Tax avoidance and evasion made the front pages of the press again, with the distinction between the two lost on most journalists.
Let us make two things clear for a start:
• Tax avoidance – planning your affairs within the framework of the tax legislation to reduce your tax liability – is legal.
• Tax evasion – not paying tax due by withholding information from HMRC or other means – is illegal.
Tax avoidance ranges from such simple actions as investing in a fund via an ISA rather than directly to complex schemes designed to exploit loopholes in the tax law. At the benign end of the scale, HMRC will not be interested in what you do. At the aggressive end of the scale, HMRC are likely to deny you tax relief under its recently acquired accelerated payments powers and then leave you (and your fellow scheme users) to challenge their view in the courts.
Denis Healey, a 1970s Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, famously remarked that “The difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion is the thickness of a prison wall.” In reality, criminal prosecution for tax evasion is still relatively uncommon: in 2013/14 HMRC undertook 915 prosecutions and secured 716 convictions.
The HSBC Swiss account holders list which grabbed so much coverage last month has, to date, yielded only one prosecution. However, that reflects both the ‘dirty’ nature of the information – it was stolen data – and exemptions available under HMRC’s own Lichtenstein Disclosure Facility. More relevant from the Treasury’s viewpoint, if not that of the editorial columnists’, is that the HSBC list added £135m in tax, interest and penalties to the government’s coffers. Collecting cash is generally more important for the Exchequer and HMRC than battling in the criminal courts.
If there is any lesson to be drawn from the HSBC saga, it is that tax evaders can no longer rely on secrecy. Driven in part by US legislation (the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act - FATCA) disclosure of information between countries is becoming the norm, even for the traditional tax havens such as Monaco. Within a couple of years, the only countries still adhering to secrecy will be those where you would think twice about leaving you money.