Dealing with tax avoidance: why Australians do it better than the Brits

"Australia is a highly tax compliant country."

The Public Accounts Committee said last month that the UK should look to the Australian model for tackling tax avoidance. Paul Stacey, head of tax policy at the Institute of Chartered Accountants Australia, explains how their system works.

The importance of a good tax system design to sustain government revenues has always been apparent. For many nations, the continuing weakness in revenues following the global financial crisis has made this priority even clearer. In this climate, differing approaches to tax avoidance have become a focal point for discussion, and in the United Kingdom and Australia, this is no exception.

Both nations continue to grapple with issues of design, in both tax law and tax administration, on how best to limit the impact of tax avoidance on revenue collection.

In the United Kingdom, the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts report on Tax avoidance: tackling marketing avoidance schemes "encourage[d] HRMC to look seriously at whether [the Australian approach] could be effective in the UK."

Jennie Granger, HMRC’s current director general of enforcement & compliance and a former Australian Tax Office (ATO) deputy commissioner, in evidence to the committee, ascribed Australia’s success in dealing with mass marketed tax avoidance schemes to product rulings and the promoter penalty legislation, both of which she said worked well.

The Australian approach to mass marketed or retail tax avoidance schemes thus comprises, from a tax system design perspective, two parts – one part a tax administration solution, the other a tax law design solution.

The first part is product rulings which the ATO first started issuing in 1998. The genius of this idea is that it embedded the idea of an ATO sign off into the marketing of these retail tax schemes. This changed market and investor practice - put simply, if a scheme lacked ATO sign off it became much harder to market.

This change in market behaviour meant that, in turn, that the ATO could choke off supply at the source by issuing a negative product ruling for those schemes which it regarded as offensive. Investors could also rely on the product ruling when self assessing their tax position.

However, the success of the promoter penalty rules – the tax law solution, which came into effect on 6 April 2006 – is less evident. There has only been one case to date, which the ATO convincingly lost.

Granger suggested much of the success of these rules lay in "enforceable undertakings" entered into with advisors which restrict their conduct. But these enforceable undertakings are, by their nature, confidential and hence their existence, or not, will be unknown externally. Nor does the ATO publicly disclose the number of these agreements signed. The success of this part of the Australian solution remains unclear and is not communicated to the public.

Moreover, it should be remembered that Australia is a highly tax compliant country. Its tax collection system is a self-assessment model under which taxpayers assess their own tax liabilities and then remit these to the ATO. That model is bolstered by various withholding measures which limit the opportunity to avoid remitting tax.

The ATO is well resourced, well motivated, and equipped with extensive legal powers. For example, Australia has had a tax general anti-avoidance rule for over 30 years and, as long ago as December 1996, the High Court dismissed the relevance of the Duke of Westminster principle to Australia as merely the ‘muffled echoes of old arguments concerning other legislation’.

In these circumstances tax avoidance is at the margins of Australian economic activity, rather than front and foremost of mind.

This article first appeared on economia

Photograph: Getty Images

Paul Stacey FCA is head of tax policy at the Institute of Chartered Accountants Australia

Photo: Getty Images
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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 50p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.