Seven fines in five years for undisclosed avoidance schemes

by Beth Abel

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20 Feb 2013

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HM Revenue and Customs

HM REVENUE & CUSTOMS has issued just seven fines in the last five years to tax avoidance scheme promoters.

The fines, worth a combined total of £55,000, were handed to those "failing properly to notify HMRC of new schemes", said Bloomsbury Professional, a tax and accounting information group.

The group said the low number of accountancy firms and other tax advisers fined suggests that instances of abusive tax avoidance are lower than political rhetoric suggests.

Martin Casimir, managing director at Bloomsbury, said HMRC has been "ramping up its compliance activity lately", but suggested the figures show that there is "not necessarily a major compliance problem on the reporting of avoidance schemes".

"It appears that the vast majority of accountancy firms and other tax advisers are very much playing by the rules," he said.

He added it is HMRC's responsibility to ensure the schemes reported to them are "dealt with appropriately", and non-compliant schemes closed down.

Scheme promoters have to register new avoidance schemes with HMRC under the Disclosure of Tax Avoidance Schemes regime (DOTAS). Since DOTAS was implemented in 2004, 2,289 tax avoidance schemes have been reported to HMRC, resulting in at least 93 changes to tax laws made by parliament.

Casimir said: "Where there is a problem with the current tax avoidance regime, then it could be down to HMRC. On a limited budget, HMRC might be struggling to properly assess all the avoidance schemes reported to it, so that it can quickly decide which schemes are acceptable and which are ‘abusive'."

A General Anti-Abuse Rule (GAAR) is a broad principle-based rule meant to deter tax avoidance. It is hoped by the UK government that a single clear-cut rule would help fill the gaps left by existing specific anti-avoidance legislation.

Introducing a GAAR could have "a big impact on the UK tax system", said Casimir.

"The GAAR could have unintended consequences and could mean that what is currently understood as legitimate tax planning falls foul of the rules."

He added that implementing a GAAR based on what appears to be "a very minor compliance problem" would be like "using a sledgehammer to crack a nut".

HMRC has been contacted for comment.

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