Amidst all the discussions about tax avoidance and evasion there has been little consideration of tax complexity.
Given the relatively high levels of UK taxation today, there is a perpetual tussle between the government, wanting to collect more, and most people and companies, wanting to pay less. The government makes this tussle more likely, because some of the time it is urging people to take advantage of tax breaks or allowances to affect their conduct, whilst at other times complaining when they do so succcessfully.
Governments uses the Income Tax system to send a variety of messages about conduct. The government would like us to save more, particularly if that enables us to lend money to the government itself. Some National Savings products are free of Income Tax and CGT. Dividend income is taxed at a lower rate than other income, encouraging people to invest in businesses. People prepared to start up and run their own businesses can gain various entrepreneur’s tax advantages. Venture Capital trusts are free of income tax and capital gains tax on their investments to encourage investment in smaller and newer ventures if you meet qualifying conditions.
I am not a tax expert and am not seeking to provide tax advice. Please do not rely on anything on this site when considering your own tax position. In general terms, if people save through their pension plan they can put away up to £50,000 a year tax free if they earn at least £50,000. If they invest in venture capital trusts or through the Enterprise Investment Scheme they may get a tax break of 30% of the income invested. The limits are £200,000 on VCTs and £1m on EIS. If people give to charity the gift can be offset against their highest tax rate. If people save £11,280 this year they can put that in a tax free ISA, with up to £5640 of that in cash. The Income tax rate on savings is reduced to 10% up to £2710 in savings income. The personal allowance is £8105, but £10,500 if you are over 65. If , however, your income is over £25,400 your personal allowance is progressively reduced. The rate of tax on dividends for a 20% rate payer is just 10%.
The system is now riddled with twists and turns in an effort to stop people finding ways round the system, and with all sorts of allowances and reliefs to encourage people to save, to invest and as a reward if you are older.
The government claims to run a “progressive” Income Tax system. Recent changes have made it a kinky kind of progressive. 40% tax cuts in at a relatively low level of income now, at £34,370. At £100,000 people have to pay 60% tax over a £16,210 income range, as they progressively lose their Income Tax personal allowance. Beyond £116,210 they resume the 40% rate, until the 50% rate cuts in at £150,000. The withdrawal of the Age Allowance can also create higher rates of Income Tax than the standard 20% at lower income levels above £25,400.
This all begins to look too clever by half, and full of complexities which lead to people on similar incomes paying very different rates of tax quite legally. Consider these cases:
Mr A has retired with a combined pension of £ 42,000 a year. He also has an income of £25,000 tax free from saving over his lifetime in tax free national savings bonds, and a VCT dividend income also tax free of £5000. He pays £6779 tax on his income of £72,000 a year, or a tax rate of 9.4%
Mr B also earns £72,000 a year. He has a young family and a mortgage. All his money comes from his main employer. He pays £18684 on his income, or 26%.
If Mr C earns £116,210 with no offsets, he will pay a sharply higher rate again owing to the withdrawal of the entire Personal Allowance.
Of course Mr B and Mr C could save for a pension, put some money into tax saving schemes and take other measures to get their tax rate down, if they have spare income to save. They would not have gains in their spending power as a result. Mr A has been smart and prudent over his life, and is reaping the rewards from playing the Income Tax game successfully.
Is this a great system? Or could we move to lower rates for all, with fewer offsets? What would the incentive effect of that be? We could do so whilst preserving the benefits for those who have made long term decisions already based on the present system. I am not recommending making Mr A pay more tax.
I would also add that some of you have written in to say rich people living in the UK can use trusts to avoid tax. If someone sets up a bare trust the beneficiary pays full Income Tax and Capital Gains on the benefits as the property in the trust is treated as his own. For most more complex trusts the Trustees have to pay 50% tax on most of the income and the 42.5% top rate on dividends on divident receipts, with the beneficiary getting the relevant tax credit to avoid double taxation. Most trusts are not a route to avoid UK taxes for a UK taxpayer.