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.

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.

Those (like me!) who appreciate the significance of the above headline will be thinking ‘Tax is Fun’ and ‘This is Fascinating’.  For the rest I challenge you to struggle on to the end.

The case (Brain Disorders Research Limited Partnership – TC4510) is interesting because the complex, highly cogent, judgement goes through the arrangements as a whole.  Then the Court decides that overall they do not make commercial sense (on the grounds that 6 ≠ 99).  As a result, the Court strikes down the whole structure as a “sham”, and hence ineffective from a tax perspective.  This is oversimplification, of course, but in this case the First Tier Tribunal have struck to the heart of a manufactured tax avoidance scheme by destroying it as having crucial aspects which meant the whole scheme effectively amounted to a sham.

Where does the case leave us?

Analysis of the detailed judgement is interesting in itself, as will be the question of whether the case is appealed to a higher court.

For the moment though, in looking at the commercial picture and looking at steps obviously inserted for tax purposes the First Tier tribunal could be said to be adopting an approach on the lines of ‘Ramsay Robust’.  Those of you familiar with the classic anti-avoidance case of CIR v Ramsay will know that it analysed tax planning schemes and then surgically excised steps inserted just for tax planning purposes and then re-analysed the result.

It seems to me the Brain Disorders judgement follows similar principles, but, in simile, perhaps by using a large axe rather than a scalpel!  It does though leave interesting (and relevant) thoughts, especially as in terms of the claim, the underlying scientific research seemed to be accepted by the Courts to be genuine and cutting edge.  The issue was whether the price had been artificially inflated.  Effectively, therefore it leaves open the question for future commercial planners of what makes the tax axe fall?  All of us need to use the tax system.  You can’t opt out!  How do we know we are not ‘abusing’ it?

In the case, the fact that (blatantly) 6 ≠ 99 was a key determinant, and understandable in may people’s eyes as an inherent misrepresentation.  Where though is the cut off?  Where 6 moves and then tends to approach 99?  Does ‘abuse’ stop at 12 or 50 or where?  Surely there cannot be a ‘fixed’ level?  As is clear from my insurance quotes, in a free market, there seems to be little that approaches a fixed price.  It depends upon the precise terms of the contract, plus the expertise and reputation of the provider.  There must therefore be a range of values which would be acceptable and thus ‘non-abusive’?  Crucially though, how is this ‘non-abusive’ range to be determined in advance by advisors?

The Court’s technical analysis and indeed the scheme details are highly complex, but essentially (to use the round numbers adopted in the case) the higher rate taxpayers investing in the scheme sought to claim 99 or 96 of interest/scientific research allowances, for true research expenditure that was actually being sub-contracted out for 6.

HMRC convinced the Court that it was never remotely considered (or even possible) for the investors to undertake the research themselves, in the Partnership Structure established.  This was believed, to be because of the bank borrowings and lack of relevant resources for the Partnership Structure meant that it would be problematic in raising the finance to undertake the research itself.  As a result, the Courts held it was thus inevitable that the research would be subcontracted to the true scientific experts at the agreed price of 6.  Thus it was ‘false wording’ in the documentation to suggest that 99 (or indeed any amount other than 6) was to be paid to procure the research.

The Court judged;

“Most of the money movements related entirely to the borrowing arrangements and had nothing to do with genuine royalties derived from scientific research”.

It went on;

“Everything in relation to the refund of capital expenditure should the research project be abandoned was uncommercial”.

The FTT held that the scheme was a sham.  It was based on the premise that the recipient of the borrowed/invested funds may undertake the relevant scientific research.

A previous case, Tower M Cashback, showed that the price paid had to represent fair value for allowances to be available.  A valuation exercise was undertaken by the designers of the Scheme to show that a number of “traditional” researchers in institutions or universities would have charged 99 or 100 for the work.  However, the Courts criticised this exercise as being effectively a self-fulfilling prophecy, undertaken in a hurry by a party associated with those involved through past work, and not actually comparing like with like.  The Courts also pointed out that a genuine commercial arrangement would have made the most of the quote of 6 from Australian leaders in the relevant brain research.  Any true commercial investors would have been unlikely to do anything other than go for that price, rather than committing to 99 or 100 created via the inflated borrowing.

The internal un-commerciality of the finance arrangements was apparent by the fact that some of the quotes compared US $ prices to AUS $ prices without ‘noticing’ the 22% currency exchange difference existing at the time.

The First Tier Tribunal was scathing:-

“We agree that there was a sham in this case [None] of the parties or indeed the investing partners were intended to be deceived into thinking that the possible aim of sub-contracting was just one of two realistic possibilities. Of course it was known that it was the only conceivable way of proceeding.  [Hence] the alternative contractual provision, suggesting that [the Partnership Structure] might itself conduct the research was false. The significance of the false claim was that, had it been deleted in accordance with reality, it could not possibly have been suggested that [the Partnership Structure] was ever to pay more than 6, let alone 99 or 96, in order to procure the scientific research. The falsely worded clause was therefore the foundation of the Partnership’s claim for vastly excessive capital allowances, and this is why we decide to strike it down as being a sham.  The [HMRC] counsel was slightly more hesitant in describing the whole pricing of the scientific research in the Schedule to the top-level contract, sub-dividing the total expenditure and allocating elements of it to each step and stage in the research, as a sham. We are not so hesitant. By sub-dividing the alleged expenditure of 99 or 96 in this way, inserting all this elaborate nonsense into the Schedule, it becomes clear that the critical drafting of [the Partnership Structure] clause is not just some mistaken reference to one irrelevant possibility. The Schedule shines the light on the fact that the whole fiction is indeed intended, and that it is indeed the foundation of the Partnership’s claim. [My emphasis].

Comments please on whether you feel my idea of ‘Ramsay Robust’ makes sense and what needs to be done to aid commercial certainty.  Obviously everyone needs to act in accordance with tax law.  Similarly commercial enterprise needs to know tax consequences of their actions.

Recent tax case law has brought out some interesting points on how the Courts view operational issues.

1. Tax avoidance schemes associated with the film industry seem to follow inevitably (with various complications) from the complex tax reliefs which are designed to promote film finance. It seems to lead to a slightly odd dichotomy where the Chancellor sets law to give relief on film investment and is then surprised and upset when schemes are set up to exploit the reliefs. In Samarkand the tax avoidance scheme failed, partly because the Courts found emails which included phrases such as ‘Don’t mention this, it smells of pre-ordained’. This reinforced HMRC’s case that the scheme was not a straightforward use of the relief, but an artificial tax avoidance scheme, with no real commercial substance. A good rule of thumb would be to train staff not to put anything on file which they would be embarrassed to read out in court.

2. An interesting one in terms of postal submissions is the recent case of O’Keeffe. The taxpayer claimed his wife had posted his Return some weeks before the deadline. HMRC said they had not received it until a month after the deadline. They succeeded with their imposition of a late filing penalty.

Whilst the First Tier Tribunal agreed that mail may go astray, which could be a reasonable excuse, there was no proof of postage in this case. It would be interesting to hear what evidence HMRC put forward in terms of date of receipt, as mail does seem to go astray more often than it used to and with the closure of so many Post Offices obtaining routine proof of postage would be difficult for many.

3. Final procedural point – and statement of the obvious – encourage clients to keep proper records. The lack of a clear trail of what was owing led to the taxpayer in Michiels losing a bad debt relief claim against profit, because on balance the outstanding sums related to a later period.

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.

For those of you who failed to find the exciting Government Consultation Document, ‘Raising the Stakes on Tax Avoidance’.  It is a fluffy, woolly document which proposes that the HMRC should have discretion to label someone as a “High Risk Tax Provider” [of Tax Avoidance] and then fine them up to £1m (plus £10,000 per day) for … well read and find out.

I am sure HMRC may mean well, but surely this is not the answer?  It is extra resources they need not new powers?

Anyway, for those now champing at the bit, here is my submission to HMRC on the Consultation.

“Please accept this as a formal response to the Consultation Document “Raising the stakes on tax avoidance.

SUMMARY

In my opinion the approach suggested is:-

a)     Wrongheaded.

b)    Risks bullying, corruption and, in the longer term, a reduction, rather than increase in tax compliance.

c)     Is an abuse of Parliamentary process, because (according to HMRC figures in Section 8 of the Document) the estimate is that there are only 20 businesses who may be affected.  Such as issue could and should be dealt with under existing powers.

d)    It risks undermining the Rule of Law, because it proposes severe sanctions (including £1m initial fine plus £10,000 per day subsequent fines) with the penalties being imposed on woolly, ill-defined criteria which are ultimately at the whim of State dictat.  This is particularly a concern because none of the alleged criteria require there to be any criminal behaviour on behalf of the so called ‘high risk promoter’.  Fines of such a size would ruin most individuals – taking their families down with them.  How can such penalties be compatible in human rights or any version of equity with recent lenient policies on penalties for theft and burglary?  Those activities are illegal.  On the other hand tax avoidance is generally thought to be legal. [Collins Dictionary 1995: tax avoidance n. reduction of tax liability by lawful methods].  How can it be appropriate to punish someone for obeying the law to a greater extent that the sanction chosen by the state for illegal attacks on an individual citizen’s property?

QUESTIONS

I           Identifying a ‘high risk promoter’.

  1. Question I incorporates a value judgement and states (in 3.16) that ‘the lack of flexibility leads to the conclusion that this would not be workable, consequently the Government does not intend to adopt this approach’.

I agree the lack of flexibility represents a problem, especially as common professional advice is (in relevant situations) to request HMRC use formal powers, so as to avoid the risk of the client suing the advisor for breach of confidentiality.  However, to then make it down to the whim of a Revenue Official whether a law abiding citizen and his/her family could be financially ruined is totally unreasonable.

  1. The ‘key individual’ concept is especially iniquitous as it could effectively lead to a person being unemployable in their field of training without having committed any crime whatsoever.
  2. Whilst the consultative document uses the currently fashionable term ‘transparent’, this does not take account of:-

a)     The risk that the client may not be truthful to the advisor, so what looks like a reasonable assumption/conclusion to him may not tie in with all the facts – especially events occurring after his input.

b)    The fact that any commentary on planning must, by definition incorporate assumption on future events.

  1. A key risk of a taxpayer using an avoidance scheme is that it does not work.  It is the role of HMRC to identify such schemes and challenge them.  If they are quickly shown to fail taxpayers will not waste money on purchasing them!  I agree they should be diligent and do this.  They need extra resources, not extra theoretical powers
  2. If (Para 3.6) the schemes have negligible chance of working and rely on ‘concealment and mis-description of elements’ then surely they are fraudulent, representing illegal tax evasion.  This is not avoidance and should be subject to separate penalties/criminal sanctions.  However, HMRC does itself no favours, nor any to the debate on tax compliance to mix up, as it seems to deliberately, lawful and unlawful behaviour.
  3. I agree that taxpayers should have the right to see the pros and cons of technical advice and if necessary, the right to show that to different advisors.  Advisors (and HMRC) should then be obliged to debate the merits of any technical issue in a reasonable timescale in full light of the facts properly disclosed.  Similarly though the client should be entitled to claim professional privilege in terms of the advice elements.

 I am conscious in this context that when asking for data under the Freedom of Information Act I was told that keeping the advice of legal counsel secret was vital to the administration of justice and good governance.  If a taxpayer is not allowed to see the advice given to public servants he has effectively paid for via taxation in the context of a ‘consultative document’, why should the State have the right to see advice given to him  specifically with regard to his own affairs, to his possible prejudice?

  1. Although penalties are proposed for doing ‘it’, tax avoidance is not even defined here.  However, readers considering the current provisions should recognise that the recent comments by Jamie Oliver promoting home made healthy food, would (under the last published HMRC definition of tax avoidance) amount to ‘tax avoidance’.  This is because he was promoting zero rated food purchases rather than take away food liable to VAT at 20%.

II          High risk promoter regime

  1. Without identifying a proper definition of High Risk Promoter and Tax Avoidance it is totally inappropriate to have a ‘regime’ at all.
  2. A better route may be to consider HMRC ‘endorsing’ professional advice by advertising those regulated by ICAEW, CIOT, ACCA etc., are subject to proper professional standards and then naming those who failed to live up to it – within the normal and limited restrictions imposed by libel and defamation.  It would only seem fair that a business so challenged should have access to those standard defences.
  3. There should be no need for extra time limits.  If the time limits are not long enough then that should be addressed generally.  HMRC needs sufficient resources generally to carry on, but that compliance effort should be targeted widely and fairly.  By all means focus sensibly on perceived targets and risk areas.  It is sensible.  However, all should be equal before the law and it is not just this week’s ‘Group Hate’ Victim.  Others may turn out to be equally naughty.

III         Penalties for Users of Failed Schemes

  1. My experience both as an advisor and Inspector of Taxes is that people do not like the risk of litigation, let alone the consequences of losing.  If a judicial decision goes against them, or their technical stance most well advised litigants will be only too willing to drop the case and ‘amend’ their returns.  I would therefore be surprised if there was evidence that taxpayers were simply ‘stringing things out’, because of the resulting high professional cost to them.
  2. It follows that the risks of failure with costs being awarded against them are already a dis-incentive to taxpayers, in which case there should be no requirement for a ‘penalty’.  This would just seem to be an arbitrary risk to be imposed by HMRC for going second, enabling them to bully taxpayers into settling where in law they may have valid distinguishing features.

CONCLUSION

I used the words ‘wrongheaded’ to describe the proposals.  In my view this is because it is seeking statutory measures to try to solve a problem of resources.  HMRC does not need more powers, it needs the personnel, resources and training to impose the powers it already has.

In the 17th Century Governments chased lawless behaviour by imposing greater and greater sentences on people without really addressing the probability of being caught.  It resulted in the saying that someone ‘might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb’, because the sentences got so arbitrary that sheep stealing was a capital offence.  Tax compliance is a delicate flower.  It has been nurtured over time by HMRC fairness and the associated co-operation resulting from qualified professionals.  It is never going to be perfect, but generally I believe the profession wishes to continue to help by encouraging good compliance.  However, this will not happen if they are bullied out of explaining reliefs and the ‘upside’ of compliance.  That is another way of interpreting the tendency for professionals to avoid giving tax advice.

I think it unlikely there would be a change of behaviour by diligent professionals.  It will follow the financial services advice model of 20 years ago, where independent professionals will be excluded with the result that clients will go to the unscrupulous.  Reality in the commercial world being as it is, I fear clients would be likely to refuse to pay fees to learn what they are not allowed to do, without associated sensible advice on what they may do lawfully.

Whilst I still have admiration for many HMRC staff, the fact remains it has suffered and is suffering from a lack of trained staff, and people who are authorised to take decisions.  My colleague was on the phone for 1 hour this morning (without getting through) to ask why we were being threatened with penalties for ‘failing’ to file a form which has already been filed.  Currently, I have more than 1 case where we have written to HMRC to try to pay extra tax due but have been ignored or fobbed off for over a year.  Give HMRC the resources to do their job properly.  Do not impose extra arbitrary penalties and lose the sympathy of the majority.  When HMRC think it ‘reasonable’ to seek penalties for a ‘late return’ when it was actually lodged 10 days early as they did recently [Estate of Teresa Rosenbaum (deceased) 2013].  I fear they risk moving the rather fickle mood of public opinion against them.  It is an example of a bullying bureaucratic mind set which promotes a natural fear that, if not now, at some stage in the future, the arbitrary powers envisaged by the Consultative Document may be misused – to the detriment of us all as free citizens supposedly equal under the law.

I recommend the provisions are abandoned.  Use the money to train some Inspectors.

Paul Eaves”

The ICAEW has issued guidance to its member accountants to consider when dealing with potential tax avoidance schemes for their clients.

Whilst such tax avoidance may be legal, the question of ethical behaviour is also brought into play by the guidance.  The guidance probably is to some extent a response to recent press coverage regarding certain artificial tax planning schemes and their use by celebrities.

The ICAEW recommend that amongst other tools/methods at their disposal, the advisor should use their own judgement on whether the scheme is artificial or not by considering the following:

  • The scheme is too good to be true
  • Apparently guaranteed returns with no risk
  • Confidentiality Agreements
  • Scheme Promoter lending funds
  • Offshore companies, trusts and tax havens are involved for no reason
  • Over complex arrangements for what is required

Eaves and Co recently conducted a poll on Linkedin regarding attitudes to tax avoidance and found that respondents generally view tax avoidance as acceptable, whether it is ethical or not as long as it does not become illegal. Some respondents also argued that such opportunities for tax avoidance have come about as a lack of simplicity in the legislation of the UK tax system.  The poll results may not be representative of a full cross section of society.

At Eaves & Co we believe that bespoke tax planning that fits with the business’ or individual’s commercial requirements is much more appropriate than using one-size fits all tax avoidance arrangements.

Highly aggressive tax-avoidance scheme, Sign, ...
Highly aggressive tax-avoidance scheme sign. Pearson Airport, Toronto, Canada (Photo credit: gruntzooki)

With the recent furore regarding complex tax avoidance schemes, as tax specialists we thought we could share our reasons for not generally getting involved in such schemes.

For users of aggressive schemes, before the introduction of DOTAS, it was a question of hoping the scheme went under the radar, but now this is almost impossible (as shown by the rise in the number of media oustings).  It is now a question of waiting for an enquiry to begin, and hoping that when it does, the scheme is water tight.  More often than not the age old adage applies, that if something seems too good to be true, it is.

The majority of such schemes fail and the client is forced to pay the tax, interest and possibly penalties in addition to the high planning fee.  This can leave a sour taste in the mouth for the client, with them unlikely to come back for repeat business.

With the introduction of the general anti-abuse rule announced in the latest budget, the scope for such schemes is to be narrowed even further; a point which appears to have been conveniently forgotten by the country’s media.

At Eaves & Co we pride ourselves in providing bespoke tax planning which works; this is simply not possible to achieve using one-size fits all tax avoidance schemes.  Therefore with client satisfaction and value for money as our main aims we steer well clear of providing or recommending such schemes.

We find that genuine tax planning provides a robust position for the client and gives them more comfort that the planning works and will not be counteracted at some point in the future.  There is less chance (although obviously the risk is still present) of costly and time-consuming correspondence and litigation involving HMRC.  This is because the planning is specific to the actual facts relating to the client, taking into account their needs and commercial aims.  The client has more peace of mind.

We are keen to maintain a good reputation and build on-going relationships with the tax authorities and working within the spirit of the law is an important aspect of this.

In 2005/06 and 2006/07 three taxpayers created  losses using a tax avoidance scheme.  The taxpayers then claimed the losses against capital gains on their self-assessment tax returns.

The taxpayers included sufficient information regarding the transactions in the additional information section of the tax returns.  As required, the tax returns also revealed the scheme’s Reference Number under the disclosure of tax avoidance scheme (DOTAS) rules.

The scheme in question was subsequently found to be ineffective.

HMRC did not open an enquiry into the taxpayers return in time and therefore instead made a discovery assessment in respect of the gains.

The taxpayers appealed.

The tribunal found that the discovery assessments were not valid.  The judge said that while HMRC had made a discovery within TMA 1970 s.29(1), the taxpayers were protected from the discovery assessment by virtue of TMA 1970 s29(5) as they had provided adequate information to allow the assessments to have been made in time.

The judge stated that ‘no officer could have missed the point that an artificial tax avoidance scheme had been implemented’ and it seemed ‘perfectly obvious’ that no one had ‘even looked at the returns’.

The case highlights the importance of disclosing sufficient additional information in the ‘white space’ of a tax return to protect against a future discovery assessment.