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News 23.4.13

Matrimonial Property: Needs and Agreements

News 23.04.2013

There has been a spate of bank raids and armed robbers have made off with millions in cash, jewellery and other valuables. Police resources are at breaking-point and the authorities are at a loss as to what to do. A top-level meeting is convened at the Home Office to discuss options, and one junior civil servant comes up with the bright idea of offering an amnesty to the robbers, whereby an undertaking will be given not to prosecute, providing they pay back the money with a modest financial penalty. The alternative is to face the full force of the law, aided by new intelligence the police have received from various CCTV cameras, resulting in a high probability of arrest and conviction. However, the really innovative part comes when our young bright-spark adds that the amnesty will only be offered to robbers with surnames beginning with “A”, “F” and “S”. Furthermore, he says warming to his theme, if the initiative is successful, we could later extend it to those with surnames beginning with “C”, “R” and “W”. A ridiculous idea, of course, and one which could never see the light of day. Yet substitute “HMRC” for “Home Office” and “tax evaders” for “bank robbers”, and that is precisely the position we have today. The only difference is that, instead of basing the amnesty on initials, it is based on whether you are a doctor or a plumber or have money in Liechtenstein. The government’s initiative in this area is, in general terms to be applauded. At a time when the black hole in the Treasury’s coffers urgently needs filling, and HMRC resources are spread very thin, it clearly makes sense to bring in millions of pounds of extra tax (at a fraction of the cost of normal investigation work). The additional benefit of course is that those individuals who come forward are almost certainly going to be compliant in the future. Thus, offering an amnesty has much to commend it. Most commentators appear to be of the view that this is a “good thing”. Where opinions differ is over the piecemeal way in which various initiatives have been introduced. There appears to be no logic behind the decisions as to which sectors of the economy, or type of taxpayers, are to be offered these opportunities and certainly no overall grand plan or strategy. When and how the next scheme will be announced is anyone’s guess as is the identity of those likely to benefit. This is of course inherently unfair. The legal basis for offering different terms to two taxpayers engaging in identical criminal activity (and I use the word advisedly) is shaky to say the least. The morality of the government’s position is less ambiguous. But this is not the main problem. At a time when the government wishes as many citizens as possible to join the tax-paying club, this strategy is actually preventing, rather than encouraging, people to come clean. Why should an errant taxpayer offer himself up and expose himself to a potentially draconian penalty regime, when there may be another amnesty just round the corner, enabling him to take advantage of easy terms? Doesn’t it follow that there are further millions that could be collected if only it were attractive for these people to come forward? All of these issues could be addressed at a stroke by the introduction of a one-time-only, take-it-or-leave it, never-to-be- repeated national tax amnesty. This would be available to all UK taxpayers and would carry with it an obligation to pay missing tax, interest and a modest penalty. More importantly, it would be accompanied by a promise that those not complying with a generous deadline would be pursued to the fullest extent of the law with HMRC seeking maximum penalties in all cases. More importantly, there would be an undertaking that there will never be another amnesty. If the chancellor is serious about plugging the tax gap, then he should give this proposal serious consideration without delay.