Listen to this article
So, so, so routine. With ten down and perhaps no more to go, Gordon Brown has his Budget day performance off pat.
And he’s not the only one. So too have those who now count as his principal targets - the army of tax planners, finance directors, treasurers and others charged with structuring corporate finances so that as little as realistically possible flows in the chancellor’s direction.
Here is the abbreviated, anonymous, lunchtime diary of one head of corporate treasury at a large Footsie company:
12.30: Turn on the box, turn half an ear to Gordon’s parliamentary address (Isn’t this last year’s speech?).
13.35: Hit the net, quick ... treasury website ...budget ... press notices... PN3... “Protecting Tax Revenues.” Okay. “Modification and Extension of the Disclosure Regime ...Remuneration tax avoidance involving options ... Tax avoidance involving financial products ... the exploitation of the group continuity rules for loan relationships and derivative contracts ...contrived arrangements which cause profits on loan relationships to be de-recognised for accounting and hence tax purposes ...contrived arrangements within groups of companies to avoid tax on interest; and attempts by companies to get around the ‘shares as debt’ rules...”
13.45: Hmm. This is looking scary. Go to HMRC website for more details. Notices ...budget notes ...consultation documents ... responses to draft legislation in PBR ... new draft clause for finance bill ...
13.50: “What does that mean?” Close browser. Phone pal at PWC for quick rant. He’s busy, but he agrees. Phone pal at Ernst & Young and repeat conversation. Ditto KPMG and Deloitte.
14.00: Phone home to say leaving office early. There’s no decoding this stuff today. I’ve got breakfast meetings tomorrow with two of the Big Four and hopefully, by then, a bit of light may have been shed on the matter ...
How much light is something we can only speculate upon for now. Relations between HM Treasury and corporate financial planners of all flavours can rarely have been at such a low ebb. It has been the case for two years now - ever since the declaration in 2004’s budget that all tax avoidance schemes would have to be reported to the merged HM Revenue & Customs within days of a scheme being implemented.
The worst moment came just under a year ago when the treasury sought to stamp out a long-standing avoidance practice know as deferred subscription agreements, or defeasance structures. These allowed companies to exploit differences in the way that equity and debt are treated by the tax authorities, but the draft legislation aimed at closing loop-holes threatened to close down much of UK plc instead. In short, the draft measures introduced uncertainty into the way in which almost all large firms shift profits from subsidiary to parent level in a group.
Tempers were exacerbated by the fact that the sudden general election had left the finance bill in limbo. With Treasury and Inland Revenue officials in purdah, corporate treasurers up and down the land were simply left to panic.
The confusion eventually abated and suitably amended draft legislation arrived in the pre-Budget report. Consultation on that legislation has been published on Wednesday, yet Customs & Revenue seem to have chosen to ignore one popular plea from the financial world: namely that those constructing legitimate tax schemes should be able to pre-vet them with the authorities, rather than having to implement schemes and then hope that the Revenue agrees they are legit.
Companies want certainty, but it seems that the tax man is all too happy to see those who seek to avoid tax exist in a perpetual state of uncertainty. Indeed, at a conference last year taxman-in-chief Dave Hartnett was asked how large his new compliance unit at Revenue & Customs was likely to get. “As large as it needs to be to change corporate behaviour,” was his reply.
The new rash of measures unveiled on Wednesday are accompanied by draft legislation, which should minimise a repeat of last year’s ugly confrontations. But along the way something has been eroded - something known as trust. In a climate of suspicion, where financiers are haunted by phrases like “double taxation” and “retrospective action,” the small print in this Budget will be crawled over deep into the night.