Here is a conundrum.
A long, long time ago … in a galaxy far, far away (a.k.a. York, England 1981) I was a newly created Inspector of Taxes.
I was taught that the tax rules were strict and should be followed to the letter. However, that should not mean artificial impositions and ridiculous decisions. In those days (what is now HMRC) had ‘care and management’ of the Tax System.
Hence, my training was that, if during a Tax Investigation (of which I did quite a few!) I ‘discovered’ (see S29 TMA 1970) that some profits from one year, really ought to have been taxed in a different year, I should adjust it accordingly – but on both sides. So, in adding the profit to one year (per the correct accounting) I should then deduct the profit from the year I have moved it from. I should not seek to tax it twice, because that would be blatantly unfair!
A recent case [Ignatius Fessal v HMRC] reached the same conclusion, albeit using complex legal arguments concerning the European Human Rights Act. In this case the question was one of interpretation. In analysing it the Tribunal have resorted to the Human Rights Act to get to a fair conclusion. In other (older) leading cases, Justice Rowlatt, said that there was no ‘Equity’ in tax, you just read the words stated by Parliament and interpreted them strictly. However, the fact that there was no ‘Equity’, did not mean there should be no fairness. It was simply a method of how best to analyse the statute, bearing in mind the underlying fundamental principle that no Government would wish to impose double taxation.
So the answer should be – No Double Tax.
That truly should be the end of the story.
In the Fessal case (which as Andrew Hubbard rightly says is complex in the 19 May issue of the leading professional magazine, Taxation) the First Tribunal spent 36 rather closely argued and difficult pages, including analysing a key issue as to whether the ‘European Human Rights Act’ should apply?
To be fair to the Tribunal, they gave detailed legal analysis, which is impressive in scope and response. However, should it have been necessary to invoke such complexity on what surely should have been determined as a simple question of fairness? As certain Old-Fashioned English Common Law Chaps might have concluded – You cannot tax a person twice on the same profits!
To use the current jargon “End of …”
Would the Revenue in the days of their duties for ‘care and management of the tax system’ objected to this ‘as a matter of law?’ It would be hoped not.
In present times though – they did. As the Court pointed out, the way HMRC handled the matter put the taxpayer in a worse position than if they had not made a Tax Return at all! Surely, this could not be just and would (fairly quickly) lead the tax system into disrepute? This would cost HMRC far more in lost goodwill and compliance.
In addition, the Fessal case does raise rather interesting issues as to the impact of Double Tax Treaties, where maybe they do not work as well as anticipated. Could the Human Rights principle established against Double Taxation assist in cases where there is effective Double Taxation not strictly protected by a Double Tax Treaty? (See the Anson case?)
Moving on, business needs certainty. If the system is to be strictly on a ‘rules basis’ then surely that should be the same for both sides – taxpayer and HMRC. This brings us on to the latest Finance Bill proposals for penalties under GAAR. Are these well thought out and balanced?
Taxpayers who have indulged in tax avoidance have obeyed the law, by definition. Otherwise they would be guilty of tax evasion – a criminal offence.
I hold no brief for artificial tax schemes. In my experience, many of them fail either because they do not meet the underlying commercial requirements, or in truth they depend upon a sham. Some are correct under the law though. Surely they should not be punished severely because the opinion of a bureaucrat finds them objectionable? The Finance Bill proposal for a tax geared penalty of up to 60% may seem disproportionate? Could this be challenged as a breach of ‘Human Rights’?
My opinion is that to protect Government Revenue, HMRC do not need greater powers, nor heavier penalties. They need more, better trained personnel, so that cases can be dealt with and if necessary investigated properly.
I believe the issue is an administrative one – not one for even more legislation.