As we face the final run up to the Autumn Statement tomorrow, and we prepare for the whoops or cries of the special interest groups as they are pleased or disappointed, the fears and concerns of both Brexiteers and Remainers and the uncertain post Trump election world we face, I’ve been struck by just how confusing and contradictory the world of tax has become. How the trust we place in our tax regime and those who administer it has been damaged.
Indulge me a while.
Last week two very good thought leadership pieces have been published by one of my firm’s competitors – PwC. The first looked at global tax competitiveness. It reflected the fact that on the report’s measures, the UK is now in the top ten of competitive tax regimes around the globe. However, they suggested that the UK could become more competitive if the main rate of Corporate Tax was reduced further. It is already forecast to reduce to 17% by 2020 and there have been claims and suggestions, reinforced by the Prime Minister at the CBI conference yesterday, that 15% would make the UK even more competitive.
Roll forward twenty four hours and PwC report in their ‘Future Tax’ research that 71% of business surveyed believe that Corporation Tax should stay at 20% or not progress below the 17% slated for 2020. This latter point reaffirms research findings from Grant Thornton International Limited last year. We surveyed corporates around the globe and found that the majority would pay the same or even higher taxes in return for certainty and stability.
In my experience this rings true. As I said at a hearing of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Responsible Tax last week, corporates do not plan in short term horizons, and fundamentally hate knee jerk change, often driven by ‘events’. This is particularly true for larger corporates whose investment, recruitment and research plans have time horizons across many years.
It is for this reason that my firm, Grant Thornton UK, believes that now is the time to consider a regime whereby corporates and HMRC can enter into binding tax agreements, transparent to the public and other stakeholders, so as to provide that certainty for planning.
So, should the UK indulge in a race to the bottom on tax rates? Hungary have just announced a reduction in their corporate rate to 9%, the lowest in the EU, in the hope of becoming more competitive. Mmmm. So what is used to fill this tax gap, to raise the taxes necessary to provide a stable and vibrant Hungarian economy, one in which all have a chance to share in society? In Hungary’s case it is Value Added Tax (VAT). In some respects, in a globally mobile world indirect taxes represent a solution to address the old style approach to taxation – of taxing according to a physical place of business (and one which fits badly with a digital economy).
But beware what you wish for. Although VAT seems a neat solution, as reported by Richard Asquith, Head of Tax at Alvalara, Hungary has one of the biggest VAT tax gaps, most of which is evasion as a result of the very high rate of indirect tax.
Grant Thornton wants to see trust in our tax regime and have long argued that a more straightforward simple system, which is easily understandable would help. This would also help build trust in HMRC, the UK tax administration, making compliance easier as well. And it would make it easier for taxpayers to see the connection between fair taxes spent on essential public services vital for a vibrant economy, not spent on large bureaucracies trying to administer a creaky system.
The work of the Office of Tax Simplification has done much good, and can do much more. But as we face up to Brexit we have a generational opportunity to consider what we need from a tax regime, to raise the funds necessary for the society we want. Without overburdening the true wealth creators.
Isn’t this the time for a Commission on Future Tax? One that could start with a blank piece of paper; to consider rates and reliefs (and the effectiveness of the latter). To listen to individuals, business and other stakeholders and draw international comparisons? Several years ago we had the Mirrilees Report into Taxation. But its time seems to have gone. A fundamental re-boot for the next generation of taxpayers. Less confusion and contradictions. A fresh start?
Jonathan Riley Head of Tax Grant Thornton UK LLP 22 November 2016