Fairness and Simplicity in the UK Tax System

Last week's Budget did nothing for freelancers.  For many years we have been told by successive chancellors that they want to bring "fairness" into the tax system, but from a freelancer's point of view the changes have been anything but "fair".  The Coalition government trumpeted an introduction of "simplicity", however the results have been yet to materialise and the tax system seems as complicated as ever.

Is it REALLY so difficult?


What is Fair?

As a starting point to discussing the issue of "fairness" in the tax system, first one has to decide what is "fair".  According to the dictionary, something is "fair" if it is 'even handed without favouring one party or another'.  In the tax system, this would mean that everyone is treated the same.  However.  I don't believe that is what people REALLY mean when they talk about "fairness".  A truly "fair" tax system would impose a single rate of taxation on all payers and all forms of income regardless of whom (or what) they may be, what the level of that income might be, or where it might originate.  Multi-national companies would be paying the same percentage rate on their profits as an individual.  The same amount of "tax free" income would be available to both the pensioner with their savings account, as it would to the multi-millionaire with their various business interests.

"Fairness" in the tax system is completely dependant upon where you stand.  There will be some people that earn in excess of £60k per year that think it "unfair" that they have to pay 40% PAYE tax on their income.  However there will be others that are earning £20k per year that consider it equally "unfair" that those relatively rich peoeple aren't paying MORE than 40%!!!

A truly "fair" and equitable system would put a single rate on all income, lets say (for arguments sake) that rate was 33%.  A higher-rate tax payer that is currently paying above this rate would consider this a "fair" level, whereas a base-rate tax payer (currently at 20%) would consider this increase to be deeply un"fair".

That's the trouble with "fairness".  There are winners and losers.  Anyone that is a winner will be happy with the fairness, whereas anyone that is a "loser" from the change will not be happy.

Fairness in the tax system would therefore appear to be contrary to the first "maxim" of taxation as specified by Adam Smith in "The Wealth of Nations"  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wealth_of_Nations of proportionality.  Smith believed that taxation should be in proportion to respective abilities to pay, rather than necessarily in proportion to respective benefits accrued.   


What is Simplicity?

Well... that "fairness" discussion was not at all straightforward.   It is pretty obvious that the tax system will never be fair.. because the meaning of "fairness" is not universal.  How about "simplicity"?  Surely everyone wants a simple tax system?

Once again, the dictionary should be our starting point.  "Simplicity" means that something has few parts and is not difficult to analyse or understand.  This time, Adam Smith appears to be in agreement.  His second maxim was of "transparency".  A transparent tax system allows each taxpayer to understand what it is they are required to pay (and when, and how).  If the tax system is complex, then it becomes more difficult to understand one's liabilities.  If the tax system could be started from a blank sheet of paper, then achieving simplicity would be.... well... simple!  A single set of rates and thresholds could be set.  These rates and thresholds would apply to all taxpayers, and therefore everyone would know what it is that they had to pay. 

However, we don't have a blank sheet of paper.  We have a complicated set of rules that have evolved over time. 

Just looking at the starting rate for taxes on Income, the amount that one has to pay is influenced by your age (there are different thresholds for those aged under 65, 65-75, over 75), your profession (Capital Gains tax rates are different for "entrepreneurs" compared to everyone else), and even the health of your partner (the Blind Person's tax allowance is transferable to a partner).

This is before all the other allowances, benefits-in-kind, and taxes etc have been considered.


It would be much simpler to have a single starting rate for income taxes.  However, once again, perception will be key to this.  As was seen in last week's budget, trying to align this starting rate means that there will be perceived "winners" and "losers".  The under-65s will see their starting rate increase to match the rates of the over-75s.  While this is happening, the over-75s will be feeling a certain "unfairness" as their benefit under the current system is slowly eroded until it no longer exists.  Which brings us straight back to where we came in!

The Impossible Journey

So we can achieved "Simplicity" and true "Fairness", but the perception will be that it is "Unfair" and explaining the move from any current tax system to a new system will be anything but "Simple".

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