Where the tax burden falls

Where does the tax burden fall, and why do loopholes help the rich?

The TPA's Matthew Sinclair has produced an interesting graph from HMRC's data on the share of income, which charts clearly what it means to have a progressive taxation system (click for big, and note that the top four categories are equal in size to one of the other four; the top 25 per cent has been split up to better show the progressive nature of the system):

Mulling over Osborne's tycoon tax, Sinclair provides an example of a tax "loophole" which he thinks is anything but – loss relief:

Suppose you make a £15 million loss one year, then enjoy a £15 million income the next year. How much have you made overall? £0. If you get full loss relief then you will be taxed on that basis and pay nothing, as you have no income to pay from. If your loss relief is capped at 25 per cent of your income, as the Government seems to be proposing, then you presumably have to pay tax on over £10 million. From an income of £0. Good luck.

It is difficult to argue with the ideal of loss relief; people shouldn't be penalised by being taxed exorbitantly on multiple years' income just because they happen to receive the actual payment in one lump sum. But the existence of loss relief is also a wonderful example of a tax system built with one set of rules for the rich, and another set for everyone else.

Suppose a different pattern of income: You are a novelist working for £10,000 a year, barely supporting yourself while you write on the evenings and weekends. (For simplicity's sake, lets set this in 2015 when the 10k tax threshold is in effect). After five years, your book takes off, and you earn a quarter of a million in a year. Not only are you paying income tax for the first time in your life, you are straight in at the top rate.

In this situation, can you claim tax relief? Of course not. You pay your tax for the year your income comes in, and if you took a hit in earlier years, that's something you have to suck up. Yet if that quarter of a million had been spread out over the five years before, you would have paid at least £50,000 less in tax.

It's easy to see why this isn't the case. It would be hell to administer, and would basically end up with everyone paying tax on their average lifetime earnings. Yet this awkwardness results in a tax system which allows relief for those who are in a position to gamble millions on a business, but not those who can only gamble thousands on a career. It's a pattern repeated throughout the tax system, but as we've seen with the charity debacle, while these loopholes are used, they will be very hard indeed to close.

The BP board, 1960. These gentlemen are probably the 1%. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.