Public tax returns the answer

Here’s a shameless plug for something else we do at Accountancy Age that you may not know about. I’ve been listening to the Insider Business Club this morning on tax avoidance.

Senior advisers (Chas Roy-Chowdhury of the ACCA, Mike Warburton of Grant Thornton and John Cullinane, president of the CIOT and also of Deloitte) were discussing the latest moves to crack down on abusive, and not so abusive avoidance, a hot topic, as nobody really needs reminding. If you go to the website you should be able to download it and listen again if you missed it this morning.

Some bright spark (well, OK, it was me) suggested that one way to beat the really abusive avoidance schemes, which we all know are deeply artificial (see the following case of a city headhunter who used complicated bond purchases to avoid paying income tax), was to make tax returns public.

That, I think, would shame people who used complicated schemes. If you were a rich city figure pondering an offshore set-up that the media would then pick up from your return, would you be so happy about signing on the dotted line and entering into a series of thirty nonsensical transactions designed solely to avoid tax?

People would obviously have a problem with that, but I can’t really see any good reason why. If you’re entering into a complicated offshore scheme to use a loophole in the law to avoid paying a tax I have to pay, I want to know about it. It’s just not good enough to hide on these things.

Most of the people who use these schemes are extremely rich. Society has done them extraordinarily good turns, and they don’t feel able to give something back by paying their tax bills. It may be legal, but it is deeply unethical. It’s a question of good citizenship, really.

I have to say I also like Mike Warburton’s definition of what an adviser should not recommend. It’s not just a question of legality, he says, but also a question of whether you would be embarrassed explaining it to a high court judge. If it stinks, it stinks.

Both ideas rely on the notion that people would be embarrassed by their avoidance of tax. My only worry, and this is borne out by bitter experience of writing about tax schemes, is that some people have no sense of shame.

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