Tax has rarely been off the front page in recent years, and certainly in the past week or so. However, while much of the previous debate over what should or shouldn’t be paid, and by whom, has targeted corporations or individuals dealing in complicated financial plans purely and simply to cut their tax bills owed, much of what has come out over the weekend has instead been aimed at tax planning of a more sensible and appropriate nature.
Few of us are likely to benefit from a £200,000 Potentially Exempt Transfer (PET) given to us by a surviving parent in the same way that the Prime Minister has done. Many more of us are, however, likely to receive some form of gift that is exempt from Inheritance Tax (IHT) at some point in our lifetime.
For example, a gift of £5,000 or less made by a parent at the time of their child’s wedding is automatically exempt, while anything given for this purpose above £5,000 receives the same PET treatment as the money received by David Cameron.
The above is, ultimately, legitimate tax mitigation through making use of current UK legislation introduced specifically to enable citizens to pass money to someone else, and either possibly or actually avoid a future IHT charge.
Therefore, if it is wrong for Cameron to benefit from the receipt of a PET, then the logic is that it would similarly make it wrong for anyone else who is a UK citizen to benefit from the receipt of a PET.
For well over a decade now, there has been a blurring of the distinction between tax ‘avoidance’ and tax ’evasion’. The former – while it undoubtedly takes a myriad of different forms, not all of which are universally popular – is all about organising affairs according to UK legislation in order to minimise a tax liability, while the latter is illegal.
The problem is that the conflation of the two words has resulted in some perfectly legitimate tax planning being perceived to be inappropriate. This has included the use of legislation in order to mitigate IHT, or even investing into a pension, being called into question by some – even extending to instances where individuals have used legislation enacted precisely for that purpose.
At the heart of the problem is “tax planning”; at the vanilla end of the spectrum tax planning is merely about such decisions as whether I should maximize my ISA allowance, fund additional contributions into a pension or when the optimum time is to purchase an asset for my business. However, at the other end of the scale, a whole industry has grown up in the last decade centered around creating complex tax schemes. These schemes often involve a series of steps that would, if followed, result in a transaction not being taxable. The problem is that the steps are often artificial and put in place with one sole objective in mind, to avoid tax.
Successive governments have implemented a raft of anti-avoidance legislation, which has significantly reduced taxpayers’ appetites for what can only be described as aggressive forms of tax planning.
The decision by Cameron, Corbyn, Sturgeon et al to publish their tax-returns may in some ways invite an air of greater transparency, and at times like this where there are heightened sensitivities around the topic it is perhaps understandable why there is a clamour for people in public office or in the public eye to be subject to this transparency. But tax returns should largely remain a private matter between the taxpayer and HMRC.
I for one do not consider it helpful for the larger debate around unlawful or unethical tax practices, to apply criticism and pressure to anyone mitigating their tax charge, in circumstances where they are merely making legitimate use of UK legislation in a lawful and appropriate way.
Brian Palmer is the tax policy adviser for AAT.