and thus do not necessitate a referendum about the issue in the UK.

It was also not a surprise that the Prime Minister has effectively vetoed an EU wide treaty change saying it was not in the UK’s interests.   The sticking point as expected was how to “protect” the City of London.  Not surprisingly the French and others do not hold the City in such high reagrd.   They again made the point that some of the blame for why we are in this position is becuase of a lack of proper financial services regualtion in the City of London.

I have blogged before on how much pressure Ireland is under regarding its low rate of corporation tax and that was before the latest crisis.  If further powers are to be transferred to Brussels Ireland will have to have another referendum.  Will the Irish vote for closer fiscal union with its Eurozone countries knowing that its prized low rate of corporation tax will have to be conceded?  Then there is the Scottish fiscal powers and independence debate.  Who knows what impact the Euro crisis will have on this debate.

Lastly, I enjoyed the following comment piece from Eversheds.  It seems that the rule where footballers must be paid first in the event of a club going into administration is again under attack.   The comment piece can be found here.

Have a good weekend.

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