Manuel alive and well and working in Whitehall – Tax Avoidance Deterrents

After the recent tragic death of Andrew Sachs, there are rumours that his spirit for competence lives on in our legislation.

 TAX AVOIDANCE DETERRENTS

An open question for the above.  How do the current proposals (published on 5 December 2016 as Sanctions and Deterrents) fit with The Rule of Law?

I believe in the vital importance of the Rule of Law.

I believe it can only work with;

a) Clarity

b) Independent Judgement

c) Consent

Naively; having been trained as an Inspector of Taxes, I believe that the intention of Parliament was as set out in the words they enacted.  There is a lot of case law which supports this.

With 17,000+ pages of legislation the situation is complex.  There may be a dispute as to interpretation.  That arises, almost certainly, through lack of clarity (see (a) above).  The disputing parties are then dependent upon ‘independent judgement’ which hopefully they can both trust – effectively the Rule of Law (cf Tom Bingham).

If they do not trust the independent judgement then (c) Consent is lost.  That is dangerous.

Probably with good intentions (I am told they pave the Road to Hell) HMRC are saying that certain professionals need their behaviour modifying.  To quote the ‘Strengthening Tax Avoidance Sanctions and Deterrents in their paragraph 5.4:-

The government noted the views and responses provided. It recognises that the avoidance market is not static but is constantly evolving. HMRC will further develop the options set out in Chapter 5 of the discussion document to supplement the important work undertaken in this area to date, whilst looking at new and emerging threats in the avoidance market. Alongside this, HMRC will continue to explore ways to further discourage tax avoidance by:

  • working collaboratively with businesses, individuals, industry and representative bodies to identify opportunities to further shrink the avoidance market
  • exploring how behavioural change techniques can positively affect decisions and choices for enablers and users
  • tailoring communications and engagement with users to support them to make the right choices and decisions including outlining the risks and consequences of entering into these kinds of arrangements
  • meeting the challenges and opportunities that current and proposed legislation, HMRC’s Making Tax Digital Programme and other cross-sector initiatives may present

In paragraph 5.5 they go on to say:

The government will continue to take decisive and necessary steps to ensure that those who seek an unfair tax advantage, or provide services that enable it, should bear the real risks and consequences for their actions.

So that is clear now?

Quite apart from their appalling grammar, and resulting lack of clarity, the proposed result of this appears to be:

i) An advisor may introduce a client to (say) a Queens Counsel who suggests a course of action he believes to be legal.

ii) Sometime – [likelihood, at least 10 years from final date of action bearing in mind current complex litigation process] – advice and action may be proven correct.  End of story.

iii) Alternatively, in the litigation lottery of the Courts (talk to lawyers!) the advice may prove to be incorrect.  In this case penalties would be sought against the person who introduced the QC, in all good faith!  Is asking for professional advice to be subject to a penalty?

iv) The proposed legislation encompasses virtually all commercial arrangements, not just ‘artificial’ ones.  ‘Tax Avoidance’ is not properly defined.  It rests on ‘losing’ under untested legislation.  There is no safe harbour.

v) The level of penalties (see time line) may be after the advisor retired.  If the professional involved advised clients wealthier than him, which I am sure the majority do, then they could result in severe financial embarrassment, perhaps even bankruptcy, of said pensioner.

The tone of the HMRC document of 5 December 2005 suggests that would be [perhaps in Chairman Mao’s words?] a good behavioural adjustment.

vi) Maybe?  In contrast, if the advisor had introduced his client say to a robber or a drug dealer, rather than a (presumably respectable) Queens Counsel, then these sanctions would not apply.  In considering this, what is ‘the Clear Intention of Parliament’ to quote a phrase.

I would be grateful if any of the parties to whom this is addressed could explain to me how it fits in with the idea of any penalty fitting in with the criteria proposed in HMRC’s 2015 penalties discussion document:

  • The penalty regime should be designed from the customer perspective, primarily to encourage compliance and prevent non-compliance.  Penalties are not to be applied with the objective of raising revenues.
  • Penalties should be proportionate to the failure and may take into account past behaviour.
  • Penalties must be applied fairly, ensuring that compliant customers are (and are seen to be) in a better position than the non-compliant.
  • Penalties must provide a credible threat.  If there is a penalty, we must have the operational capability and capacity to raise it accurately, and if we raise it, we must be able to collect it in a cost-efficient manner.
  • Customers should see a consistent and standardised approach.  Variations will be those necessary to take into account customer behaviours and particular taxes.

From an initial review, the proposed penalties fail all counts.  Specifically, they do not seem

1)     Fair

2)     Proportionate, nor even remotely consistent.

They are potentially an invite for state bullying.

An easy way around the problem is the one which worked for many years historically.  It was for independent, disinterested advice with proper, well-resourced HMRC review.  In such a case ‘reasonable care’ all round could be provided by someone, properly qualified, who was not rewarded as to outcome and gave independent advice as to the law, with subsequent full disclosure of any relevant arrangements.

Corporation Tax and VAT Loans

Whilst as tax advisors we tend to focus on [what we think are] interesting technical tax issues and considering how much should be payable having calculated that answer. Another possible difficulty with tax is the practical one of cash flows and actually paying it!

You may or may not be aware that it may be possible to obtain a loan to spread the cost of Corporation Tax or VAT bills to free up working capital. For example, with a Corporation Tax loan you could spread the cost over a 12 month period rather than paying all in one go.

We are not able to advise directly on such funding, but if you are interested in such opportunities for your clients, please contact Jonathan Smith at JGS Finance (http://www.jgsfinance.co.uk/) on 07778 523 499 and he will be happy to assist.  Please use reference EVL when you make contact with Jonathan.

Jonathan Smith (Head of JGS Finance) is a Chartered Accountant who I know and have trusted over many years of working with him.

Paul Eaves

HMRC Fail in Toothless Attack

HMRC use Eric Morecombe tactics according to judge. “Playing all the notes but not necessarily in the right order”

HMRC use Eric Morecombe tactics according to judge.
“Playing all the notes but not necessarily in the right order”

Readers of our blogs will know we are always interested in cases analysing the extent of HMRC powers and how they should be used. The recent case of Raymond Tooth and the Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs demonstrates (again) that HMRC powers are not infinite. It also brings out some highly topical points:

1) In Raymond Tooth the taxpayer filed a tax claim which HMRC later decided to challenge. They had though missed their normal time limit on raising an enquiry, so had to raise a ‘discovery assessment’.

2) The definition of a ‘discovery’ made by HMRC is confirmed to be very wide in scope and may include “a change of opinion or correction of an oversight” by the Inspector of Taxes raising the discovery assessment.

3) The general points in Cotter are good law and emphasise the requirements for good disclosure by taxpayers and a clear explanation of how they have computed their self-assessment.

4) The burden is on HMRC to demonstrate that their extended time limits for assessments under ‘discovery’ may be used only where they are saying that the loss of tax was brought about ‘deliberately’. Deliberately means intentionally or knowingly (Duckitt v Farrand).

5) All praise to John Brookes (Tribunal Judge in this case). He basically eviscerated the HMRC case. He said with regard to the issue of extended time limits,

“In my judgment this [assessment] cannot be right. The deliberate (or indeed careless) conduct necessary to enable the issue of a discovery assessment and extend the time limits for doing so must involve more than the completion of a tax return which, in itself, is a deliberate act. As a person completing a return must do so intentionally or knowingly, and can hardly do so accidentally, HMRC’s argument effectively eliminates any distinction between ‘careless’ and ‘deliberate’…[their] attempt to argue otherwise, saying that if the wrong figures were entered in the right boxes it might be careless but if the right figures were entered in the wrong boxes it would be deliberate, was somewhat reminiscent of, and about as convincing as, Eric Morecambe’s riposte to Andre Previn about “playing all the notes, but not necessarily in the right order.”

6) The case can also be linked to current concerns about ‘Making Tax Digital’ (MTD).

Evidence was presented about the problems created by a computer glitch on how the alleged loss claim should be shown. The computer system adopted was a respectable one, approved by HMRC. However, apparently it would not cope with the proposed claim. The advice given to the taxpayer – to fit in with electronic filing, was thus to use a computer ‘work around’. As most people with appreciate, this is quite a common suggested solution, because computer programming is never perfect. The work around meant the loss claim went in the ‘wrong’ data input box, but the taxpayer described this in the ‘white space’ on the Return and the final answer came to what he believed was the correct net tax liability. Despite this, HMRC when they wished to dispute the loss claim, accused him of ‘deliberately’ causing an underpayment of tax. Whilst HMRC lost in this case, it is easy to imagine the dangers of accidental non-compliance caused by seeking to meet tight computer deadlines for making tax digital. Then it appears from cases such as this that such computer errors may be seen as something more sinister by HMRC. I believe this emphasises the risks of making such a system compulsory, before it is thoroughly field tested and people are familiar with it.

I am pleased to see that most commentary from the profession seems to agree with this line.

There is an interesting contrast in the apparent view of HMRC on a balanced system, in that the proposals suggest taxpayers are to be given a compulsory deadline for compliance every three months, whereas if they get it wrong HMRC should be entitled to a time limit of 20 years to challenge it.

Compliance is a delicate flower, worth preserving. If the proposals are brought in, how many businesses will simply drop off the radar if they get behind for a couple of returns and then fear they have neither the time nor resources to catch up again?

Do people believe the MTD and new penalty proposals are fair? If not please lobby to try to get them amended. If computer filing is going to be so popular, as claimed by HMRC, there should be no need for compulsion. Penalties should be levied on people committing deliberate wrongdoing, not mere bystanders.

The Importance of Advanced Planning – VAT Registration

A recent case at the First-Tier Tribunal, DJ Butler v HMRC, highlighted again the benefits of taking professional advice in good time. The taxpayer operated as a sole-trader working as a decorator, project manager and carpenter.

In the absence of the project management turnover the taxpayer would have been below the VAT registration threshold. After HMRC identified that his turnover was above the limit, the taxpayer argued that the project management was run as a partnership with his wife; however he had always declared it on his individual self-assessment tax returns as sole trader turnover.

The Tribunal considered that the project management work should rightfully be considered an extension of his sole trader activities and that no partnership existed. It did not help that no profits were reported on his wife’s tax returns, and nor were there separate partnership bank accounts or sales invoices raised in its name. The taxpayer’s appeal was therefore dismissed.

It would appear that if the taxpayer had taken steps in advance to create a separate legal entity for the project management, whether a partnership or a company, and followed the correct reporting and legal steps, the planning may have been effective. As it was, it was difficult to argue that self-assessed sole-trader income was in fact from a partnership.

Taking professional advice in advance would have helped this taxpayer, is there anything we can help you with?

Open letter to John Pugh MP, House of Commons

UPDATE:  Please See Below for Response from Mr Pugh MP

Dear John,

We have met before some years ago to discuss tax and the financial situation generally.

I realise you are no longer in power, but I would draw your attention to two of the consultations released by HMRC over the Summer with the following comments:

Strengthening Tax Avoidance Sanctions [HMRC 17 August 2016]

1. I fear the proposals put forward by HMRC are disproportionate, ill-defined, with a gap of potentially years between the behaviour HMRC allege they have a problem with and ‘punishment’. Further the proposed punishment would not necessarily fall on the person who may benefit from the behaviour, which encompasses ‘any agreement, understanding, scheme, transaction or series of transactions (whether or not legally enforceable)’ but, it is proposed by HMRC, would be imposed on an independent advisor.

2. Tax rules are incredibly complicated. Surely it is not in the public interest to discourage a market for independent, professional advice?

3. The above definition would seem to encompass every commercial action, unless I am mistaken? Can you think of anything not caught in the proposed rules. Thus, under these proposals, every commercial action appears to be within the scope, if (probably many years later litigation finds they have been caught by a technicality). This means what amounts to an offence would only be determined ‘ex post facto’? Surely, wrong in principle, constitutionally. How can any responsible person act professionally and be sure they are compliant?

4. The proposal from HMRC is that an advisor would have a defence if they followed the opinion of HMRC(!) How is that ‘independent advice’? What about the occasions when HMRC are proven wrong by the Courts?

5. In addition to the proposed penalties being wrong in principle, the level suggested is such that an individual advisor could be made bankrupt and thus losing their professional membership and livelihood without actually performing nor even suggesting any action with illegal intent. Surely, this is disproportionate?

The HMRC consultative document actually says that it does not expect those devising what they see as ‘artificial schemes’ to be caught by the penalties. Apparently they ate typically companies based offshore. Is it fair to punish UK professionals when the authorities believe that the true problems lie elsewhere?

Conclusion

It seems to me to be a much simpler and more equitable system to be to allow a ‘reasonable defence’ for both taxpayers and advisors that they had received/given independent advice (with appropriate professional qualification/experience) without that advice being in any way compromised by being rewarded as to results.

If desired, this could be combined with professional rules to prohibit fees being linked to outcome. That way there would be no incentive to bias any advice towards ‘aggressive’ behaviour.

Making Tax Digital

This sounds as though it might be a good idea. Certainly, it has some sound points in terms of efficiency. However, there is an underlying principle of compulsion which is disturbing, especially when the computer systems referred to do not yet seem to exist, have not been fully tested, and seem to anticipate that all businesses will have to pay for them.

Points

a) A big concern is the idea that businesses will have to file every 3 months in ‘real time’. The current requirement is that businesses have to file an annual return within 10 months of the year end. The new proposal represents an enormous extra burden, which in practice would fall particularly hard on small businesses many of whom are currently not even aware of the consultation.

b) As an accountant, I would generally encourage keeping good management accounts. This though should not be compulsory, nor be State monitored. The idea seems to come from someone with no empathy for the pressures on running a small business. No lack of work/sickness benefits for the owner, etc. etc. Compulsion on this scale would have to cover such items as:-

  1. Serious business disruption through unanticipated economic events
  2. Illness, death of a parent/spouse/child.
  3. Emotional/financial impact of divorce.
  4. Internal commercial problems, such as management disputes, employee problems, fraud etc.

These are serious issues which can hit everyone, and create further potential for subjective interpretation and ultimately undesirable court cases. HMRC suggest the 3 month filings may not be used for anything as this stage. If so, why impose an unnecessary burden?

There are a number of points of detail which need to be addressed, but fundamentally, with such huge powers on their side already I do not believe HMRC are short of powers. Giving arbitrary powers such as suggested would be counter-productive. Not everyone has access to/is comfortable with a computer, perhaps especially the elderly. Suggesting family help may seem good as a ‘sound-bite’, but then how much family tension/concern may it give rise to, particularly in cases where family finances are a sore subject?

I realise some of the points above are probably somewhat deliberately provocative. I believe the process though is important. Key issues as far as I am concerned is that the proposals are too vague to enable honest compliance and in addition risk stilting economic progress by imposing State burdens for no benefit and (according to the HMRC commentary on the 3 month reporting) to no required end.

I look forward to your considered reply.

Yours sincerely,

Paul Eaves

cc Consultation body

Response from John Pugh MP:

“Dear Paul,

Thank you for your email regarding the two recent consultations launched by HMRC.

The proposals on strengthening tax avoidance do seem broad and vague. It appears that the punishment for avoidance would fall not on the person who is benefitting from tax avoidance but on those who facilitate it. Moreover, the Government is not at all specific on what constitutes avoidance. I hope that the Government’s response to the consultation will define what constitutes facilitating tax avoidance more clearly in order to give firms such as yours better guidance on how the law will change.

On quarterly reporting, I have had a number of Southport businesses and accountancy firms contact me in recent weeks who are concerned about the increased administrative burden this will have on them. They are also worried about reporting their accounts incorrectly under this new system.

I accept that quarterly reporting may make it easier for HMRC to identify accounting errors, ensuring that businesses pay the taxes they owe. However, I do not think that the benefits it provides are enough to justify the extra administrative burden it places on companies, independent of the requirement to keep records digitally. It seems to run against the Government’s stated aim of “putting people and profit, not paperwork, first”.

The Government must ensure that companies pay the tax they owe, but their approach must recognise two things. First, it must minimise the additional burden placed on businesses. Second, the enforcement of new regulations should not be a cash cow for HMRC.

Because of the large number of companies who have contacted me on this issue, I will be raising my concerns with the Minister in the next few weeks, and I will let you know what response I receive.

Many thanks and best wishes,

John”

Thank you for your response.

Worldwide Disclosure Facility – Last Chance to Disclose?

HMRC have announced the Worldwide Disclosure Facility (WDF) the latest in a long line of disclosure facilities designed to encourage taxpayers to come forward to disclose previously unreported offshore tax liabilities.

Unlike its predecessors, the WDF does not offer any favourable terms, other than the fact that HMRC state that where the disclosure is correct and complete and the taxpayer fully co-operates by supplying any further information they ask for to check the disclosure, they’ll not seek to impose a ‘higher penalty’, except in specific circumstances (e.g. where the taxpayer was already under enquiry) and they will also agree not to publish details of the disclosure. This last ‘benefit’ may appeal to higher profile individuals who may prefer to remain anonymous in their previous failures.

This is a marked difference to previous disclosure facilities that offered much reduced penalties (such as the 10% rate offered by the Liechtenstein Disclosure Facility) and guarantees against prosecution.

The WDF is targeted as a ‘last chance’ by HMRC before even more strict penalties come into force, as well as their claims that automatic exchange and data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Common Reporting Standard (CRS) will then be available.

After 30 September 2018, new sanctions will be introduced that reflect HMRC’s “toughening approach”. They state that you will still be able to make a disclosure after that date “but those new terms will not be as good as those currently available”.

Previous experiences suggest that making a disclosure under one of HMRC’s facilities is usually a more streamlined process compared to simply writing to HMRC.

Eaves and Co would be very happy to discuss matters if you are concerned that you or your clients may have an undisclosed offshore liability, suitable for the Worldwide Disclosure Facility. We have extensive experience of making disclosures under previous facilities that HMRC have offered.

Making Tax Digital – Your Thoughts Welcome

As you may be aware, new proposed rules on tax compliance, called Making Tax Digital, are being consulted on at present.  We are planning on preparing our own response to the consultation document, and would welcome your thoughts to take on board and incorporate into our thoughts on a response.  In fact, we would suggest you send in your own response, but we would still welcome your input on the points raised.  They are important.

Of the proposed changes, the “digital tax system” is perhaps the one that will cause the biggest changes to advisors, businesses and individuals.  It is under this that the proposed “end of the tax return” would occur.  Individuals will make changes to their digital tax account throughout the year and it is proposed that information would feed in automatically from real-time PAYE and banks and building societies.

A significant proposal is that, under these rules, businesses will be required to keep digital records and to provide quarterly updates to HMRC with summary data from these records.  There appear to be no proposals to help businesses with the cost of appropriate software.  Bearing in mind there would then be an annual taxable profit calculation due after the year end, what is the reason behind the proposal for quarterly reporting?

It is proposed that this would commence from April 2018 for income tax purposes.  The main exemption from the rules will be businesses with turnover of under £10,000, which would seem to help few.

Some of the particular issues that we will look to raise concern the following:

  • The rules are proposed to be mandatory. This certainly raises concerns for certain taxpayers as noted below.  One has to wonder why the rules should be mandatory, when it is claimed by HMRC that they will be welcomed by most taxpayers?
  • Certain individuals and sole-traders may find the rules particularly difficult. These might include elderly taxpayers and those who are not computer literate, or do not own appropriate equipment/software.  Whilst it may be news to those in power, not all people have a PC and certainly not all have mobile phones with internet access (which was claimed to be the solution to not having a PC).
  • Entering sensitive and important financial information on one’s phone may not be ideal in any event. Other HMRC suggestions include asking a family member for help.   However, this overlooks the fact that financial information can be sensitive even (or perhaps particularly) amongst family members.  We feel that this aspect should not be overlooked in the drive towards digital taxation.  We would commend the article in Taxation by Robin Summers FCA on this point.
  • Businesses will be required to submit information to HMRC on a quarterly basis. This could be particularly onerous in the case of small businesses where a multitude of things could [and will for some] cause problems. It may be fine when things are running smoothly, but why add extra burdens?   Life suggests that, unfortunately, there can be upsets…Family problems, business problems, partnership splits, illness, death of [someone] …etc. etc.…  In such circumstances surely no- one would expect the first priority of a business should be to file an HMRC form, ahead of [say] visiting their dying mother?  Once behind, such a short reporting period would make it increasingly difficult to get up to date.  Recent practical experience with HMRC would suggest a “reasonable excuse” let out may be insufficient!  [See previous blogs and recent case law.]
  • Even for the biggest business, access to accurate up-to-date information at short notice could be difficult. Hence, the idea is likely to cause a significant increase in work on administration.  The proposals suggest this would fall disproportionately on small business.  Such businesses, especially start-ups, may therefore decide to opt out of being “HMRC Customers”.  Creating barriers to joining the “Tax Club” would not, in our opinion, appear to be a sensible way forward.  Do people agree?
  • It may be noted that Stock Exchange listed plc’s do not have a compulsory requirement to publish detailed figures every quarter. Why should it be fair to make a small family firm subject to more onerous conditions?
  • The requirement to keep digital records, “as close to real time as possible” again could cause issues for those with limited access to/comfort with technology. There may also be many in businesses where keeping digital records in real time could prove an excessive burden in a practical sense. For example, someone travelling on a music or comedy tour, where time pressures are high.  For them building a pile of receipts is the best that can be hoped for in the short term.  Their Accountants can then help them do the reporting at the end of the year.
  • Business innovation requires flexibility and imagination, not an obsession with bureaucratic record keeping? Such a tight time table as proposed may be ok for a smooth running, continuing business, but growth and change require intensive resource.
  • Importantly, for those with any conception or imagination on what it is like to run a business, [for example, Accountants with real clients] they may blanche at the thought that the first objective of an entrepreneur should be to file Government forms when he is working all hours to try to get a business to produce a profit.  Yes, there should be an obligation to report to HMRC, but there should be a fair interval between striving for an objective and sending in a report on the result.  Sending in a football score after 22.5 minutes is a waste of resource all round. Outcomes can change over time.  Income Tax is based on the profit for the year.
  • Many businesses are seasonal, so use “quiet periods” to catch up with administrative matters. This often enables them to keep staff employed throughout the year, rather than laying them off.  How does the Government wish such businesses to cope with the change?
  • We feel adding extra administrative burdens can only put up an extra barrier to entrepreneurship. Does the Government wish to reduce the economic benefits inherent in the creation of small business, or just encourage them to join the Black Economy?

Of course, others may have other views.  We would like to hear. Please let us know.

The full consultation documents can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/making-tax-digital-consultations.  Honestly, we would be very interested to hear your thoughts.

Bayliss – HMRC Seek Extra Penalties From Failed Avoidance Scheme

Another week and another case involving a failed tax avoidance scheme.

This time, perhaps more worryingly, HMRC were arguing that the return was submitted fraudulently or negligently by the taxpayer and therefore sought the extra penalties that would be due in such circumstances. This shows a new aspect of the targeting of anti-avoidance schemes and suggests users of schemes could expect the costs of failure to rise higher, whether in penalties or fees for defending them.

Ultimately, the taxpayer won in this case. Of particular interest was the fact that the Tribunal found that relying on the advice of a trusted accountant was helpful in suggesting that he had not acted negligently. It appears the courts confirm that obtaining suitable professional advice is worth paying for in the long run!

Mr Bayliss participated in a scheme marketed by Montpelier Tax Consultants (Montpelier). The scheme involved a Contract for Differences (CFD) and was sold as generating a £539,000 capital loss for Mr Baylis in 2006–07. It was agreed by all the parties that the scheme had failed and additional tax was due, however the taxpayer appealed against penalties raised by HMRC on the basis that ther return was submitted fraudulently or negligently.

The Tribunal determined that in accordance with established case law, in order to prove fraud HMRC had to prove that the appellant did not have an honest belief in the correctness of the return. The Tribunal was persuaded on the basis of the evidence and facts that Mr Bayliss did believe that his tax return was correct and so there was no fraudulent behaviour.

On the question of negligence, the Tribunal felt that the correct test was that set out in Blyth v Birmingham Waterworks Co (1856), that of ‘the omission to do something which a reasonable man, guided upon those considerations which ordinarily regulate the conduct of human affairs, would do, or doing something which a prudent and reasonable man would not do’. They also considered the test in Anderson (decʼd) [2009], ‘to consider what a reasonable taxpayer, exercising reasonable diligence in the completion and submission of the return, would have done’.

HMRC used a number points to support their argument that Mr Baylis was negligent, including that:

  1. the transaction did not stand up to commercial scrutiny and the appellant failed to check the commercial reality;
  2. the appellant had not kept copies of the documentation, whereas a reasonable person would have done so;
  3. It was a complex financial transaction and the appellant should have obtained proper independent financial advice, but he relied on informal advice.

The Tribunal agreed with HMRC that some of the taxpayer’s behaviour could have been deemed to be careless, but on balance found that HMRC had not done enough to prove that the appellant was negligent in filing an incorrect return.

Interestingly, they felt that relying on his accountant was helpful in this respect, stating “We are persuaded that the appellant relied fully on Mr Mall, a chartered accountant on whom he had relied for a number of years, and on what he believed (based on Mr Mallʼs recommendation) to be Montpelierʼs expertise.”

The tribunal allowed the appeal on the basis that HMRC had not proven that Mr Bayliss acted fraudulently or negligently in submitting an incorrect return.

Comments on Strengthening Tax Avoidance Sanctions and Deterrents Consultation

This Blog is addressed to All Accountants.  The majority of you will give ‘tax advice’, but would you care to pay your clients’ tax bill if it proves to be technically incorrect?  [Under the proposals discussed below the client will pay the newly imposed bill as well so there is at least ‘double jeopardy’].  My worry is a conceptual one.  Should there really be multiple punishments for the same purported ‘offence’?  Would this not be disproportionate?  I do not know if the words are meant to be forceful and intimidating but the ‘deterrent’ seems to envisage liabilities which could lead to the bankruptcy of professional accountants who were merely part of the ‘supply chain’.  Concerned yet?  Read on.

In due course, I hope to give intelligent feedback to HMRC on their Consultative Document; Strengthening Tax Avoidance Sanctions and Deterrents.  In the meantime, I would like opinions from professionals (and others) to the proposals.  I have an open mind, and certainly do not approve of dishonest behaviour = evasion.

However, when I was an Inspector of Taxes the next level up on the spectrum – avoidance was legal.

Initial thoughts for discussion:-

 

  1. Logically, people indulging in ‘avoidance’ are obeying the law.  Why should they be punished in that case?  Even if incorrect on a technicality there is no ‘mems rea’.

 

  1. The definition of ‘tax avoidance’ seems very vague.  It is also the subject of post event review in that a court will judge – probably some years later.  This makes it difficult to judge at the time of giving advice.  Surely, HMRC should be encouraging independent professional advice, not discouraging it.  If clients know the ‘safe harbour’ for accountants is always to advise against a tax saver, they will know they are not getting independent advice.  (See HMRC document on protection against penalties).

 

  1. Should it really encompass ‘any transaction’ as suggested by the discussion document?

 

  1. Should advisors really be subject to such harsh penalties, which may well be orders of magnitude above their fees for client behaviour (not the accountants behaviour) which, after complex litigation, the Courts have found ‘unreasonable’ under GAAR.  This means the behaviour was determined to be technically flawed but probably not illegal?  This is deterrence, but deterrent to giving advice to key entrepreneurs and wealth creators in a highly complex area.

 

  1. Again, initial thoughts for discussion, if the HMRC target is (as stated) a ‘small minority’.  Why try to affect the general economics of professional advice?  Surely, the penalty risk could have a profound impact on PI insurance costs?

 

  1. Could not the HMRC objectives be achieved by:-

a) Stating that a protection from penalties (not tax) may be achieved by getting a written opinion from an appropriately qualified professional (to be defined – but relevant professional qualifications).

b) Stating that a person/firm receiving a monetary benefit/commission based on the scheme may not qualify as ‘independent’.

 

Surely this would be easier and more proportionate.

Beware New Rules on Liquidations – HMRC Refuse to Give Clearance

As you may be aware, new rules are being introduced with effect from April 2016 as part of the Finance Act 2016.  These relate to distributions in a winding-up/liquidation and are designed to target certain company distributions in respect of share capital in a winding-up. Where a distribution from a winding-up is caught, it is chargeable to income tax rather than capital gains tax.

The rules apply where the following conditions are met:

  1. The company being wound up was a close company (or was within the two years prior to winding-up)
  2. The individual held at least a 5% interest in the company (ordinary share capital and voting rights).
  3. The individual continues to carry on the same or a similar trade or activity to that carried on by the wound-up company within the two years following the distribution
  4. It is reasonable to assume, having regard to all of the circumstances that there is a main purpose of obtaining a tax advantage.

Whether or not Conditions C or D are triggered could be a cause for some contention, and so HMRC note that they have received a number of clearance applications relating to these new rules.

In the absence of a statutory clearance procedure under the new legislation, HMRC have clarified that it is not their general practice to offer clearances on recently introduced legislation with a purpose test.  They have instead sent out a standard reply providing some examples of how they think the rules will apply.

Clearly this is a developing area and HMRC’s reaction is somewhat disappointing as taxpayers often require certainty before carrying out commercial transactions which could be caught.  HMRC have stated that further guidance will be published, however in the meantime we advise that care be taken, and seeking professional advice, as always, may save time and costs in the long run.

We would be delighted to assist if you think you may be affected by these rules and have any queries.