Tax avoiders like Jimmy Carr have nothing to fear from Osborne

The Chancellor's plans will allow the vast majority of tax avoidance to continue uninterrupted.

"I regard tax evasion and indeed aggressive tax avoidance as morally repugnant." So said George Osborne in his Budget speech in March.  I hope he meant it. The trouble is he has not evidenced it.

Last week, the government started a consultation on the introduction of what is, in effect, the tax anti-avoidance rule recommended  by Graham Aaranson QC as a result of a review Osborne commissioned in 2010. The government says that this is a general anti-avoidance rule. The trouble is that is precisely what it isn’t.

I can say that with confidence. Aaranson himself said in his report:

I have concluded that introducing a broad spectrum general anti-avoidance rule would not be beneficial for the UK tax system. 

In other words, what Aaranson suggested was not a general anti-avoidance rule. He did instead propose:

[I]ntroducing a moderate rule which does not apply to responsible tax planning, and is instead targeted at abusive arrangements, would be beneficial for the UK tax system.

The trouble is that his plan – now adopted almost wholesale by the government - is intended as a result to only attack what he described as the "most egregious" tax abuse schemes. I met with Aaranson during his review process. What he clearly meant was that his intention was that the vast majority of tax planning should continue uninterrupted. Indeed, he says in his report that a broadly based general anti-avoidance rule

Would carry a real risk of undermining the ability of business and individuals to carry out sensible and responsible tax planning.  Such tax planning is an entirely appropriate response to the complexities of a tax system such as the UK’s. 

May would disagree. He was also worried that such a scheme:

Would also inevitably in practice give discretionary power to HMRC who would effectively become the arbiter of the limits of responsible tax planning. 

To make sure that didn’t happen he wanted representatives of the tax profession – dedicated almost solely to tax avoidance as it is – to decide which schemes were acceptable or not. That’s like putting the foxes in charge of the hen house.

That’s why I doubt that Osborne is committed to tackling tax avoidance. And it is why I have always supported a general anti-avoidance principle in the UK, and not a general anti-avoidance rule. As a tax avoidance specialist said in the Times (£) today:

It’s a game of cat and mouse. The revenue closes one scheme, we find a way round it.

That is what happens when you have a rule. A principle is something quite different. It looks at intent. It is not about box ticking, as rules are (which is why they are so easy to get round - general anti-avoidance rules included). It is about looking at what you did and using that evidence to assess on the balance of probabilities what your intentions were.

So, if, for example, you arranged your affairs so that you provided your services via a series of companies, one of which happened to be in Jersey which lent you back the tax free income it had received so that you appeared to have no legal requirement to pay tax in a way that a more commercially obvious arrangement might have given rise to then it would be reasonable for someone – and I think that someone should be HM Revenue & Customs – to decide you’re tax avoiding. And if that’s what they decide then if we had a general anti-avoidance principle they could say that the scheme was abusive and take the obvious step of simply ignoring all the steps put into the arrangement likely to be solely or mainly included to save tax. They’d then tax the commercial substance of the deal and not the artificial arrangement put in place solely to avoid tax.

Of course any such HMRC ruling would be subject to appeal to the courts, but the taxpayer would have to show why the scheme was not tax avoidance: the burden of proof would be on them.

This changes the way we assess tax in the UK, without doubt, and in a way Aaranson and Osborne clearly do not intend. But even the Times said today in its leader:

The British tax system is unfair. It charges the vast majority of people the basic rate of income tax, and expects them to pay. It asks a minority to pay higher rates of tax, and then invites them to avoid it.

That is true. A general anti-avoidance principle rather than a general anti-avoidance rule would radically change this and would provide the power needed to deliver a fair tax system in the UK. That’s why Michael Meacher MP is tabling a private member’s bill to introduce a general anti-avoidance principle into UK tax law this week.

It’s what the Times wants. It’s what the UK needs. But will Osborne find the moral will to back it?

Comedian Jimmy Carr channels proceeds from DVD sales and television appearances through a Jersey-based company. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Murphy is an adviser to the Tax Justice Network and the TUC on taxation and economic issues. He is also the director of Tax Research LLP.

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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