Closing tomorrow is a consultation from HM Revenue & Customs which it says will "lift the lid on tax avoidance schemes" and flush out the likes of comedian Carr, revealed in August to be paying the laughably low tax rate of 1% on millions of pounds of earnings.
At the same time HMRC has begun sending out letters to 1.2 million families warning them of the impending tax on their child benefit.
The K2 tax avoidance scheme used by Carr is typical of a long pipeline of similar scams which are in legal limbo. "Promoters say they have 'Revenue-approved' schemes, which just means they have been disclosed and haven't been shut down," explains Aidan McLaughlin of Glasgow-based tax advisers McLaughlin Crolla. "On very rare occasions they shut it down immediately, otherwise they give it a number and set a flag for it, picking up all the returns with that number and sending them to one inspector." But at present the identities of people in the scheme can be easily hidden under corporate or partnership titles. McLaughlin says: "The discussion document proposes going a bit further and having to disclose names and addresses to the Revenue – I think that will be a big deterrent."
HMRC has received a further boost recently in the courts, prompting its scarily-named director general of business tax Jim Harra to send out a warning to celebrities and other potential tax-scheme clients. He said: "We have now had three major court successes in avoidance cases in the last month alone and I hope this sends a very clear message: these schemes don't come cheap, you carry a serious risk that you'll end up paying the tax and interest on top of a set-up charge which can run into the hundreds of thousands of pounds. So you have to ask yourself whether it's really worth it."
A recent poll by Opinium Research found 74% of Brits think the government should do more to close loopholes – and 57% believe tax is too high. Almost half believe the government spends the tax budget wrongly, while 42% say their post-tax income is not sufficient for their needs.
It provides a testing background for the latest tax raid, on child benefit.
The payments are worth £1056 a year for the eldest child and £697 for subsequent offspring. HMRC letters are now spelling out that the benefit will be clawed back through the tax system from the claimant – or from their spouse, civil partner or cohabitee – where either of them earns more than £50,000. The taxman will reclaim 1% of the benefit for every £100 of income more than £50,000, so that when it reaches £60,000, any gain is wiped out.
Controversially, both partners in a couple can earn up to £49,999 each with no loss of benefit.
Neil Whyte, tax partner in Glasgow with accountants PKF, explains: "For many couples where the £60,000 earnings threshold is expected to be exceeded by one person, it is likely to prove simpler to opt out of receiving child benefit initially – rather than risk errors arising through a tax-code adjustment."
But a parent who stays at home to look after a child under the age of 12, and so now qualifies for National Insurance Credits to maintain their state pension entitlement, should make sure they are registered for child benefit even if they don't receive it. Whyte adds: "In other cases, where incomes are variable or fall into the £50,000 to £60,000 band, or where domestic partnerships end or new partnerships are created, there are bound to be difficulties and under or overpayments may well arise. Here the best option will probably be to claim the payments but report any income fluctuations or changes to HMRC as soon as they arise."
For aggrieved parents in single-earner families, who may feel unfairly penalised, the key definition is their "adjusted net income". That means income after deductions such as gift aid – and pension contributions.
Danny Cox at advisers Hargreaves Lansdown says a parent near the thresholds can pay a pension contribution directly, or by salary sacrifice, to reduce their adjusted net income. "For instance, if your income is £52,000, you can make a gross pension contribution of £2000 via salary sacrifice. This will save you £840 in income tax and national insurance and preserve all your child benefit."
The only downside of salary sacrifice is that it reduces gross salary, which can be used to calculate lump-sum death benefits in pension schemes, and which could be relevant to a mortgage application.
Cox adds: "You can also move cash, shares or unit trusts into an Isa wrapper to shelter income from tax, or transfer income-producing assets to your spouse if he or she has income substantially less £50,000." Other investments such as investment bonds are technically "non-income producing" assets as long as withdrawals fall within the 5% annual allowance.
Kerr says HMRC's database is not 100% accurate and it is the taxpayer's responsibility to inform HMRC if they think they have been missed out. "If a taxpayer does not, penalties will, no doubt, be charged."
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