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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder