Tax return done? Nah, I've offshored myself

Never mind trying to minimise your tax liability - it's surprisingly easy just to take yourself completely offshore and pay no tax at all, says Willard Foxton.

As I'm self-employed, I realised with some horror the other day that my tax return was due soon. In journalism, every year at this time of year, there's a frantic scrabble between friends seeking advice from one another - should you go on schedule D? Should you VAT register? Where did I put that carrier bag of moth-eaten and crumpled receipts? Can I claim back that strip bar we were "undercover" in?

In previous years, I've often come in for mockery from my mates, because I don't even claim VAT back. I don't have a service company, like 90 per cent of freelancers and many politicians. I just declare my full income, and then pay tax on it. Why? Well... I think that's the moral thing to do. Unpopular view, I realise. Maybe it makes me an idiot. However, I don't feel like a company, or an entrepreneur taking a risk, in need of tax breaks. I'm not going to get on my high horse about it - it's my decision. That said, at global champagne and lobster fest Davos, David Cameron said sensible tax planning is OK - which of course poses the question, where do you draw the line?

I've always though, if I was going to do the tax-dodging thing, I wouldn't do it in a mealy-mouthed, Ken-Livingstone-style, by setting up a company and filtering all my expenses through it. I'd go the full-bore Amazon/Starbucks/Google route of just trying to avoid tax completely. Given the choice between writing a column, and filing my tax return, I decided to see if I could easily offshore myself, using just the internet, with no specialist advice.

I expected it to be quite hard. That I'd need sixteen highly paid unscrupulous lawyers and a copy of Tolley's tax guide in front of me. Actually, it wasn't hard, at all.

First off, I had to choose my tax haven. Now, all the classics - Cayman Islands, Channel Islands, Luxembourg, Monaco, all seemed a bit passé, full of the kind of permatanned Eurotrash in white chinos who might try to bum cigarettes from me while I was relaxing on my yacht. I decided on the Marshall Islands, a Pacific archipelago which my grandfather visited with the British Pacific Fleet in 1945, which he described in his diaries as a "festering hole, stinking of excrement... heat unbearable".

I then googled the phrase "Marshall Islands Tax Haven", and on the first page of results, came across the Hong Kong-based company that the Marshall Islands have outsourced their company registration to. They have a 24-hour company registration hotline, which I of course called. I explained to the nice lady I spoke to that I wanted to set up a company in the Islands, with the aim of minimizing my tax exposure and making it hard for anyone to find out about my finances.

She explained to me I could have that within 24 hours. In addition to a zero tax jurisdiction, I was also getting a complete waiver on my corporate liability, no corporate filing obligations, total secrecy for my shareholders, and a complete waiver on any need to file accounting returns or prepare accounts for audit. For a small extra fee, they also offered to set me up a bank account in my choice of Hong Kong, Singapore or Shanghai (with debit cards, so I could spend in the UK, of course).

The total cost of the full package was about £900 - about one-thirteenth of what I'm due to fork over to HMRC by 31 January. Of course, as an added benefit, I'd never have to pay tax ever again. As their website states "in this modern age with the high quality of services available, offshore is now a relatively simple and affordable procedure for almost anyone. Once having moved all or part of your business offshore, the savings made by the low-tax or tax-free status opens up a whole new world of investment and business opportunities".

Unfortunately, when I mentioned to the lady that I'd like to write up the experience for a newspaper, she hung up the phone on me, so I guess I'll have to submit that tax return after all.

But in case you think "well, this is all very well, but I doubt it would really work", the company I spoke to really does hold the rights to administer corporate registrations for the Marshall Islands, and if HMRC wanted to find out about my tax affairs, it would have to investigate my affairs, find my Hong Kong bank account (numbered of course, not named), then issue proceedings in both China and the Marshall Islands. It's probable the game isn't worth the candle for HMRC if you're a lowly TV producer, rather than say, someone as rich as Mitt Romney. If the Marshall Islands don't take your fancy, there are plenty of firms offering to offshore you to Panama, Belize, the Caymans or Cyprus, who are using Google Adwords to show up to those googling "Marshall Islands Tax Haven".

I spoke with a tax expert about whether the structure I'd been offered would be legal. He said, in no uncertain terms "what you're suggesting would be a crime. Admittedly, a crime that's relatively easy to commit and relatively hard to investigate." He did also concede that with a little tweaking, it could be made kosher, but that it would be unlikely to be worthwhile legally for people with incomes under £150,000 a year. Still, that salary wouldn't exactly put me in the ranks of the super-rich; I probably wouldn't be troubling Abramovich to buy Chelsea. Maybe something like Folkestone Invicta FC . . .

Still, what the experiment showed me was that in the online age, international tax dodging doesn't have to be (and probably isn't) the preserve of multi-national mega corporations. In the connected, globalised world of the internet, it's very easy to find a tax haven, and the companies and consultancies who offer to move you (or your business) to one are easily available. It's probably something governments should be looking into stopping before it becomes more common.

Willard Foxton is a freelance journalist, who tweets @WillardFoxton

The Marshall Islands - solution to all your not-wanting-to-pay-any-tax problems. 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.