UK Tax – Double standards?

The recent announcement of the death of Prince Rupert Ludwig Ferdinand zu Loewenstein -Wertheim-Freudenverg would normally be of passing interest. However, apart from a fabulous name and title, Prince Rupert’s main claim to fame was that he was the brains behind the Rolling Stone’s tax strategies which resulted in them not only leaving the UK and becoming non resident but postponing one of their most successful concerts until they were safely non resident and thus considerably reducing their UK tax bill.

In 2004-05 the three remaining founder members of the group paid just 1.6 per cent of a combined income of £81.3 million in tax.

Not much appears to have been said about this – Sir Mick Jagger is revered as one of the most significant pop icons of our time and the ageing rockers are as popular now as ever.

Fast forward to today and Gary Barlow OBE, on the other hand, is reviled in equal measure for participating in a tax planning scheme with the aim of substantially reducing his UK tax bill. In his case, the legitimacy  of the scheme has been rejected by the High Court and Gary Barlow, along with many other personalities, will have to repay substantial amounts of income tax.

There have been howls of condemnation for this and calls from the great unwashed for Barlow to return his OBE – which was awarded for his considerable work for UK charities.

The issue goes further – Amazon, Starbucks and Google, amongst others, have been roundly condemned for their perfectly legitimate tax planning strategies which has minimised their Corporation Tax liabilities. The fact that they employ thousands, and pay a small fortune in Employers National Insurance is rather glossed over.

The question of successful tax planning has, rather worryingly, moved into a moral dimension rather than a purely legal one. The country has been through the worst recession and financial crisis in living memory and, the argument goes, everyone should pay their fair share of tax.

But what is a fair share? It has long been an established principle that no one is obliged to arrange their affairs so that they pay the maximum amount of tax. If there are legitimate ways of reducing a tax liability it has been sensible to adopt them.

Is it still acceptable to pay a large contribution into a pension plan to reduce your current year tax liability. How about a company director taking some of his remuneration as dividends instead of salary to reduce the overall tax bill.

Where do you draw the line between what is normal practice and ok and what is morally unacceptable. Is it just a question of amount – saving tax of £10,000 is alright but £10,000,000 is not.

Morality ,surely, is subjective. If the Government of the day is against all forms of tax avoidance then it should legislate accordingly

But of course, there is a perfectly good reason why they don’t. The afore – mentioned companies and many more like them, contribute far more overall to the UK economy than they save in  Corporation Tax. Why kill the Goose that lays the Golden Egg?