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!

Brexit and European Tax Law

Here are some interesting questions. Well, I think them interesting anyway!

1. If we ‘do Brexit’, will we persist with VAT?

2. If so, how will it be administered, bearing in mind the current cross-border arrangements?

3. Will the European Court remain supreme, in terms of judicial opinion and interpretation?

4. On direct taxes, will we revert to double tax treaties, rather than the various European Directives?

5. If so, from what date?

6. If we do leave the EU, will the Courts go back to the ‘literal’ approach to interpreting tax legislation, a la Justice Rowlatt, or will it continue to dabble in the ‘purposive’ approach?

7. In the context of the above how would anyone define ‘The Purpose of Parliament’, in terms of (say) the formulae in the Emloyee Security/Benefit rules?

Je ne sais pas?

Opinions, s’il vous plait.

Offshore Update – HMRC Clamp Down and Starbucks EU Tax Case

HMRC have recently purchased advertising pointing out that offshore income and gains may be taxable in the UK. This is true. In general, for UK domiciled residents, all worldwide income and gains are taxable (even where you reinvested the proceeds and did not remit them to the UK). For non-residents, UK source income may be taxable.

This is where it gets complicated (as if it was not before!). Like many other matters in the international tax world, circumstances can alter cases . Domicile, double tax treaties and all the new statutory residence test may all have an impact.

If you have offshore assets, review them now, before HMRC really clamp down next tax year. If in doubt, seek tax expert advice.

In an interesting twist to the European Question, the EU authorities have just issued a decision on the advance tax ruling given to Starbucks by the Dutch Revenue, helping Starbucks avoid tax in other jurisdictions. This was done by Starbucks having higher tax deductible costs with a lower tax rate in the Netherlands, thus meaning there was only immaterial profit in countries such as the UK, so minimal UK corporation tax. The EU Authorities feel this amounted to illegal State Aid, such that Starbucks should be enforced to repay it in full.

The political question is whether this is:

a) A good example to tax abuse by multinational corporations?

b) An unacceptable interference in Dutch sovereignty because tax is not supposed to be controlled at EU level?

Is that the smell of coffee or the protagonists’ lawyer preparing their morning shot of napalm?

Mr Anson (Taxpayer) Wins : Other Taxpayers look to lose

The complexities of Double Taxation loom gain in our multinational global economy.

Has every investor in a foreign entity thought through the implications of the case of Anson v Revenue and Customs Commissioners?

Historically, HMRC have treated entities such as Delaware LLC’s as legal entities separate and distinct for tax from the identity of investors in it.  Bearing in mind ‘LLC’ stands for ‘Limited Liability Company’, this was perhaps unsurprising!  However, the Supreme Court has now decided, in the Anson case, that in fact such entities are more akin to Partnerships.  This means Mr Anson was entitled to double tax relief on the tax paid by the LLC.  Significantly though, it also means, logically, that he should suffer UK income tax on the proportion of profits which would be ‘attributed’ to him.  Bearing in mind such investors may have historically followed what they thought to be UK HM Revenue and Customs guidelines, and only declared income for tax when ‘distributed’, where does that leave them now?

A review of individual circumstances would seem sensible ~ so as to come up with a strategy on how best to move forward.

When HMRC win they (obviously) say – well that was the ‘correct’ view of the law all along.  If (as here) they lose though, presumably no-one should be punished for following their original views?

Both US and UK advisors need to think about how best to report matters from now on.

THOUGHTS/OPINIONS WELCOME

Fishing for A Commercial Rationale – Avoidance Motive in A Fisher, S Fisher, P Fisher  v HMRC

A recent case was heard at the First-Tier Tribunal regarding the conflict between commercial decisions and tax avoidance motives (A Fisher, S Fisher, P Fisher  v HMRC).  It can clearly be seen that legally reducing a tax liability could be a commercially sensible decision, but it was previously assumed that this would not be enough to override the anti-avoidance provisions that apply where there is a tax avoidance motive.

The case in question involved a family bookmaking business, who took the decision to move the business to Gibraltar in the 1999/2000 take year, in order to obtain more favourable treatment regarding betting duties than applied in the UK.

HMRC took issue with this and challenged the, under the anti-avoidance provisions on the transfer of assets abroad.  They raised assessments charging income tax the years 2000/01 to 2007/08 under the rules in force during those years.

The taxpayers appealed claiming that there was no avoidance as they had moved the business to Gibraltar as a commercial decision in order to compete with other bookmakers.  Saving tax was therefore a side effect and not the reason for relocating.

The First-tier Tribunal did not agree, finding that the transfer would not have gone ahead if it were not for the lower betting duty in Gibraltar.  This did not conflict with the decision to move being made for sound commercial reasons, however this did not prevent there being a tax avoidance motive.

The taxpayers made a further argument regarding the EU rights of freedom of establishment and freedom of movement of capital applied, but the tribunal determined that the rules were not relevant for movements between the UK and Gibraltar.  They did, however, apply to one family member who was an Irish national.

The taxpayers also made a claim that HMRC’s assessments were not valid, under the discovery provisions in TMA 1970, s 29, as the tax officer should have been aware of the relevant information as a result of responses to their enquiries.  The tribunal agreed that the conditions for making a discovery assessment were not satisfied for 2005/06 and 2006/07.  The appeals for the remaining years were dismissed.

Whilst the Tribunal confirmed that a tax avoidance motive could also be part of a commercial decision, it is clear that the anti-avoidance provisions are drafted widely enough to catch such situations.  This is because the existence of commercial reasoning does not overrule the fact that there was a tax avoidance motive as well which was inextricably linked.

Mehjoo v Harben Barker – Court of Appeal overturns Mehjoo Claim

The High Court case of Mehjoo v Harben Barker attracted a lot of attention both in the media and amongst accountants, regarding specialist tax advice. According to some media reports, the case meant that accountants were required to advise on complex tax avoidance schemes.  Whilst we did not originally agree that the verdict went this fact, the new decision given by the Court of Appeal should help to provide more clarity.

Background

Mr Mehjoo was born in Iraq in 1959 and his parents were of Iranian origin. His accountants were aware of this background as they had acted for him for a number of years, including his first tax returns in the 1980s.

The case therefore revolved around whether the accountants had been negligent in failing to notice his non-domicile status and the impact this would have on his UK tax position on making a gain.

High Court Decision

The High Court originally found that a reasonably competent accountant would have known it was important to consider Mr Mehjoo’s domicile status in the context of his tax affairs.

The accountants claimed that they were not required to give tax planning advice due to the terms of their engagement letter, unless they were specifically asked to do so. This was found to be not the case, in part due to the fact that they had provided such advice on a number of occasions without express instruction. The judge therefore found that the accountants had been negligent in not considering the fact that Mr Mehjoo was non-domiciled.

Court of Appeal Verdict

In the latest decision, it was found that there was a distinction between the type of tax planning work usually carried out by the accountants, and the circumstances surrounding this case, stating that whilst “An accountant who is retained by a client to deal with his personal financial affairs will inevitably have to point out what might be the hidden tax consequences of any particular proposal[….], routine tax advice of this kind, though an important part of an accountant’s ordinary duties, is not what this case is about.”

Lord Justice Patten hearing the case stated that Harben Barker “were not and had never held themselves out to be specialist tax planners; and had never given Mr Mehjoo advice of that sort. It is therefore surprising to say the least that from a course of conduct which did not involve tax planning, they should be taken to have assumed a positive duty to give advice of that kind.”

It was therefore found that the accountants had not been in breach of their duty and their appeal was allowed.

Conclusion

Whilst the latest decision appears to be much more reasonable, accountants should still ensure that they seek suitable specialist advice when asked to advice on complex tax matters.  Eaves and Co have a wealth of experience dealing with such cases, and would be delighted to hear from you.

Tax Residence – An Interesting Break

Tax Residence continues to be an interesting area – and an active one for HMRC challenge.

Having burned many years of their own guidance in taking Gaines-Cooper to the highest court in the land – thereby ignoring their own ‘safe haven’ guidance in IR20, HMRC have made another challenge in the case of James Glynn.  In this case, HMRC HAVE LOST, [at least at the First Tier Tribunal].  The verdict of the judges, over a lengthy(?) day hearing was [simplifying] that the taxpayer had done enough to demonstrate a ‘definite break’ in lifestyle, so was entitled to look at a ‘day counting’ approach to tax residence.

Interestingly, the long memories of HMRC appeared to consider the idea of ‘available property’ relevant – a concept which had been abolished, but is now re-emerging in the new statutory tests.

Pleasingly, the judges looked at the case based on its specific facts.  They took into account factors such as social life, family and religious tradition, changes in business and investment interests, the conduct of the taxpayer’s wife and her charity work etc., – in fact the whole picture of his lifestyle.  This resulted in the conclusion that Mr Glynn had deliberately altered his lifestyle to such an extent that there was a ‘definite break’.

Again, hopefully this gives clarity taxpayers can depend upon.  Further the court went on to say that the fact that part of the motivation was tax avoidance was irrelevant, because the question of motivation should not have an impact on what is (especially under the new statutory rules) a question of fact.  Often the question of fact may not be an easy one, but one to be weighed in the balance, based on the complete picture.

Lessons to be learned include:

  1. The importance of reviewing all the facts and assembling appropriate technical arguments.
  2. The great depth to which HMRC went in investigating detailed elements of the taxpayer’s lifestyle.

Hossein Mehjoo v Harben Barker: Professional Negligence and Tax Planning?

The recent High Court case of Mehjoo v Harben Barker has attracted a lot of attention both in the media and amongst accountants, regarding specialist tax advice.

 

According to some media reports, the case means that accountants are required to advise on complex tax avoidance schemes, but the reality is slightly more subtle than that.

 

Mr Mehjoo was born in Iraq in 1959 and his parents were of Iranian origin. His accountants were aware of this background as they had acted for him for a number of years, including his first tax returns in the 1980s.

 

The case therefore revolved around whether the accountants had been negligent in failing to notice his non-domicile status and the impact this would have on his UK tax position on making a gain.  The case found that a reasonably competent accountant would have known it was important to consider Mr Mehjoo’s domicile status in the context of his tax affairs.

 

In October 2004 his accountants considered the CGT position on Mr Mehjoo selling his shares in a company. Neither the firm’s general practice partner, nor the tax partner appeared to have considered the non-domicile status or the impact this could have.

 

The accountants claimed that they were not required to give tax planning advice due to the terms of their engagement letter, unless they were specifically asked to do so.  This was found to be not the case, in part due to the fact that they had provided such advice on a number of occasions without express instruction.

 

The judge therefore found that the accountants had been negligent in not considering the fact that Mr Mehjoo was non-domiciled, and that as this was outside of their area of expertise, they should have sought specialist tax advice or advised Mr Mehjoo to do so himself.

 

Tax is complicated, and the ever increasing tax legislation means it is harder than ever to keep up-to-date.  The key message for accountants is that they need to know enough to know that there is a problem, and seek out relevant specialists to assist.  Please feel free to contact us if you feel you may need specialist tax advice for your clients.

Finance Bill 2013: Changes to the Statutory Residence Test

As of 6 April 2013, whether an individual is resident in the UK for tax purposes will be determined by the Statutory Residence Test.

It is designed to give taxpayers greater certainty and clarity as to whether or not they are UK-resident for tax purposes. This in turn will provide certainty as to whether or not they are subject to UK income tax and capital gains tax.  Due to the drafting of these rules, it remains to be seen whether the goal of greater clarity will be met.

In December 2012 HM Revenue & Customs produced draft guidance and legislation for the Statutory Residence Test.  The legislation has since been updated in the draft Finance Bill 2013.

The Main Changes

The main changes to the statutory residence tests were the introduction of ‘sufficient hours’ and the addition of a fifth automatic overseas test.

Sufficient Hours

In the first draft both the third automatic overseas test and third automatic UK test contained reference to ‘full-time work’. This phrase has now been replaced with ‘sufficient hours’, and there is a corresponding test to determine whether an individual has worked ‘sufficient hours’.

The sufficient hours test has been criticised as it does not allow for an adjustment (when determining whether sufficient hours have been worked) for periods of absence other than annual leave, parental leave, sick leave or embedded non-working days.

Therefore an adjustment is not allowed for agreed ad-hoc leave, such as compassionate leave or study days.

The provisions regarding gaps between periods of work are also highly restrictive, applying only where the gap is one between two employments.  It has not been extended to gaps between an employment and a trade, or two trades.

Generally speaking, the sufficient hours test is met when an individual works on average 35 hours per week after making the allowed adjustments, although the actual calculation is complex.

Fifth Automatic Overseas Test

A fifth automatic overseas test has been added where an individual dies during the tax year.

It is, loosely, a test which applies to those who die during the year and who have become non-resident in a previous year because they have gone to work abroad.

Potential Problems

The two most important areas where changes have not been made are in respect of the accommodation tie and of the definition of a ‘home’.

The accommodation tie still contains concepts which have no precise definition such as ‘a holiday home or temporary retreat’.  This is likely to lead to differing interpretations of what is and what is not a holiday home by HMRC and taxpayers.

Perhaps more importantly the Statutory Residence Test uses the concept of home, which is a notoriously difficult word to pin down as it can bear a wide range of meanings.  Unfortunately no clear and exhaustive definition of what constitutes a home has been provided by the Statutory Residence Test which is likely to cause ambiguity in its application.

Interpretation of Double Tax Treaty – Meaning of “Subject to Tax” TC02178

In the recent case of Paul Weiser v HMRC (TC02178) the first tier tribunal considered the interpretation of the double tax treaty between the UK and Israel and in particular the meaning of the phrase “subject to tax”.

Article XI of the UK-Israel double tax treaty provides that UK source pensions will not be subject to UK tax where they are received by a resident of Israel and subject to Israel tax in respect thereof. However under Israeli tax rules, UK pension income is excluded from tax in Israel during the first 10 years of residence.

HM Revenue and Customs therefore argued that because the pension income was exempt from tax in Israel it could not be said to be subject to tax.

On the other hand, the taxpayer claimed that he is within the charge to tax in Israel by virtue of living there even though Israel does not levy tax on his UK pension income because of the exemption.

Following the decision in Bayfine UK v HMRC (STS 717) the tribunal found that the double tax treaty should be interpreted using a purposive rather than a literal approach. The primary purpose of the double tax treaty is to eliminate double tax and prevent the avoidance of tax, the purpose is not therefore to enable the double non taxation of income.

The case therefore centred around the meaning of the phrase “subject to tax” and the difference in international tax treaties between this phrase and the phrase “liable to tax”.

HM Revenue and Customs presented various examples of case law from other countries and academic articles that examine the distinctions between the two phrases. The tribunal noted that whilst such authorities are not determinative they are relevant.

In HM Revenue and Custom’s view, the distinction between the two phrases is that the expression “liable to tax” requires only an abstract liability to tax (i.e. a person is within the scope of tax generally irrespective of whether the country actually exercises the right to tax) and therefore has a much broader meaning than the phrase “subject to tax” which requires that tax is actually levied on the income.

The first tier tribunal decided the case in favour of HM Revenue and Customs such that relief was not available under the UK-Israel tax treaty to exempt the pension from UK tax because the pension was not subjected to tax in Israel.

The tribunal’s interpretation of the UK-Israel double tax treaty and meaning of “subject to tax” will be of interest to taxpayers relying on double tax treaties and those practitioners who advise on double tax treaties.