Making Tax Dysfunctional

Those Impossible Situations – A Fair Tax System?

HMRC have over recent years spent a fortune on “Management Consultants”.  Consultants preaching efficiency often talk about an 80:20 rule, pointing out that the majority of “profits” come from the “best” customers.  Great, if you are a focused, private sector profit generator.  What though if you are a Government body, which surely ought to be run by Civil Servants trained to treat all citizens equally?  We are not “customers”, despite HMRC Newspeak.  As a Firm we tend to deal with taxpayer exceptions and unusual situations, so understand that not everyone is “average”.  We believe that the tax system should cater for those who, for whatever reason, do not fit within the “normal” generality.

We are keen that the tax system should be administered fairly, in accordance with the law.

A current fear is that the present HMRC focus on penalties, with much greater fines than in the past, may result in unfairness.  The current system may result in a breakdown of trust.  Currently, it is common place for there to be greater penalties for innocent arithmetic errors in tax computations, compared to deliberate theft, say in terms of shoplifting, which apparently is below the police threshold in most cases.  Current treatment appears bias against the small business or individual taxpayer.

Here is a ‘hypothetical’ situation to consider:

  • A UK resident taxpayer leaves UK part way through year to take up a new job abroad

  • Technically, having been resident at the start of the tax year, he would be resident for the whole of it, but his new job contract means he can expect to meet the conditions for “split-year treatment” for full-time work abroad. This means he is treated as non-resident from the date he leaves the UK.  This would be common sense in most peoples’ view, not tax avoidance.  Practically, in such a situation, it also means he does not write to tell HMRC about his overseas employment.  He pays tax to the local country where he lives and works.

  • However, to get the split year UK treatment, the rules require that the taxpayer be non-UK resident in the following tax year too, by virtue of work abroad. Of course, the happy recipient of the new job offer expects to meet this, because he is going to be working abroad and intends this to continue.

  • Suppose though, for whatever reason; say, illness/ sickness/ redundancy/ war/ sheer misery at the job not being what was promised, the taxpayer returns to the UK after some months. As a result therefore, he becomes UK resident again.  Not only does this affect his tax residence status for the year of return, it also means he fails to meet the conditions for non-residence for the preceding year.

  • As a result of this, the worker is now taxable on all worldwide income for the whole of the previous tax year as well.

  • Technically, HMRC may then argue for late notification and issue penalties, even though the individual involved acted perfectly properly, in terms of his anticipated and existing circumstances at the relevant times for notifying HMRC. The required dates altered after the event, because of changed circumstances!

  • HMRC may say “They may not take the point.” With respect, that is not the principle at stake.  Ordinary, innocent actions should not be subject to a potential fine, which may [or may not] be released by State discretion.   That is not the Rule of Law, but the empowerment of bureaucrats, with obvious dangers of corrupt dealing.  We are not suggesting HMRC are corrupt, but experience with history and other jurisdictions makes the risk…kind of obvious!

We would be interested to hear people’s thoughts on how a fair tax system can potentially impose a punitive penalty on ordinary law-abiding citizens for being as “morally suspect” as to get unexpected illness?

Practical experience and thoughts on the principles welcome!

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