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Tax dodging tops Osborne's agenda

Chancellor George Osborne looks set to overspend on the nation's already overstretched credit card by £13 billion this year, so Wednesday's autumn statement is hardly likely to be a goodie giveaway.

He will be keen to avoid a repeat of the March Budget which saw proposals such as the "pasty tax" withdrawn as unworkable, and hit the right political notes in not being seen to protect the better-off.

Tax avoidance will be high on the agenda, following revelations about the low tax bills paid by the likes of Amazon and Starbucks, and last week's report by the National Audit Office (NAO) which found personal avoidance on the increase.

Francesca Lagerberg, UK head of tax at Grant Thornton, says: "Public pressure is likely to see a number of commitments from the Coalition to tackle actual and perceived tax avoidance. The flagship measure will be the unveiling of the proposed general anti-abuse rule – an underpinning piece of legislation to challenge more aggressive tax planning."

The NAO report found the number of tax avoidance schemes currently in operation at 324, up from 190 in 2007. Almost 10,000 individuals disclosed membership of a scheme on their tax return, compared with fewer than 3000 five years ago. More than 40,000 taxpayers are estimated to be using the five most popular types of scheme, marketed by around 50 "tax boutique" promoters.

Lagerberg added: "There is also likely to be a swipe at global organisations with a high UK presence but low tax bills. It is probably too early to see concrete measures, but perhaps we'll get a statement of intent and, if so, this is likely to consider royalty payments.

"High-net-worth individuals are unlikely to walk away unscathed. Despite the 50p tax rate falling next April, there were a number of proposals consulted on over the summer in relation to properties worth more than £2 million, particularly those held through offshore structures."

In the 2012 Budget, the Government also proposed the anti-avoidance mechanism of capping income tax relief at 25% of income or £50,000, whichever is greater. The consultation on this closed in October.

Helen Relf, director at Baker Tilly, says: "While there was a relatively speedy climb-down by the government over relief for charitable giving in response to intense lobbying, this measure is still likely to have a far wider impact, on far more taxpayers, than were intended to be targeted."

For the more modestly paid, crumbs of comfort may include a reassurance that the Coalition is committed to increasing the personal allowance to £10,000 by April 2015.

Lagerberg says: "If there is any scope to show a continuing upward path, it will provide some comfort to those on lower incomes and a little comfort for those due to lose their child benefit in January."

Impacting taxpayers across the board is fuel duty which, according to a report by the Institute of Economic Affairs, has "risen to exorbitant levels". It says the costs are a dampener on those looking for work.

"For example, a single person over 25 in low-cost rented accommodation would typically be about £70 per week better off in a full-time job paying the minimum wage than on benefits, which works out at £1.75 per hour. However, if average costs for driving to work (about £20 per week) are applied, the person is now only £50 per week better off, or £1.25 per hour. Cancelling the planned rise in fuel duty should be a priority."

David Wilson, VAT expert at Baker Tilly, says European legislation allows members to apply a reduced rate of VAT to housing repairs, restaurants, hotels, fairs, amusement parks, theatres and shows: "There has been a great deal of lobbying on these issues, so could the Chancellor unveil a VAT "giveaway" to lessen the impact of removing some VAT-zero and reduced rates in the future?"

Last week the Government gave its full backing to the report it commissioned from Professor John Kay on promoting long-term investment. But broker and wealth adviser Brewin Dolphin is calling on the Chancellor to put some tax cuts behind the rhetoric.

Brewin's Charlotte Black says: "The current situation, in which equity investment is heavily penalised by stamp duty while, for example, CFDs – synthetic short-term instruments with little social benefit – are tax-free, flies in the face of the Government's support of Kay. The impact of stamp duty should be spread more thinly across investment instruments. We would strongly support reform in this regard."

On the speculation that tax relief on pension contributions will be restricted to 20% even for higher-rate taxpayers, Jason Hollands at brokers Bestinvest says: "None of us can accurately predict what might appear in future Budgets, but when you think about how attractive pensions are for higher-rate taxpayers, you begin to understand how tempting it might be for advocates of new taxes on the wealthy to have them on their radar. If a pension fits your investment objectives, and you pay higher rates of tax, it really does make sense to consider making use of them while such generous reliefs are available and while the top rates of income tax remain so high."

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