General election 2015: The tax accountant’s view on non-doms and tax avoidance

taxavoidance

I spoke to a tax accountant from one of the Big Four about tax avoidance ahead of next month’s general election

The election is coming. I said, THE ELECTION IS COMING! That means, batten down the hatches, we’re in for an intense month of political windbaggery. One of the hottest topics this year is tax – inheritance tax, income tax and perhaps most emotive of all, tax avoidance. The tax-free status of non-doms has, this week, been touted by Labour as a key policy for May’s general election. Supporters say that the current system, which allows non-UK born residents to legally avoid paying tax, is unfair and discriminates against UK citizens. Naysayers, however, say that scraping the tax breaks will make the UK less appealing to rich foreigners and therefore reduce the amount of money coming into the UK.

Over the years, plenty of politicians and parties have attempted to close this loophole, yet none of them have been successful. Why? I spoke to a tax accountant with one of the Big Four accountancy firms to find out more, he or she chose to remain anonymous for professional reasons.

Do you deal with businesses or individuals?

Most of the clients I deal with are predominantly wealthy individuals who are internationally mobile. Many are born outside of the UK, but have lived in the UK for several years.

Do you have any examples of how the current system is being abused?

The main headlines over the last few months have been about offshore accounts hidden in Switzerland. The thing that interests me is the way the newspapers make it sound like something from James Bond, as though these people are stashing millions of pounds away to hide it from HMRC. Sadly, in the vast majority of cases, it’s not that exciting. Yes, these Swiss accounts exist, but HMRC should, in theory, know all about them because of the various information disclosure agreements in place between the UK and Swiss governments – why have there been so few prosecutions for holding Swiss accounts?

Note from editor: As of 1.1.2013, Swiss banks are obliged to declare account details to HMRC

Yes… why?

There are various legitimate reasons for holding overseas accounts such as those held in Switzerland. In the vast majority of cases the individuals holding the accounts are what are called non-UK domiciled taxpayers. The meaning of ‘domicile’ is complicated, but often it relates to individuals who were born overseas but are now resident in the UK on a temporary basis.

There are various tax advantages in being non-UK domiciled, one of which allows non-doms to avoid paying UK tax on income received from their foreign bank accounts, as long as they do not bring that income into the UK. The real question is why does the government allow this tax benefit to non-UK domiciles, when UK domiciles – who are typically British-born residents – would be required to pay tax on income from the same foreign accounts?

The simple answer is that a sizeable number of the non-doms holding Swiss bank accounts are extremely wealthy individuals, and it makes the UK a more attractive place to live from a tax perspective. From the government’s viewpoint, attracting wealthy individuals from the Middle East, Russia and the US, for example, brings significant investment into the UK. This may include the creation of new businesses and therefore help to reduce UK unemployment. It also means more money flowing into the UK in the form of retail spending (i.e. increase in VAT revenues) and a boost to the property market, which brings an increase in stamp duty revenues.

The Big Four accountancy firms assist the government with setting tax legislation, and have been accused of unfairly using that expertise to help their clients to then bypass the law. Should they be allowed to do this?

In terms of tax legislation, which is increasingly complicated, the government drafts new laws, but consults with various bodies – including the large accountancy firms – in order to understand the potential tax consequences and iron out any anomalies. As far as I am aware, the Big Four have no vested interest in making, or actually writing, the tax law.

It’s true that the Big Four, like all accountancy firms and other financial institutions, use their expertise in, and understanding of, legislation to help their clients to mitigate taxes. However, it’s important to understand the distinction between ‘tax avoidance’ and ‘tax evasion’. Tax evasion is a criminal offence; it is not paying the taxes that you are legally required to pay. Tax avoidance, however, is when a party takes – often simple – steps to avoid paying certain taxes, which doesn’t involve anything illegal.

I’m not aware of any of the big firms being involved in tax evasion. Firstly, they receive sufficient fee income that they don’t need to do it. More importantly, they would never risk involvement in criminal activity because it would ruin their reputation and public image.

How do you feel about new proposals, put forward by both Labour and the Conservatives at various points, to fine accountants and firms for exploiting legal loopholes to help reduce their clients tax bills?

The law is extremely complicated which is why individuals pay accountancy firms to help them understand it. We help them structure their tax affairs efficiently, in line with their specific circumstances. Accountancy firms have received such bad press recently – why, when they are simply advising individuals on how the law works?

The main reason is a lack of understanding about what accountancy firms do. There is a belief that they are actively advising individuals on how to evade tax. This is completely unfounded and I think some of the recent journalism on this topic is poorly researched. Perhaps the question we should also be asking is why are all the negative stories about the accountancy firms and banks coming out now? Why did the phrase “tax cheats” appear on the front pages of newspapers and on the BBC’s Panorama show? After all, the government is fully aware of the role of accountancy firms – they are simply advising on the tax legislation written by the government.

The information about the HSBC clients holding accounts in Switzerland was given to HMRC several years ago, in 2007. There’s a general election next month though, and along with tough rhetoric on immigration and saving the NHS, there is nothing that riles up voters more than the perception that some people are cheating the tax system. It gives the political parties another ball to kick around in their political wrangling. Pointing the finger at accountancy firms deflects from the fact that everything goes back to the law that they have written.

What changes would you like to see to the system to make it fairer?

There is an argument that everyone living in the UK should be treated as equal, that there should be one simple system that applies to all. This would make sense, but the UK tax system has become so complicated that it would come at a huge cost to the government to re-write the law. The fact is, the existing law achieves various political objectives – for example, it attracts wealthy foreign individuals to the UK.

If you haven’t registered to vote yet, make sure you do – https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote. The deadline is 20th April 

Advertisements

The Ascent of Lavender Hill (17.9m)

Battersea Arts Centre

Battersea arts centre fireI was very sad to hear about the fire at Battersea Arts Centre yesterday, especially as it has only recently under gone a refurbishment. Places to enjoy and learn about the arts are an ever decreasing thing in my beloved south west London due to the ever creeping cultural oil slick known as luxury flats. I’m so relieved no one was hurt and hope to see it back on it’s feet soon, I have such fond memories of the place.

Last year, I wrote a psychogeographical essay about BAC and Lavender Hill for Mount London: Ascents in the Vertical City, a collection of works exploring London’s peaks put together by Penned in the Margins. In tribute, here it is: 

Lavender Hill, SW11 (17.9m)

 

Dull grey skies. Commuters and casual shoppers buzz in and out of the station as I set off up the hill into an icy breeze. I’m climbing Lavender Hill: a hump of ancient glacial spew in the heart of Battersea, just north east of Clapham Junction. The road, an eponymously named section of the A3036, is my guide through this wild urban landscape. It’s a typically London thoroughfare, perennially thronging with grubby cars and lorries and bearded cyclists heading up to Westminster or down to Wandsworth, then on. At three-quarters-of-a-mile long and just under eighteen metres tall – that’s less than two tail-to-tail double-decker buses – the hill offers a tough climb, but I should be able to make it.

I follow the pavement, passing the first row of shops. School kids are beginning to swarm; a tumultuous army of blue blazers swagger into newsagents and fried chicken joints. A spit of rain falls in dark modicums on the floor. I walk up against the flow of pedestrians and, a little way along the road’s southern edge, come to Battersea Library – an old four-storey, red brick reference library with rosewood-coloured turrets that disappear up into the murk above.

I’d been past here many times before and its gaudy posters and out-of-date notice boards are all familiar to me, so too are the rowdy pair drinking Kestrel Super Strength on the wooden bench near the entrance. Two men: one a ball of tattered tweed and matted blonde fuzz, the other wearing a huge winsome grin and a wooly hat so weathered there’s more hole than hat left. In the still moments, before the wind washes the air clean, their interesting perfume – of stale hangovers and festering bodily fluids – reaches my unwelcoming nose.

Despite being thoroughly sozzled, they shiver in the cold. It’s been a mild winter, but the temperature has dropped and my hands and cheeks are beginning to feel it too – each turse lash of wind leaves my bare skin a little more raw. There will be a frost tonight, the gritty surfaces of shallow, greying puddles will freeze, but too many feet tread these pavements for it to last long. Ice rarely lasts long in London. Once though, a long time before the city, this land was covered with ice.

During the last glacial period – the time when our current ice age was at its most extreme, around 18,000 years ago – harsh winters and freezing temperatures meant that vast sheets of ice formed that, at their peak, covered a third of the Earth’s surface and claimed millions of gallons of water. Sea levels and rainfall plummeted. The air was starved of moisture and the land of colour

a barren monotony,

 

stillness

broken only by powdery

frost

drifting

across white plains. Much of

Britain’s green landscape was like an Arctic tundra; a desert of wind and cold reaching all the way across Europe, unbroken by country borders or the North Sea which hadn’t yet formed.

Whole forests and mountain ranges were consumed by these ‘rivers of ice’, glaciers that became oxymorons under the sheer weight of their own mass; solids that oozed and slid and behaved like liquid plastic. The ice slowly smothered everything, devastating the landscape so that, when the world eventually began to warm and the glaciers retreated, our geography was changed forever. What hadn’t been crushed or eroded by the ice was altered by epic floods with such force that new seas were formed, dividing us from mainland Europe and trapping the Thames which, until that point, had been a tributary of the ancient German river Rhine. The chewed up remains of the old land, carried in the bowels of the glaciers for thousands of years, became the raw material for a new terrain, for some of its hills and contours. Lavender Hill is one of these glacial dumps. Perhaps not the Ice Age’s most mind blowing achievement, but useful for anyone trying to get to Westminster from Wandsworth.

At roughly the same point as the library, and the bench where Scruffy Blonde and Smiley McGrubberson are bickering over a tab end, the earth deep below the modern city begins to change. Below the pavement and subterranean electricity cables, glacial gravel merges with Taplow gravel – the granular, sand-rich foundation of the Thames Terraces. The river is just over a mile away. It’s these conditions – the good drainage and elevation – that helped give the hill its name: before the station brought an almighty wave of urbanisation just over 150 years ago, this was agricultural land ribbed with vibrant rows of sweet smelling lavender. I try to imagine the aroma as I pass the two drunks and head onwards.

The road ahead is faced with a dense entanglement of shops and houses, it’s noisy and cluttered: boxy council blocks and boarded-up boutiques; health food stores and posh estate agents. Victorian terraced houses, mostly divvied up into newsagents and dim-windowed bedsits, watch over me as I climb the slope. The incline must be hitting a heady five degrees by now. The sky has turned pale and bright and I squint against the glare.

The pleasure in higher ground usually lies in perspective, the comfort one gets from feeling small against the vastness of the landscape. The chance to, as Rob Macfarlane puts it, “look down on a city that I usually look across. The relief of relief… a way of defraying the city’s claims on me.”* But Lavender Hill doesn’t feel like a hill, despite the gradient. Most of the view is obscured by a thick fog of glass and brickwork, it hems me into the road. I can’t see out and it dampens my senses. I’ve no concept of the topography of the outlying land or the direction of anything – there is only forward or back. I don’t know if, beyond the buildings, the rest of the city is even there. For all I can see, this, right here, is everything.

***

The cheerful purple heads of lavender flowers yield abundant nectar meaning that, before the station brought an explosion of shops and houses that proved fatal to local farming, nearby bee hives were swimming in high-quality honey. As one of nature’s perfect partnerships, together they brought farmers here a hearty revenue from the markets. Lavender was thought to protect against disease, a cure-all, it was burnt to cleanse sickness from the air and honey was used as a medicine. Sometimes the heavily-scented oil was used as a household cleaner or mixed with beeswax to make a fine polish. They were eaten together too, lavender was added to honey to create an aromatic and indulgent treat.

At the summit, roughly, of Lavender Hill is Battersea Arts Centre. It was built in the late 19th century as the town hall of the defunct borough of Battersea, but is now a theatre and arts venue. I heave myself up the last hardy chunk of the ascent, then head inside for some well-earned refreshment. In the entrance hall I’m struck by an elaborate glass mosaic on the floor: a medley of blues, pale to bright, like a pool glistening under a hot sun, and all around, not much bigger than my foot and sort of floating, there are simple black and gold bee emblems. Some have their wings outspread as though poised for flight, others appear to be resting or feeding.

Battersea Arts Centre floor

I sup a luke warm latte in the ground floor café and ask around to see if anyone knows about the bees. Are they anything to do with local lavender? No one seems to be sure. A waitress tells me she overheard a walking guide say they were part of the original council’s statement of intent, it would remind them to work hard and value teamwork. Another says she’s sure they stand for BB, or Battersea Borough. Neither know anything about lavender.

Warm and slightly buzzing, I feel set to tackle the descent. So I hit the road again in the direction of Westminster, following the chewing gum-strewn pavement as it eases down the reverse of the hill. Ashen people wait at a bus stop under an ashen sky, shrinking into their scarfs and collars against the chill. In this light, there is little that doesn’t appear grey. The houses with their peeling and water stained paintwork, the leafless bushes that spike up from behind low lying walls, the pitted tarmac and dirty pedestrian crossings. Even a patch of grass, the front yard of the Ascension of Our Lord church, is also somehow sedate and drab.

Just near the next crossing however, a clearing catches my eye. It’s a sudden and momentary break in the terraces and estates on the northern side of the road, a window out from this claustrophobic gloom. Two steps to the left or right and it would be missed, but from this one accidental spot I can see all the way across London.

A view – at last.

I stop to survey the scene, soaking in the soothing magnitude of the distant landscape. I can see for miles across the tops of all sorts of buildings: the sallow chimneys of Battersea Power station; the rolling crest of the London Eye then, tiny from here, and the sharp apexes of Parliament and the BT tower. It’s an immense chain of man-made peaks, an architectural mountain range growing ever smaller as it disappears into the horizon. People must have been admiring the view for thousands of years, yet it’s unlikely any two viewings were ever alike. Once a glacial tundra, then farmland and now a huge network of glass and steel, bombastic monuments to money and power that are forever rising and falling, a scene that ebbs and flows from one season to the next just like any natural environment. Although the height of these structures greatly exceeds that of my tiny natural hill, it feels like I’m much higher than they are. I can see our position, Lavender Hill’s place in the world, and be certain that I’m very, very small.

* The Wild Places. Macfarlane, Robert. New York: Penguin, 2008.

Mount London cover
You can buy Mount London: Ascents in The Vertical City (Penned in the Margins) here: Amazon (plus Kindle edition), Waterstones, Penned in the Margins.

For more information contact info (@) pennedinthemargins (.) co (.) uk.

I wrote an essay for Mount London: Ascents in the Vertical City

mountlondon_cover_smallThis book, a collection of essays and stories, is an account of the ascent of ‘Mount London’: “An invisible mountain is rising above the streets of the capital – and at over 1,800 metres, it is Britain’s highest peak.”

There are ascents of natural hills, such as Primrose Hill, as well as man-made ones, such as the Shard and Battersea Power Station. I’m pleased to announce there is also an ascent of Lavender Hill, a modest natural peak near Clapham Junction in Battersea, written by none other than yours truly. The aim of this collection is to explore London’s history and geography by mapping this urban landscape, and what it’s like to move through its mountainous terrain.

I haven’t read all of this book yet, but from what I have read I’ve been impressed. It’s a really interesting concept and with accounts ranging from the personal to the experimental, it offers incite into the diversity of perspectives on the city.

 

Available from Waterstones, Amazon Kindle and other good book retailers.

Published by Penned in the Margins

New column: more Wandling

My new column/regular feature is up and I’m really excited about it. It’s called Mind the Sap and is in The Journal of Wild Culture. It’s a sort of tangential approach to London nature, I’m no naturalist so it’s more about the way people interact with the nature around them. The first piece is called Deep Clean and is about the Wandle river clean up (I know, such a river bore).

Here’s an exerpt, and by the way, it’s definitely NOT poetry:

Waders on, hands in gloves, litter-picker ready – today we’re cleaning up the Wandle.
I slide down the muddy banks into the river. It’s fucking freezing.
What now?
Feel the riverbed, says a man who seems to be in the know.
Feel for things that shouldn’t be there.
How do I know what shouldn’t be there?
Look for bubbles.

I pat the riverbed with my foot.
Is that something? No, no bubbles.
What about this? Not this time either.

Read more here, I promise it’s exciting.

20130913-111832.jpg

Cycling the Monsal Trail: learning the hard way

Monsal Trail

“Now, is the seat ‘igh enough for you?” asks Cheryl from the cycle hire place, beaming at me with twinkling eyes. I’ve no idea, but quietly nod. She points up at a steep gravel track. At the top is the Monsal Trail. “Back by five at the latest, love,” she says. I don’t mention that I’ve never ridden a bike before.

Derbyshire is damp, but there are advantages. All around the trail lush, vibrant foliage shoots in every direction. It bursts with green, and plump leaves of every shade vie for attention: giant slug-nibbled water dock, thick grasses, ferns, mighty trees and tiny saplings. It’s green on green on tangled green – a cacophony almost too bright to focus on.

I wheel my bike up and stand evaluating the map – eight-and-a-half miles from Buxton to Bakewell along a disused railway line, recently renovated and opened for traffic-free wanderings. Then back again. I should be a master after that.

It’s midday and the air is thick with low summer cloud. But it’s dry, for now. The stony track is flat and fairly straight and after a couple of failed starts I manage to balance. For a metre or so.

Following the trail along the river Wye, cutting through damp tunnels, I cycle, in fits and starts, passing limestone kilns cut boxily into the cliffs. They taper towards the sky like temples to the lost local lime industry. But mostly my eyes stay fixed on my front wheel, desperate to keep it pointing forwards.

I rest at a disused Victorian railway station – now a toilet block – and I’ve only fallen off once. My knee is bruised and bloody, but, as I tell an onlooker, “I’ll soldier on”. Over the Monsal Head viaduct, where the steely Wye veers off through steep valleys flecked with limestone, and on I wobble, jerk and skid all the way to Bakewell.

When I get there it’s nearly three o’clock. There’s no time for a cup of tea or even a tart. Turning back, with gritted teeth, I peddle faster and faster. Back through cool tunnels, back to Monsal Head, passed leafy nature reserves and overgrown footpaths.

The sun is finally out and everywhere there’s life – tiny birds bobbing around like buoys in the undergrowth, pairs of pale butterflies teasing each other, spiralling mischievously into the sky.

After two more falls I’m sore and tired. I crouch on a rock watching cows graze the velvety pastures below, envious of their simple life – eating and walking and never riding bikes.

I make it back to Buxton with ten minutes to spare. The cycle hire hut is buzzing with excitable children and men in Lycra. I do my best to hide the cuts and bruises. Cheryl’s there, bright and smiling, her caramel hair glossy in the late afternoon sun. “Good ride?” she asks. “The best,” I tell her.

Me_bike

 

Goodbye, Battersea Power Station

Battersea Power Station + plane

There are few landmarks as iconic to Londoners as Battersea Power Station. To the rest of the world it’s all about the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London, the Shard, but to those of us who call London home those four skinny chimneys are as sweet and homely as a mug of hot chocolate.

To me its emptiness offers a moment of peace in a hectic, jumbled up city. It’s tall and knowing, calm and still. Whenever I’ve been away for long periods of time, the few years I decided to decamp ‘oop north’ for example, it, more than anything else, would make me feel flushed with homesickness when I saw it on TV.

Chelsea Fringe lens thing

‘Arty’ lens thing (being idiots).

IMG_3992

Looking like a total gimp. Again.

A few weeks ago as part of Chelsea Flower Show’s fringe festival, the strip of land in front of the old building was opened to the public for the first time in years. The art installations weren’t particularly memorable, but the chance to get closer to Battersea Power Station was. I’d never noticed the strange romance in its smashed windows, the nesting birds or the rusting coal cranes before.

Battersea Power Station coal cranes close-up

They even had grass growing on them in patches.

Ever since I’ve been dogged by sadness. This week, work is due to start on redeveloping the building (it’s really happening this time). The site’s been bought by a Malaysian consortium – made up of a palm oil plantation, a property group and the state pension fund – who will take it to pieces and start again, rebuilding it minus the decay and the birds. Instead there will be new ‘smart spaces’ – flats, offices and a gym.

Battersea Power Station coal cranes

It was inevitable that it would become something flashy one day, especially considering its fairly central position and notoriety. Of course, I’m happy it’ll be looked after, but I’d become quite attached to the building as it was. Thanks to dozens of failed redevelopments it’s been nothing other than a landmark during my lifetime. It felt like it existed for no other reason than because it was ours, the people who lived nearby, and we loved it.

Battersea Power Station

Despite developers promising a ‘cultural hub’, a community, many of the flats have already been sold to overseas investors. The building will become an international attraction, the famous chimneys part if its brand, and it won’t be ours anymore. Technically the frontage will look similar (it’s Grade II* listed), but there’ll be little of the spirit left of the landmark I loved. When I roll past on the Waterloo train, staring out of the window, there won’t be Battersea Power Station looking back at me, but Malaysian palm oil and Arab black gold.

The fear of homesickness has kept me in London since returning from those years in The North, I was scared of seeing images of the beautiful (to me) landscape and thinking what have I done? But its useless feeling attached to city like London because, no matter how long you’ve been here, it will never love you back. Not unless you’ve got an outrageous amount of cash anyway. Perhaps it’s time to move on.

Battersea Power Station, coal cranes, sunset

As you can see, bit obsessed with these coal cranes (made in Bath, by the way)

The London Perambulator – Nick Papadimitriou

20130325-193544.jpg

I was recently introduced to the work of Nick Papadimitriou by fellow MA student, Rachel Andrews (Thanks Rachel!) and it has blown my tiny mind. After decades spent researching and documenting London’s topography for, among others, Will Self, he’s put together a book, Scarp (great review by radio producer Tim Dee). It tells the story of the landscape surrounding his home in Child’s Hill, north London, through a mixture of memoir, nature writing and social history offering an account of a life lived on the edge lands, geographically and existentially.

20130325-193747.jpg

After battling a drug addiction, he took to walking and over the last thirty years he’s kept records of everything from the progress of building works to roads, animal behaviour, sewage systems, dead things and even the weather. He calls his work ‘Deep Topology’. The London Perambulator is a documentary about him, he’s a little eccentric, but absolutely fascinating. It features some words from an impressive list of friends too, including psychogeographers Will Self and Ian Sinclair as well as, bizarrely, Russell Brand (he just gets everywhere).

If you’re interested in London, non-fiction or just interesting characters, it’s well worth a watch. I can’t wait to read his book.

Picture of the week: Corsham Court

Corsham Court

MA travel and nature writing massive do lunch – Anna, Margherita and Rachel.

For the last week, I’ve been hanging about in Bath and Corsham for my second MA residential week. I have to say, it was bloody brilliant. We met some fascinating people – author Maggie Gee, travel writer Gail Simmons, radio producer Sarah Blunt, poet Terry Gifford – and had such a great time.

Corsham Court is a privately owned Estate in Wiltshire with oodles of land and more peacocks than you can shake a camera phone at. From the outside it’s stunning, but inside the halls are full of a bizarre mix of animal skulls and art. The grounds used to be the residence of the Bath Academy of Art and there are some pretty amusing stories of what it was like in the sixties – I can’t help but wonder how many times the world was put to rights there – but now it’s used for Bath Spa postgraduates.

Our week culminated in a ‘Cafe Ecologique,’ organised by our wonderful tutor Paul Evans, which was loosely part of the literature festival. I get really nervous so I had to get quite drunk, but I did manage to read a piece, even if it was a bit shakey and slightly slurred. I chose a really short bit of non-fiction about my relationship with my body as a part of nature, however I’m not sure it went down too well with some of the older men. I definitely noticed a few side steps afterwards, so I suppose we can count that as a huge success.

Our next residential is hopefully going to be in Melaka, Malaysia. Apparently there’s a really interesting clash of cultures there: British, Chinese, Indian. The first one was at Dale Fort in Wales.