Another few weeks in “tax land”

Where to start.  Given it is now just over a year to the referendum that seems a suitable place to start.

There is increasing discussion, mostly criticism, concerning the failure of the ‘NO’ campaign to come up with a credible proposal for substantial additional powers for the Scottish Parliament. That said, the likelihood of a joint proposal from the ‘NO’ side is extremely unlikely.  Some want powers removed from Scotland in the event of a ‘NO’ vote.  Some do not want any more powers devolved to Scotland and insist that in any case that is a decision for the whole of the UK.   Even those who argue for greater powers for the Scottish Parliament are only arguing for three or four relatively minor tax powers.  Two of my earlier bogs on this issue outline the proposals in more detail and also how these extremely modest proposals would not take effect for at least a decade.  These blogs: “Tax powers so far refused by Westminster” can be found here and “Likely timescale for additional Scottish tax and fiscal powers” can be found here. Substantial welfare powers are of course not even being considered by the Unionist parties.    

A good example of how few powers are being considered can be found in this interview of Michael Moore.  The article on this can be found here.  It is worth noting that this is the view of the Liberal Democrats supposedly the strongest advocate of increasing the powers of the Scottish Parliament.

Another factor of this debate that as yet is not being widely commented upon are the anomalies that can arise under devolution.  Take for example inheritance tax.  Inheritance tax is controlled by Westminster but succession law and social care are controlled by Holyrood. Does that make any sense?  Of course not.  With this in mind please see the following article from the Scotsman which can be found here.

Now to specifically Scottish tax matters.

A “Revenue Scotland and Tax Powers Bill” will establish a new authority for the collection of devolved taxes from 2015.  The First Minister described this as a “historic step”, but also just a “first-step” – since Scotland would still only collect 15% of all taxation revenue and the Parliament would remain a “spending chamber rather than a revenue raising chamber”.  More on this can be found here.  This is an important landmark in the creation of a Scottish tax system.

No-one I suspect was surprised at this announcement.  “Scottish and Welsh red meat levy bodies are unlikely to recoup levy money lost when animals are slaughtered in England, UK farm minister David Heath has said.”  More on this can be found here.  This type of argument, in short Westminster knows best, has of course been made many times before.  Some matters where this argument has been used include: fossil fuel levy, attendance allowance, VAT and the new Scottish police and fire services, energy transmission charges, mobile phone coverage, delivery charges and local income tax.  The UK Government’s attitude to relatively minor issues such as the so called “meat levy” simply adds to the doubt that the UK Government will act in a positive way to calls for further powers to be devolved in the event of a ‘NO’ vote.

The Scottish Parliament’s Finance Committee has welcomed proposed new legislation which will see Scotland take responsibility from the UK Government for landfill tax.  The Committee also welcomed proposals to impose landfill tax on unauthorised disposals to landfill following the identification of illegal sites and to increase the credit limit on contributions to the Landfill Communities Fund, which provides funding for community or environmental projects in areas affected by landfill sites.  More on this can be found here.

Now to the “bedroom tax” or to give it it’s Sunday name, “spare room subsidy”.

Social housing residents affected by the UK Government’s “bedroom tax” may be able to appeal depending on the size of their spare room, after a tribunal ruled the size of a room has to be taken into account when imposing the controversial policy.

The UK Government has played down the implications of the ruling.  A spokeswoman for the Department of Work and Pensions said: “It is simply not affordable to pay housing benefit for people to have spare rooms, and our reforms in the social sector mean families receive help for the number of bedrooms they need, and these are exactly the same rules as in the private sector.” Meanwhile, a United Nations special investigator has described the bedroom tax as a “shocking” policy which could constitute a violation of the human right to adequate housing.

More on this from the Scotsman can be found here and the Guardian here.  This policy, it is argued, shows the widening gap on welfare matters between Holyrood and Westminster.

Now to the tax avoidance debate. Let’s start with some irony.  An adviser to HMRC has had to resign as a result of an investigation by the BBC.  The irony is the BBC’s own attitude to severance payments and tax avoidance schemes involving its own staff.  More on this can be found here.

Further evidence as to how we are definitely not “all in this together”.  Top civil servants are having some tax paid using public money, a newspaper investigation has revealed.  More on this can be found here.

And finally on tax avoidance. “It is not possible to construe a director’s duty to promote the success of the company as constituting a positive duty to avoid tax.”  The legal advice quoted may well turn out to be one of most important contributions to the tax avoidance debate.  More on this can be found here.

Now to matters further afield.

In response to a question asked in the Spanish parliament, the Spanish Government was obliged to disclose the amount of unpaid tax owed by professional football clubs in the country’s top two divisions. The sum was a staggering €663,876,441 (about £575m).  More on this can be found here.

The number of Americans renouncing their US citizenship has jumped by a factor of six in 2013, according to official figures. The reason is generally accepted as the difficulties caused to expatriates by the soon-to-be-active “Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act”, in conjunction with the USA’s extra-territorial taxation system.  More on this can be found here.

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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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Another few weeks in “tax land”

Let’s start with Scotland.

According to a new report by the Scottish Government, the tax-take per person is higher in Scotland that the rest of the UK.  Finance Secretary John Swinney says the analysis of tax revenue over three decades proves the country “more than pays its way”.  More on this from the Herald can be found here and the Scottish Government here. 

One of the UK’s foremost ­experts on devolution has warned that new tax-raising powers for the Scottish Parliament have “serious limitations”.  Speaking to Holyrood’s ­finance committee, Gerard Holtham, who chaired a commission in Wales examining the case for more devolved powers for the principality, backed a much wider remit to allow the Scottish Parliament to vary individual bands within the income tax system.

Under the forthcoming Scotland Act powers, Holyrood will take control of a new Scottish rate of income tax, allowing MSPs to reduce or increase the levy as they see fit.  However, they will not be able to change the rates within the system, meaning that any change will apply to lower, middle and higher rates equally.  As I have argued on numerous occasions the Scotland Act 2012 income tax proposal is a mess and does not devolve any meaningful power to the Scottish Parliament.  More on this from the Scotsman can be found here here.

Interesting to see how the First Minister of Wales is following the First Minister of Northern Ireland.  They are both trying to use the Scottish independence referendum as a means to pressure the UK Government into devolving tax and fiscal powers.  More on this from the BBC news website can be found here.

An explanation as to why the First Ministers feel that they have to use this type of argument is shown by the failure of the UK Government to devolve air passenger duty.  Not all of the Calman Commission proposals were implemented by the UK Government.  Air passenger duty was one of the taxes although recommended for devolving was not devolved.  That is why the Scotland Act 2012 is called “Calman minus”.  That is also why we are still hearing calls for air passenger duty to be devolved.  More on this from the BBC news website can be found here.

It also seems that London does not want to be left behind.  Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, is again calling for new financial powers for London.  The proposals, by the London Financial Commission who were appointed by Johnson, call for London to have the power to raise property and tourism taxes, and various housing and infrastructure spending powers.  More on this from the Guardian can be found here.  No matter the result of the Scottish independence referendum pressure on the UK Government to devolve power away from London, and ironically to London, will continue.  What is particularly interesting is that this does not just mean Scotland but almost every part of the UK.

The UK Chancellor should stop discriminating against visiting foreign musicians and artists by denying them tax breaks which are offered to top foreign footballers and athletes, leaders of Britain’s biggest orchestras have argued.  More on this from the Telegraph can be found here.

Launched in June 2010 by the UK coalition government, the National Insurance “holiday scheme” was aimed at cutting staffing costs for newly-established businesses outside London and the south-east of England.  Eligible firms do not have to pay NI contributions for their first ten employees, with a maximum saving of £5,000 per staff member in their first year.  However, the initiative, which is due to end in September, has failed to live up to its promise and it seems only a few companies have benefited from it. More on this from the Scotsman can be found here.

The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has claimed that the UK’s largest accountancy firms are using inside knowledge from staff seconded to HM Treasury to help leading companies and wealthy individuals avoid paying UK taxes.  The Public Accounts Committee has also recommended that these companies should be prevented from advising the UK Government on tax law.  In its report on this issue they also claim that these firms have “undue influence over the tax system”.  More on this from the BBC News website can be found here.

A controversial “sweetheart” tax deal between HMRC and Goldman Sachs worth up to £20m, was agreed in part to avoid embarrassment to George Osborne, according to the UK Government’s former head of tax.  Dave Hartnett has said that he decided to settle the long-running dispute after Goldman Sachs threatened to pull out of a prized new tax framework a week after the UK Chancellor had announced that the bank had signed up to it. More on this can be found here.

HMRC raises yield from wealthy taxpayers again.  The top 1% of earners paid 26.5% of the total income tax take in 2012/13, according to figures from HMRC.  More on this from the STEP journal can be found here.

The Scottish Government has published a bill aimed at tackling illegal dumping. The Landfill Tax (Scotland) Bill will transfer responsibility from the UK Government for administering the tax and encourage the proper disposal and recycling of waste.  More on this can be found here.

The Financial Transactions Tax has been in the news again.  The negative reaction from the City of London is as expected.  What is slightly more surprising is how far the UK Government will go to prevent this tax from coming into existence.  The UK Government has launched a legal challenge against plans for a European Financial Transactions Tax.  More on the UK Government’s challenge from the BBC news website can be found here and more generally from the Telegraph here.

Now to an example of European cooperation.  The UK Chancellor of the Exchequer has signed an information exchange agreement with the finance ministers of France, Germany, Italy and Spain in yet another attempt to crack down on tax evasion.  Under the agreement, banks in these countries will be forced to reveal financial details of foreign clients.  More on this can be found here.

Now to matters further afield and a relatively new area for taxation, the internet.  By a vote of 75 to 24, US senators adopted an amendment to a Democratic budget resolution that, by allowing states to “collect taxes on remote sales,” is intended to eventually usher in the first national, i.e. American  internet sales tax.  More on this can be found here and here.

Now to Greece.  The International Monetary Fund has criticised Greece for making very little progress in tackling its notorious tax evasion problem.  It says the rich and self-employed ‘are simply not paying their fair share’ and the tax authorities are still bedevilled by ‘pervasive political interference’.  The IMF also said that Greece is making progress in overcoming deep-seated problems in the midst of a very serious and socially painful recession. More on this can be found here. 

Finally the not unexpected news that Silvio Berlusconi’s four-year conviction for tax fraud on TV rights bought by his Mediaset TV empire has been upheld.  Mr Berlusconi had appealed against a sentence passed by a lower court in 2012, which had found him guilty of tax fraud, but the appeals court reinstated the 2012 conviction and said he should serve four years in jail. More on this can be found here here.

Have a good weekend. 

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My final “tax land” of 2012

My final “tax land” of 2012 as I have a looming chapter deadline on the subject of a Scottish tax system.

Where to start?  Let’s start with the UK Chancellor’s “Autumn” statement.

George Osborne admitted that the UK had missed its debt reduction targets putting the UK’s AAA credit rating under threat.  Osborne also announced that the planned rise on fuel duty is to be axed and the personal allowance of income tax payers is to be boosted.  Benefits are to be limited to a 1% rise a year for the next 3 years and economic growth will be lower than predicted until at least 2018.

In response the Institute of Fiscal Studies warned that one million people will find themselves joining the higher 40p income tax rate by 2015.  Far higher than the 400,000 figure quoted by Osborne.  The IFS also said further austerity measures to increase taxes and cut benefits were unavoidable to fix a £27bn black-hole in the UK economy before the next UK General Election.

Figures also showed that poorest 30% of households will suffer the most under the changes announced.  More on this from the Scotsman can be found here.

The AAA rating is of course an issue in the independence referendum.  One of the arguments made by those arguing NO is that an independent Scotland, notwithstanding its oil reserves, would lose its AAA credit rating.  This issue is now a problem for the NO campaign as the UK, in the event of a YES vote, would presumably be desperate to retain Scotland in a monetary union to protect its credit rating.

The YES campaign also received a further boost when it was confirmed that nearly 17 billion barrels of oil are to be recovered from the North Sea over the next 30 years following a £134bn investment by oil and gas companies.  The majority of the new developments will be in Scottish waters while production from gas fields in the southern North Sea begins a dramatic decline. More on this from the Scotsman can be found here.

Now to the tax avoidance debate.

The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has warned officials from HMRC that firms that devise complicated tax regimes are “running rings” around them. The Committee Chair, Margaret Hodge MP, said that the public would consider such schemes “completely and utterly immoral”. More on this from the Guardian can be found here.  My recent blog on this and the lack of political will to reform the UK’s tax system can be found here.

Meanwhile the Chief Secretary to the UK Treasury, Danny Alexander, has warned against naming and shaming large firms who do not pay the correct amount of tax, insisting that he is obliged to defend firms’ “taxpayer confidentiality”. More on this from the Mirror can be found here.  This adds to the growing evidence that the UK Government is at best being half-hearted in its attempts to tackle this issue.

Further evidence for this claim can be found when you consider that only 5% of the UK Government’s announced investment into HMRC will be aimed at tackling tax avoidance.  The context to this is of course the large budget reduction and cut in staff numbers already made to HMRC.  More on this from the Times can be found here.

According to an investigation by the Times, offshore companies are exploiting a tax loophole which allows them to buy up some of the UK’s most expensive homes and avoid paying property stamp duty, inheritance tax and capital gains tax.  More on this from the Times can be found here.  The Times has done some excellent work on this issue over the last few months.

Figures from HMRC show that the number of people declaring an annual income of more than £1m fell from 16,000 to 6,000 after the previous 50p top rate was brought in.  More on this from the Telegraph can be found here.  What this statistic purports to show is though open to debate.

Final point on the tax avoidance and tax evasion debate.  The claim that I have made on many occasions that tax for some, namely large companies and the wealthy, is becoming a matter of negotiation – almost voluntary in nature – seems now to be generally accepted.  That is clearly what Starbucks think.

The Scottish Government has unveiled plans to reform stamp duty land tax in Scotland.  The importance of this should not be underestimated.  The Scottish Government must show that it has the competence to deal with tax matters.  The signs so far are positive.  More on this can be found here.

Now to matters slight further afield.

France’s Senate has rejected the Government’s 2013 Budget, which among other measures raised the marginal tax rate on annual income of over €150,000 to 45%, imposed a 75% “solidarity contribution” on income over €1m, and raised capital gains tax rates to match income tax rates.  The Budget will though almost certainly be forced through by the National Assembly.  More on this from Tax-news can be found here.

The Republic of Ireland Government has revealed its 2013 Budget.  It introduces a new annual property tax of 0.18% on properties valued below €1m, payable by owners.  More expensive properties will be taxed at €1,800 plus 0.25% of their value over €1m.  Initially, and until 2016, owners’ valuations will be accepted.  More on this from the Irish Times can be found here.

Finally to the USA.  The US Internal Revenue Service has published guidance on calculating the new 3.8% tax on investment income, imposed to pay for President Obama’s universal health insurance plan.  More on this from the Journal of Accountancy can be found here.

This has been a very interesting year for all those interested in tax and the wider Scottish tax and fiscal powers debate. I suspect that is not going to change in 2013.  Best wishes to you and yours for 2013.

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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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Another week in “tax land”

Let’s start with the latest UK coalition Government spat.  This time on Nick Clegg’s call for a “wealth tax”.  An article on this from the Herald can be found here.

The Deputy Prime Minister said: “If we are going to ask people for more sacrifices over a longer period of time, a longer period of belt tightening as a country, then we just have to make sure that people see it is being done as fairly and as progressively as possible.”  George Osborne’s response was as expected and criticised Nick Clegg’s proposal claiming that a wealth tax would drive away Britain’s wealth creators.    

There has been lots of commentary on this.  My favourite piece was by Iain MacWhirter in the Herald.  This article can be found here.  The following is from his article:

“It is astonishing that anyone still subscribes to the myth that the enrichment of the few leads to the prosperity of the many.  It just doesn’t happen.  Wealth does not “trickle down” to the rest of society from the troughs of the very rich – if anything the reverse is the case.  It is sucked up through the concentrations of asset wealth held by the top 1% in property, shares and bonds. The story of the last three decades is that the wealthy have become immensely, shockingly, incomprehensibly richer while the middle has been squeezed and the poor remain pretty much as they always have – at the bottom of the heap struggling to hold their lives together.”

The UK Government is reportedly considering creating a scheme of “mini-jobs” which would allow employees to take on work without paying tax or national insurance, in a bid to boost employment.  The scheme is modelled on a German programme under which employees can earn up to €400 a month before any tax is paid.  An article on this from the Guardian can be found here.

Now to an old favourite, MPs’ expenses.  HMRC is reportedly in a dispute with the Westminster’s expenses watchdog, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, with the latter defending the right of MPs to employ accountants to fill in their expenses forms and tax returns and insisting that the cost should be tax deductible.  An article from the Guardian on this can be found here.  The article quotes some of the correspondence between the parties which makes interesting reading and suggests that MPs, or at least IPSA, has a short memory.  Taxpayers are not generally permitted a tax deduction for the costs of complying with tax law.

UK public sector borrowing reached £600m last month, leading to further criticism of the UK Government’s economic strategy.  Borrowing in the first four months of the year was £9.3bn higher than the equivalent period last year whilst there was a 20% drop in the corporation tax take, according to official figures.  An article from the Scotsman on this issue can be found here.  This is an issue which is not going away anytime soon.

“The war on the motorist is a myth and fuel taxes should be raised without delay”.  A report by the Institute of Public Policy Research, a think tank, has recommended that fuel taxes be raised and congestion charging extended.  An article on this challenging proposal from the Telegraph can be found here

The Scottish Daily Express claims that Scotland’s local authorities are set to write off more than £320m of unpaid poll tax.  For a more balanced view of what is actually happening read the article all the way through.  The article can be found here.

The UK Public Accounts Committee has urged HMRC to prosecute more people for alcohol smuggling.  HMRC estimate that £1.2bn in tax is left uncollected each year on smuggled beer and spirits, yet there have been no more than six successful prosecutions each year, in the four years to 2009-10.  An article on this from the BBC news website can be found here. Another argument for devolving control over alcohol duty to the Scottish Parliament? 

Some Italian tax inspectors are disguising themselves as holidaymakers to detect tax evaders on the crowded beaches, while others are questioning the owners of luxury yachts.  Great work if you can find it.  An article on this from the Telegraph can be found here

Riots erupted on the tranquil Greek island of Hydra after tax inspectors arrived in force to arrest shopkeepers for not issuing receipts.  Angry crowds stoned the inspectors and besieged the building in which they took refuge until riot police arrived to restore order.  An article on this from the Athens News can be found here

Now to the USA.  The US media continues to analyse the tax-planning methods used by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.  More on this from the STEP Journal can be found here.    

Have a good weekend.

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Back to reality in “tax land” after a great Olympics

Let’s start with Gordon Brown’s comments and in particular his claim that devolving tax and fiscal powers to the Scottish Parliament automatically means a “race to the bottom” for tax rates and in particular business tax rates.  There are a number of problems with this statement.  I will simply point out two.  Tax competition already exists.  Not just within the European Union but throughout the world.  Then there is the fact that the underlying law, for example tax reliefs, are just as important as tax rates to business.  Creating a Scottish tax system is also a once in a generation chance to create a simpler and more progressive tax system.  This opportunity is not available to the UK.  Evidence that the present Scottish Government is already putting this opportunity into practice is shown by its excellent consultation on a Land and Buildings Transaction Tax.  My earlier blog on this can be found here

Again on tax powers for the Scottish Parliament.  I was disappointed, but sadly not surprised, to see another patronising picture accompanying an article in Tax Adviser on the subject of the tax powers being devolved to the Scottish Parliament.  First we had a man in a kilt holding a whisky bottle and this month a scene from the movie Braveheart.    

Now to some incredible news.  HM Treasury is going to employ someone in Scotland.  I wonder if this has anything to with a certain referendum.  Of course it does.  An article on this from the BBC news website can be found here.  I did find it amusing that the position ends shortly after the proposed referendum date.  I should not be so cynical.  It is good that HM Treasury is going to try and find someone to appease the natives.  I suspect they have run out of gunboats. 

Now to HMRC.  HMRC is clearly under strain.  In addition to having to deal with numerous devolution issues its budget is being reduced by 15% whilst having to increase tax revenues brought in by compliance activity by £7bn per year by 2014/15.  Not surprisingly HMRC staff have begun “working to rule” to highlight ‘problems caused by the job and budget cuts. 

I was also interested to see that HMRC has published a draft code of governance for resolving tax disputes.  This follows the controversy surrounding some corporate tax disputes of which it was accused of agreeing over-generous resolutions.  An article on this issue can be found here.  

Clearly the UK Government is keen to show it is clamping down on tax evasion.  HMRC has paid out more than £1m in rewards to tax evasion informants since the start of the financial crisis.  An article on this can be found here.  And just to reinforce the point HMRC has published its rogues gallery of tax evaders and fraudsters.  An article on this from the BBC news website can be found here.

Now to an issue I have blogged on recently.  The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator is reportedly to investigate 50 private schools to see if they meet the “benefit to the public” criteria in order to maintain their charitable status.  An article on this from the Sunday Herald can be found here.  This is an issue that still needs to properly debated.     

Now to the strange world of caravans and an article from the Herald.  It seems that a little-known tax loophole is set to cost Scotland’s councils millions of pounds a year in revenue.  Each caravan in a caravan park can apply for rates relief, which in turn cuts the overall bill for the park considerably.  It seems that few people knew about this loophole until the owners of caravans in the Rosneath Castle Caravan Park, near Helensburgh, first began using it. The 300 caravan owners at the park have now bombarded the Clydebank business ratings assessors’ office with letters and phone calls, each seeking to save a few hundred pounds per year in council rates.  The article from the Herald can be found here

Now to the USA and news that the Democrats are split over estate tax reform.  Democratic Party members of the US Senate have rejected President Obama’s proposal for a 45% top rate of federal estate tax on individual estates worth more than $3.5m.  The tax will rise sharply at the end of this year if Congress fails to agree on reform.  An article on this from Bloomberg can be found here.

Tax is also an issue in the Presidential election.  The Democrats have succeeded in turning the finances of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney into a lead news story.  Pressure is growing on Romney to reveal tax returns.  There are accusations that he failed to disclose a Swiss bank account, and even that he participated in the US Internal Revenue Service’s 2009 offshore tax amnesty.  An article on this from Forbes can be found here.

Let’s finish with an old favourite.  It seems that there have been some financial transaction tax stirrings in both Korea and France.  In order to bring the taxation of derivatives in line with other earned income and introduce another revenue source, the Korean Government has announced plans to impose a transaction tax on index options and futures.  France has also partially implanted its own financial transaction tax.  Although a small start, covering only shares in larger companies, and at 0.2%, it’s still lower than UK stamp duty on which it is modelled. Articles on the Korean proposal can be found here and the French proposal here.

Have a good weekend.

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Another week in “tax land”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now to matters slightly further afield.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a good weekend.

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