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- The word “haven” conjures up positive connotations in most people’s minds. We think of it as a safe space or refuge, a benefit to humanity. Havens for those fleeing persecution or seeking to pursue a particular lifestyle are celebrated. However, once the prefix “tax” is placed in front of the word, suddenly our attitude seems to change.
- Tax havens are assumed to be shady, even criminal places that are deliberately undermining and cheating an otherwise fair and equitable system of revenue collection. Few of us seek to define exactly what we mean by a tax haven but many of us exhibit an impulsive reaction that such a place is surely up to no good.
- A report from the Tax Justice Network has further muddied these waters. It has sought to rank economies according to their status as “secrecy jurisdictions”, which it defines as seeking to attract financial flows that are illegitimate, illegal or abusive. Putting aside the inherent subjectivity of the last of these terms, the primary concern seems to be around tax revenues in poorer parts of the world and these being undermined by people choosing to pursue some sort of financial exit strategy. On the list, the UK comes 12th and the US second, just behind the Cayman Islands. We can certainly say that those towards the top of the list — including Switzerland, the Netherlands, Singapore and Japan — are widely considered to be some of the most desirable places in the world to live and work.
- Of course, those jurisdictions beset by corrupt governments, woeful law enforcement and endemic problems of the mafia are hardly likely to produce reliable data sets for dutiful academic analysis.
- However, when it comes to comparing publicly-known rates of taxation, we need to shake off the idea that lower rates imply an unhelpful and sneaky attempt to deprive benign governments of efficiently spent revenues. In the same way that companies compete on a wide range of metrics, including price, so different countries also compete on a wide range of measures, including prevailing tax rates.
- We strongly resist the natural instincts of powerful incumbents to collude to set prices. If, for example, soft drinks companies claimed to be working together to establish a “level playing field” in setting the price of fizzy drinks, they would face severe legal sanction for operating as a cartel. We should assign the same broad logic to governments seeking to remove a key plank of competition between them — setting reasonable, low and simple taxes.
- As Britain leaves the European Union, we should warmly embrace becoming a tax haven ourselves. This doesn’t mean we can set the lowest taxes anywhere on the planet, but it does imply giving serious thought to how we can make ourselves a more attractive business environment than many of our competitors. This is especially true if we are concerned that the months and years immediately following Brexit will bring with them a range of extra costs and uncertainties. A benign tax environment could more than offset any of these short-term difficulties.
- On tax reform, this would require a twin-pronged approach. First, we need to simplify the rulebook. At over 22,000 pages, the UK tax code is the longest in the world and nearly 100 times lengthier than Hong Kong’s, which many experts consider to be the most efficient on the planet. Irrespective of the overall amounts of tax collected, navigating one’s way around Britain’s obscenely over-complicated tax system is a nightmare. If you’re thinking of locating your company on these shores, bear in mind that you may need to employ a platoon of tax planners just to ensure you are compliant and broadly efficient in the way you operate your business.
- The Office of Tax Simplification was set up by George Osborne a decade ago supposedly to tackle this problem. Its mission has been rendered impossible by politicians tempted to introduce ever more complicated loopholes and exemptions. The tax rulebook has doubled in length since 2009 and trebled since Tony Blair took office in 1997. The only sensible route out of this conundrum is for the government to announce it will rewrite the tax rules from scratch, limit the wordcount and commission a group such as the Office of Tax Simplification to undertake the task.
- Second, alongside simplification, the total tax take should be lowered. It now stands at 35 per cent of GDP, its highest since 1970. Politicians are always keen to highlight reductions to specific taxes — recent examples include raising the basic income tax threshold and modestly reducing corporation tax — but if, in overall terms, taxes are going up, this amounts to precious little consolation.
- Pledges from government ministers that they wish to “unleash Britain’s potential” or promises that the UK is “open for business” will continue to ring hollow unless it becomes less burdensome to run and grow a business. Entrepreneurs react to actual laws and regulations, not to campaign slogans on government poster sites.
- Politicians of all stripes seem to have lost any appetite to point to possible changes in our tax regime that could stimulate growth and encourage enterprise. It’s nearly eight years since David Cameron promised to “roll out the red carpet” for successful French workers if their own government proceeded with the madcap idea of imposing a top income tax rate of 75 per cent.
- If we want post-Brexit Britain to become a thriving hub of innovation and cutting-edge technological development, we need to make the country a haven for those who think along these lines. That means being less obsessed about the illusory unfairness of other jurisdictions operating better tax systems than we do and instead embracing the idea of being some form of tax haven ourselves.
- Mark Littlewood is director-general of the Institute of Economic Affairs.
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