Business

Budget: Just the beginning of plans to raise more tax?

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Image caption Non-doms may chose friendlier tax regimes in which to live

The 'austerity Budget' is out.

Contained within it are plenty of indications that the coalition will continue looking for more sources of tax.

It is going to consult on bringing in what is known as a general anti-avoidance rule.

This sounds like a very widely worded rule which will give HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) the power to stop tax avoidance ploys, at their entire discretion.

Taxpayers and advisers will have to wait to see the detail, but it will probably give HMRC the power to stop apparently legal tax dodges without having to get any specific laws changed first.

Non-doms

Another issue for this government, trailed in the coalition agreement and reiterated in the Budget, is the review of taxation for non-domiciled individuals - the non-doms.

Further detail on this is yet to come and there are several possible choices.

Firstly, a review does not immediately signify change. It could recommend to retain the status quo, perhaps with minor amendments rather than embark on a yet another overhaul of the system.

The truly radical option would be to scrap or reduce the £30,000 levy payable by long-term resident non-domiciliaries.

There are some arguments for that, not least the HMRC data from the first year of operation of the levy.

This demonstrated that it raised some £130m, a far cry from the £650m initially projected by the Treasury.

Less tax?

The levy has, however, contributed to making Britain a less attractive place for the international super-rich, which could prove a threat to the country's fragile recovery.

Image caption There is more in store, Ronnie Ludwig warns

According to research conducted in March 2010 by Cass Business School, the non-doms spend a total of £19bn in the UK each year, as well as contributing £4.5bn in income tax and £3.75bn in VAT and stamp duty.

However, at least 2% of them have already left since the introduction of the £30,000 charge and associated changes brought about in the Finance Act 2008.

About 25% fewer are applying to move to Britain, according to the same research.

Arguably, the loss in demand for British goods and services could far outweigh the benefits of £130m collected through the additional levy.

The more likely course of action, though, would be for the government to tighten the rules and increase charges for non-doms as a result of their review.

Here again, the government will be faced with a difficult balancing act between maintaining that 'open for business' sign the chancellor wants to see over Britain, with bringing in additional tax revenue.

An attack on non-doms will have side effects and could mean overall tax take goes down, rather than up.

Pensions

The government is contemplating yet another reform of the tax relief relating to pension contributions.

Like Labour, it wants to restrict the amount of pension tax relief that goes to high earners.

To do this, it is thinking about substantially reducing the maximum tax-free contribution which may be invested into pension schemes, from 5 April 2011.

This is instead of the highly complex system introduced by Labour - but which was due to start next April - which would have restricted pension tax relief, but specifically for those earning more than £150,000.

Labour also planned to introduce, for the first time, taxation on the value of an employer's contributions to any high earner's pension fund.

This policy may be done away with as well.

Instead of these two elements, the current thinking of the new government is that the maximum annual contributions which will qualify for tax relief, for any taxpayer, will be slashed.

They will probably go down from the current very generous maximum of £255,000 to somewhere around £30,000 to £45,000 a year.

The government is also going to press ahead with its previously announced plan to change, from April next year, the requirement for people with personal pension funds to use them by the age of 75 to buy some sort of annual pension.

While it decides on the final shape of its alternative, there is now an interim measure.

The age at which someone is required to buy an annuity, or an alternatively secured pension, has gone up from 75 to 77.

This removes people who have just reached the age of 75, or who will do so soon, from the scope of the law which the government is about to abolish.

Capital gains tax

One of the biggest surprises was the decision to raise capital gains tax (CIT) to 28% for higher rate taxpayers, rather than the widely expected 40%, or even 50%.

George Osborne has highlighted that he would expect the CIT reform to net an extra £1bn for the Treasury.

This would come mainly through extra income tax as some people would stop shifting their earnings from income to capital.

Yet, the differential between the top rate of CIT and the top rate of income tax is now 22%.

This means that there is still a strong incentive for higher-rate tax payers to convert their income into capital gains.

Moreover, it is likely that married couples, where one spouse is a basic rate taxpayer, would be able to avoid the increased CGT rates altogether as there are some simple tax planning options available to them.

Thus there is certainly a possibility that the Budget change may not achieve all it set out to do.

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