Tax Avoidance And Unintended Consequences

Monday, 15 October 2012
By Chris Yapp

One of the disciplines within futures work is to start by looking backwards. If you want to look forward say 20 years, start by looking at how we got to where we are today looking back at least 20 years.

In the Age of Austerity, the sense of fairness, or lack of it, over taxation, be it personal or corporate, bubbles to the surface very frequently. Yet today's problems are often the results of yesterday’s solutions. This observation in Peter Senge’s “Fifth Discipline” is often missing from the media and political discussion or under-examined by bodies such as the Public Accounts Committee.

In the design of the single European Market, to minimise the costs of doing business, it was an important design feature that a company would not have to register in each member state in order to do business in that country. The costs, particularly for SMEs would be prohibitive. This was presented as a triumph of British negotiation in the late 80s. This in turn was added to by the EU E-Commerce directive, notably in the country-of-origin rule. Again further success of British negotiation was claimed. Roll forward to today and you discover that huge corporations are paying no corporation tax in the UK despite large revenues.

I would argue that much of the corporate tax avoidance claimed is actually a design feature of the single market.

The problem is that the UK Tax regulations have evolved and grown to deal with individual issues into such a maze of complexity that it is difficult for any large organisation to know if it is actually in compliance. I am not here defending tax avoidance. I think that in a world of e-commerce, cross border transactions and a digital economy that corporate taxation is either broke or as near to dead as to be indistinguishable from that state.

Has the time come to rethink the principles of corporate taxation? My concern is that the current system is not fit for purpose, be it in the UK or internationally. It has come to the end of the evolutionary road. To achieve a lasting sense of fairness and to enable commerce to flourish, evolution of the current system will add to, not solve, the problem.

Similarly, I remember in the 1990s being at a meeting where BBC Producer Choice was being explained. Many of the questions then about the design of the system, the internal market, are so close to today’s problems, even though Producer Choice was stopped some time ago. To meet the aspirations some people employed by the BBC would need to leave, set up their own businesses and trade back to the BBC. Moving from employees to suppliers and partners was a design feature of the exercise. Bingo! The BBC is now accused of engaging in tax avoidance because employees of old are now suppliers operating through their trading companies.

The problem is that individual taxation is still trying to work against a model of lifelong jobs and the 9-5 job.

In a world of more freelancers and portfolio working (where I now am, after years in the corporate world) the system of taxation is lagging behind the real world.

I was involved in meetings with ministers and officials when IR35 was introduced because of the impact it was having on IT contractors. An example might illustrate the problem.

On an 18 month project there may be roles for individuals in the team which mean that nearly all their income may come from a single source. When the project ends the individual moves on. IR35 argued that this was tax avoidance because they were “really” employed. Often the skill sets may be project specific and there would be no long-term future in the employing organisation. That was ignored by the Inland Revenue. Importantly, my experience was with the “psychological” contract not the “employment” contract.

I spent an evening in a pub (not a rare occurrence) trying to dissuade a talented individual from walking out on a project in mid-stream. The problem was simple. Someone had offered him a job!

The words were along the lines of: “I’ve worked here for a year. If you don’t know me by now, then I’m off. I don’t want to be an employee”.

The shift from PAYE to self-employment means that the monthly unemployment figures increasingly miss the issue of under-employment among the “self-employed” and at the same time make forecasting government revenues much tougher.

Would it not be better to make everyone “self-employed”? Continuity of pension and other arrangements would be more sensible and achievable than lots of fragmented pots of contribution-defined arrangements. Simplifying the personal taxation regime alongside some basic values rather than the complex rules would surely make notions of fairness more readily achievable.

The central aim of Long Finance is to answer the question “when would we know our finance system is working?” I don’t think that that is achievable with a creaking tax system that will become less fit in time to meet the needs of the economy and wider society.

As an image, Monty Python’s Dead Parrot comes to mind.

So, what slogan will rally us all to the cause?

No representation without taxation!

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