Subject: Subscriptions and Tax
To the ICAEW President,
Imagine a world in which the Government suggested that a lawyer should be fined if their barrister lost a case. What would be the reaction of the Law Society?
Now, we have a Government proposal for something similar for the accountancy profession. It says (see 5 December – Sanctions and Tax Deterrents) that Government policy is to reduce the size of the tax advice ‘industry’, by threatening fines on ICAEW Members, even where they were acting legally and honestly, with a side effect of deliberately adding mayhem to Professional Indemnity Insurance quotes.
I fear this would affect all members in practice. Some may say, “I do not advise on tax avoidance,” but the trouble is that tax avoidance is not properly defined in the proposed legislation. The scope is wide, with the Government proposing that the State should have the power to fine professionals for ‘enabling advice to be given’ [not just advising] on what amounts to any commercial transaction which involves tax. Advisors would not necessarily know for some years whether their conduct was “incorrect”, because it would apply if the State subsequently won relevant litigation. Then, suddenly, advice given in good faith may become a punishable offence. Work out the justice in that.
Why should ICAEW Members, taught to act ethically and responsibly, be fined and punished, for example, for simply referring a client to advice from a QC?
This brings us to a key question. Are the ICAEW going to protect members from penalties, which are unjust? I feel the initial response from the ICAEW is disappointing. Yes, the new HMRC document is better than the original consultative work, but they are still far too broad and wrong in principle. HMRC admit this particular policy is not targeted at the true purveyors of ‘tax avoidance’, but to impose sanctions on “enablers”. Why should bystanders be punished, because HMRC find it difficult to administer the tax system?
The Institute document also notes that HMRC has announced that they “Do not expect that members acting ‘wholly within the spirit’ of the standards contained within the recently-updated Professional Conduct in Relation to Taxation” would normally be affected by the enabler provisions. Well super! So you can hope [not guarantee, note] you may not get punished, if you act under Ethical Guidelines. I would hope that all Members would act under ethical guidelines. However, if I acted under such guidelines to give independent advice, I would “hope” that I would be backed by ICAEW in saying I had acted in a proper professional manner. I would not expect it to be second guessed by some State Official most likely without similar professional training to determine if they agreed I was in the “spirit” of such guidelines.
I totally agree HMRC should be properly resourced to review the system they have to work with, with an efficient, trained and motivated staff, but then it must have a parallel, independent appeals system. It is the way of Dictators to “improve” an appeals system by persecuting appellants and their advisors. It should not be a route a UK Government aspires to, however “efficient” it seems to have no-one disagree with the State. Maybe the policy is designed to help in “Making Tax Digital”? If “enablers” of independent advice have been eliminated and if incorrectly arguing with an official means a fine, then surely 99.9% of the population will agree their tax assessment is correct, probably even if the Government computer “proves” it was 117.5% of them.
I worked hard to get my qualifications as an FCA. It has been something I have been proud of. Thanks to Government propaganda, it now feels like I am one step down from a shoplifter.
I believe such propaganda is lazy, because it suggests the problems in the tax system are down to ‘Accountants – and other such slimy creatures’. I could suggest other causes? HMRC staff and administrative cuts, poor policy co-ordination, vast systems and culture changes at HMRC which do not seem to have worked? Perhaps even a level of competence at Government level which drafts a referendum bill which then needs to go to the Supreme Court to determine whether Parliament meant “Yes or No”, or were only joshing? The Institute should point this out to the Press, rather than kow-towing to Press oversimplification because accountants seem ‘easy meat’.
ICAEW, please stand up for your Members. You want our subs. You should protect all of us, even if that means telling the Government they are wrong.