So, what exactly does amount to 'aggressive' tax avoidance?
Is it our moral duty to pay tax – or just a legal requirement, asks Patrick Nicholls.
"There is," said Mr Justice Rowlatt in Cape Brandy Syndicate v. IRC, "no equity in a taxing statute." And even in 1921 that was a well-established principle.
In layman's language, parliament decided what tax you paid. "Fairness" or "equity" didn't come into it. If your affairs came within the meaning of the statute, you paid tax. If they didn't, you didn't.
It therefore followed that there was no obligation on the taxpayer to arrange his affairs that the state could take as much money as possible from him. In IRC v. the Duke of Westminster, in 1936, Lord Tomlin declared: "Every man is entitled… to order his affairs so that the tax… is less than it otherwise would be. If he so succeeds in ordering them so as to secure this result, then, however unappreciative… the Revenue or his fellow taxpayers may be… he cannot be compelled to pay an increased tax."
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If parliament disapproves of the way the law operates, it can change it, even retrospectively. "Fairness" doesn't come into it; there is no equity in a taxing statute.
There will always be tension between the taxpayer, who wants to spend his own money, and the government, which wants to spend it for him. It's hardly surprising. If you are paid £1,000,000 per year, you are forced to contribute over half your income, namely £501,464 in tax and NI. Small wonder, therefore, that the highest-earning 1% of Britons pay almost 30% of all income taxes.
So a decision has to be made on the precise point at which tax is paid – and it's parliament that makes that decision. At least, it was, but now the government apparently favours a new basis for levying tax. It's apparently all about fairness. You can pay what parliament has decreed, yet still be held up to public opprobrium, if the consensus is that you should have paid more.
Evading tax has always been illegal; avoiding it in the first place has not. And yet now, even avoidance is to be, for all intents and purposes, illegal if the avoidance is deemed "aggressive" by ministers and the Press.
So think about it. If you don't pay the tax due, you're for the high jump, but if you do pay it, you may still wind up in the dock anyway!
So, what amounts to "aggressive" tax avoidance? David Cameron, knows it when he sees it and he saw it in the conduct of comedian Jimmy Carr.
Carr had taken steps to mitigate the tax he would otherwise have had to pay and was duly "monstered" by the tabloid Press.
And for what? For paying what the law decreed he should pay.
I doubt there's anyone like Jimmy Carr in the Prime Minister's circle of acquaintance – and therein lies the problem. Because behaviour which comes across as aggressive tax avoidance in a down-market comedian may seem no more than common prudence to the upper middle classes when practised by them in defence of their own family assets.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, said he had been "shocked to see how some of the very wealthiest people in the country have organised their tax affairs".
Fine, then alter the law – but in the meanwhile, how could Mr Osborne find Jimmy Carr's behaviour any more shocking, to use his word, than that of the Prime Minister's father, who was reported to have reduced, entirely legally, the value of his estate for Inheritance Tax purposes from some £10m to just £2.74m by moving substantial assets off-shore and making lifetime gifts, while leaving David Cameron just £300,000 in his will?
I personally make no criticism of either Mr Cameron, or his father. If I had such family assets to protect, I wouldn't hesitate to do the same.
You disagree? Fine. Seek to get the law changed and in the ensuing debate let's consider the public policy implications of levying tax at such aggressive rates.
In the end, there will never be a consensus on the "right" level of tax. There can be no meeting of minds between those who, like me, believe that tax should be levied only to fund the essential functions of the state and those who believe that the primary purpose of taxation is to penalise high earners for earning the money in the first place, but publicly "strong-arming" Jimmy Carr, Starbucks, or anyone else into paying more tax than the law prescribes subverts the rule of law.
"Be you ever so high, the law is above you," said Thomas Fuller in 1733, but now where taxation, at least, is concerned that time-honoured protection against executive tyranny is under attack. On taxation, it is the ministerial view on contemporary morality that will prevail, not the Finance Act.
Of course, not being "rich", I have no immediate problem. I just hope that if I ever become a member of a similarly proscribed group, there will be someone left to speak for me …
Patrick Nicholls was Conservative MP for Teignbridge, 1983-2001.