Why any tax avoidance "clampdown" is a ridiculous game of whack-a-mole

Danny Alexander's "mansion tax lite" has been torpedoed by oligarchs claiming their £2m+ properties are "open to the public". It shows how hard it is to stop the rich - and their lawyers - finding creative ways to beat the taxman.

In all the furore around the Budget, the Spending Review and so on, many have ignored the introduction of the Lib Dems so-called "mansion tax for tax-dodgers". This "tax", which only affects properties worth over £2m, was actually the closing of a loophole. 

The loophole in question - which allowed people to avoid stamp duty on expensive properties using offshore companies - was theoretically sealed from the start of April. A super-duty of 15 per cent was imposed on the purchase of properties worth more than £2m by companies; and an annual charge of up to £140,000 every year was levied on them once they were bought.

Well, in theory, at least. Like almost everything else the Lib Dems have promised to do, this has all fallen down around their ears. Why? Well, that's all down to clever tax lawyers seeing a new loophole, accidentally provided by short-term lettings website Air BnB.

You see, there's an exemption written into the rules, which lets off properties which are "open to the public" from the new tax. It's meant to exempt stately homes and museums, which are often private homes but open for viewing over the summer, and quite legitimately put the earnings from the tea room into a company. No one wanted them to be hit with a levy intended to stop tax-dodging oligarchs.

Of course, when you close a loophole intended for oligarchs, you'd better be sure not to open another, or their lawyers will spot it. One bright tax lawyer came up with the idea that if you offer to let out your property - regardless of whether you actually let out - it's technically "open to the public", in that literally anyone could pay to go and stay there. Provided, of course, they can afford whatever you are charging.

It's probably pretty reasonable to charge a fortune for your One Hyde Park flat, given the amenities, which include all your mail being X-rayed, iris recognition in the lifts, panic rooms, bomb-proof windows, a 21-metre swimming pool, a cinema, a golf simulator, a wine cellar and room service via a secret tunnel from the five-star Mandarin Oriental hotel next door.

So, you advertise your One Hyde Park flat (registered to an offshore company, of course - as 59 out of 77 flats in the building are) on Air BnB, no one volunteers to pay the huge fee you ask for, and you save yourself 140 grand in tax. Worst case scenario, you have to let out your flat to someone, but you probably don't care, because you can arrange to be skiing in Gstaad for that week anyway.

Some of the properties currently being offered on AirBnb are at eye-wateringly high prices. While there is no evidence that, for example, this £3,175 a night flat is using the loophole I've described - I can confirm from a tax lawyer for a major firm (who asked not to be named) - that offering your flat out to rent has become the standard advice being doled out to his firm's "high net worth clients".

So, Air BnB will doing brisk - perfectly legal - business as every oligarch and his babushka registers. And no one who is well advised will pay the Mansion Tax-lite. And the Lib Dem plan is yet another failure. Thanks internet!

Of course, while there is some schadenfreude to be had from yet another Lib Dem flagship policy running aground on the rocks of reality, it's also a salutary lesson for policy makers on the sheer difficulty of clamping down on tax avoidance. Even if they close the "AirBnB loophole", the lawyers of the rich will find another, as long as the "open to the public" exemption still exists.

This story is a great example of how the government's attempts to clamp down on tax avoidance amount to a ridiculous game of whack-a-mole - if we want to get serious about tackling tax avoidance, what we need is root and branch reform, not tinkering at the edges. Put away the mallet, George, and pick up a bazooka.

One Hyde Park in London: many of its apartments are owned by companies in the British Virgin Islands. Photograph: Getty Images

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.