Osborne’s shock strikes advisors as strange

IN AN ARTICLE that appeared in the Daily Telegraph over Easter, the chancellor expressed disbelief that, when presented with the tax returns for 20 of the UK’s wealthiest residents, between them they had legitimately mitigated their income tax payments to the tune of £145m.

Often this is achieved by utilising loopholes allowing them to offset the cost of business mortgages or borrowing buy-to-let properties against their income tax bills and taking advantage of tax relief on charitable donations.

Given that, the question surely is whether Osborne was aware of the issue and what if anything, he can do about it?

The news that Britain’s very richest are reducing the amount of income tax they pay will not have shocked many, so that the chancellor has publically declared his disbelief might be cause for concern for his ministerial peers, believe advisors.

“I’m very surprised this is a shock to anyone,” says Richard Mannion, national tax director at Smith & Williamson, “I would have thought it would have been easy for someone to interrogate their computer.”

Indeed, the consensus seems to be that it is important to not inflate the scale of the problem. The Telegraph‘s sample is 20-strong, and as such tax experts warn against drawing sweeping conclusions.

Osborne’s options for addressing the loophole are not great. The first move he has looked to make is to impose a cap on charitable giving in order to plug the loophole.

HM Revenue & Customs’ (HMRC) own study found that multi-millionaires use tax-planning schemes to reduce their income taxes by an average of 10%. Concerns are great that, while dodging tax through charities is abhorrent, slashing reliefs is untargeted.

“Of course, that individuals are offsetting their income tax against charities is plain wrong, but the line between tax planning and avoidance is a long, long way away,” says Baker Tilly head of tax George Bull.

Mannion adds: “There is a lot of misinformation around and many high earners are true philanthropists. This catches the innocent as well as the guilty.”

For Mannion, this step seems to be a ham-fisted approach.

“A fairer way would be a minimum tax imposed on top earners – X per cent of their income – instead of this blunderbuss approach,” says Mannion.

Bull concurs: “The government ought to take a deep breath and think about what it wants to do. The politics of envy will not produce a coherent tax system. Every time you block a loophole, you create another opportunity.”

According to HMRC’s own data, fewer than 20% of this country’s taxpayers pay more than half the tax. Indeed, in 2011-12, the Treasury estimates that the top 5% paid 47% of all income tax, while the bottom 50% paid some 10% of all tax.

In light of these figures, Bull calls for perspective: “My big plea is: can we have some reality?”

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