Can we simplify the tax system?

The UK’s tax code – in 2015-16, because next year it will be longer – runs to 22,298 single spaced, small font, heavily footnoted pages. That’s two-thirds the page-count of the 32 volume Encyclopaedia Britannica, which affected to summarise the sum total of human knowledge.

The immediate consequences of this state of affairs are uniformly negative. Complexity clogs the ability of business to grow; reliefs, poorly attuned to the behaviour they’d like to incentivise, distort the decision-making of consumers and businesses alike; new technologies enable arbitrages that reward fiscal and punish commercial efficiency; and enormous compliance costs barnacle the journey to profit.

We have an Office for Tax Simplification. Setting it up, the Coalition delivered on a 2010 Conservative Manifesto Pledge, one which grew out of a Geoffrey Howe chaired report entitled ‘Making Taxes Simpler’. That report took “as its starting point (and rightly so) the proposition that the UK direct tax system cries out for simplification and reduction in scale.” Its main recommendation was the establishment of an Office for Tax Simplification.

But in each and every one of the five years the Office for Tax Simplification has existed the tax code has grown by an average of 900 pages.

How did we get here? And is there any room for optimism?

In April this year, Andrew Tyrie MP, Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, called a meeting with a small group of hand-picked leaders from the tax field – academics, lawyers and accountants – to discuss proposals to improve the functioning of the Office for Tax Simplification.

The tax profession is pretty uniform in its desire for progress – whatever you might read elsewhere – and suggestions weren’t slow to come.

But they foundered on a single, political, reality.

Achieving tax simplification isn’t a technocratic exercise. It creates winners and losers. And losers make a lot of noise – remember the so-called Granny Tax? A simplification measure to freeze the personal allowances of over 65s and over 75s until the rest of us caught up – and the choice of who they are is an intensely political one. And those political choices will often fail to coincide with what, in purely abstract terms, good tax policy looks like.

Indeed there are occasions when it will stand in direct opposition to it. A good recent example of this is the Google Tax.

Business hated it: it tore up the Coalition’s Corporate Tax Roadmap. The tax profession was no more enthusiastic: the ACCA, ICAEW, CIOT and others lined up to slam it as radical, introduced without proper consultation and pre-empting international measures to tackle avoidance. All in order to raise washers. Nevertheless, and unopposed by Labour, it became law.

It was dictated by politics. The (unfounded) vulnerability of the Coalition to allegations it was soft on tax avoidance rendered the Google Tax politically necessary. And no appeal to process, or simplification, or anything else would persuade the then Government otherwise.

Understand this and you’ll understand that meaningful tax simplification involves the exercise of real political will. As Andrew Tyrie but few of his attendees recognised, politicians won’t delegate their most powerful mode of electoral patronage to an unelected technocracy. And nor, you might think, should they. And the abstract advantages of good tax policy aren’t, on their own, sufficient to cause politicians to act.

So what, then, is left?

There will be occasions when political and technocractic aims are coincident. And when those occasions arise we can expect a rationalisation of our tax system – but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the driver is a technocratic one. We can hope for, indeed expect – for there is an uncertain but steady drift in this direction – a process that produces better quality legislation. But I don’t see substantial reductions in page numbers in our future.

Perhaps we are better off working with this?

We live in a complex world. The modes through which we transact collectively multiply. The competition between businesses for a competitive edge takes in the attractant force of lower effective tax rates on the pricing of capital. Human nature is that we’d prefer that tax liabilities slipped from our roofs and onto those of our neighbours. And our Government jockeys with its neighbour and competitor nations for a greater share of the tax base. Perhaps the tax code we have is what the world we have demands?

But I will offer this prescription.

The overwhelming majority of taxpayers – individuals and businesses alike – don’t need the complex tax framework I’ve described. What they need is something which is rational, workable, and knowable. Perhaps that’s where the Office for Tax Simplification should focus its attention. Maybe the simplification of our tax system looks like its division into two tax systems: a short one for taxpayers who eschew and a longer one for taxpayers who embrace complexity?