JAMES HANNAM, PHD, has spent twenty years advising clients on every aspect of the UK tax regime while working for firms including EY, Freshfields, and KPMG.
Why you should read this book
You pay a lot of tax. Of course, you know that. But I bet you don't know just how much you pay or all the ways the government has to extract the cash from you. I think that's something you really need to know. It will make you into a better-informed voter who can see through the cant of politicians and the distortions in the media. I'm not asking whether we should pay more or less tax. I am saying that, even before we can answer that question, we have to understand about the tax we pay already.
By the end of this book, I hope you'll also see why with tax, as with so much in life, there are no straightforward solutions. We can't raise huge amounts of money just by taxing high earners and multinational companies, or by closing loopholes and chasing tax evaders. Were it that simple, the government would already be doing it. So, if we want the NHS, state education, a half-decent army and a welfare state, we just have to cough up. No one else is going to do it for us.
Before we start, an important word of warning: this book is not intended to help you pay less tax. A common version of the UK tax code, containing the law and various pieces of official guidance, is about 24,000 pages long. On top of that, there are at least 82 volumes of court decisions going back to 1875 and reams of material from the UK's tax authority, HM Revenue & Customs (usually abbreviated to HMRC). This book only has about 160 pages and the print is rather larger than in the standard edition of the legislation. That means you should not, under any circumstances, take action in respect of your tax affairs on the strength of what you read in these pages. No really, don't. It would be like attempting cosmetic surgery with only the expertise that you have gleaned from reading The Silence of the Lambs. Whether you are running a large company or living off a modest pension, you owe it to yourself to get some decent tax advice before risking any money. Even when I make some apparently definitive statement in these pages on, for example, ISAs or the VAT treatment of Jaffa Cakes, please don't take it at face value. The UK tax system is so unfeasibly complex, so Byzantine in its intricacy and changes so quickly, that even the simplest rules can have a dozen exceptions. In short, the purpose of this book is to help you become a more knowledgeable taxpayer and voter, not to save you money.
Let's look at some of the taxes you pay. If you are a worker, your employer will have been deducting tax and national insurance contributions from your pay packet each month and paying it directly over to the government. There's more: your employer also has to pay national insurance contributions on top of that. That's in addition to the national insurance that you pay. For a worker on an average wage of £26,500 a year, all those taxes comes to almost £8,000 a year: an effective tax rate on earnings of 30%. You probably know the basic rate of income tax is 20%, so you might be surprised to hear the effective tax rate for an average voter is rather higher than that, even taking into account the tax-free annual allowance. Of course, this is for workers on £26,500. If you are lucky enough to earn more, your effective tax rate will be even higher.
The cunning thing is the way the government collects all this tax. You earn the money, but the government diverts its share into the Treasury's coffers before you ever get your hands on a penny. The system of Pay As You Earn (usually abbreviated to PAYE) means you can be taxed without ever feeling it. It's a pernicious regime because it means you don't appreciate just how much you are paying. Imagine if you had to write a cheque to HM Revenue & Customs every month for hundreds of pounds. At the very least, you'd be demanding better value for money from public spending.
Since the largest element of taxation is on earnings and income, that's what we'll look at in Chapter 1 of this book. We'll be asking whether high earners contribute their fair share and see how tax traps the low paid in poverty.
Taxes on spending
Tax doesn't stop there, of course. Once you have what is left of your salary in the bank, you might want to spend it. Most purchases attract Value Added Tax, or VAT.
Let's combine several taxes into an everyday situation. Your young son has set his heart on a Lego truck for his birthday. There is a big articulated lorry available, guaranteed to flutter the heart of any small boy. The local toyshop would be delighted to sell this Lego set to you for £40, but it's obliged to add 20% VAT. Unfortunately, you've already had to pay income tax and national insurance on the money you need to pay the shopkeeper. As an average earner, to have the money in your pocket to buy the truck, you need to earn a grand total of £60 before any taxes. That's half again more than the basic cost of the Lego and it doesn't even include employers' national insurance.
You can see what's happening here. Lots of different taxes - income tax, employers' and employees' national insurance contributions and VAT - accumulate without the government ever having to admit what the total amount of pain is going to come to. Keeping the tax system complicated suits the government and, if I'm honest, it suits tax accountants like me as well. That's not because accountants are all helping their clients avoid taxes, it is just that calculating what you owe is so difficult that even the smallest of businesses need professional help to get it right.
VAT is an example of a tax that the government tries to keep invisible. When we look at a price tag, it already includes the VAT. The way taxes are collected through PAYE and the VAT system makes sure that, as an individual earner, you rarely have to hand over any money yourself. It is all done for you by your employer and businesses. The happy result (for the Treasury, at least) is that none of us have the foggiest how much tax we actually pay. That means, to some extent, all taxes are 'stealth taxes'.
There are no taxes quite so stealthy as the so-called green taxes pushing up our heating bills. Nonetheless, increase any tax enough and people start to notice. You may remember the fuel protests back in 2000. These were sparked off by increases of the duty on petrol and diesel.
Chapter 2 of this book is all about VAT, excise duties and green taxes: the taxes you pay on spending. We'll also see how tax gets in the way of free and fair trade, especially if you are a Third World farmer trying to sell your produce into the European Union.
And yet more taxes
As well as raising money, the government likes to use the tax system to encourage what it sees as virtuous behaviour. For example, it wants to promote thrift and provides incentives for us to save. We'll look at ISAs, pensions and other tax-efficient ways of locking your money away in Chapter 3. However, all these encouragements for us to save mean that the idle rich, who already have plenty of money in the bank, can get away with paying very low taxes indeed. They don't even need to resort to complicated avoidance schemes or to become a tax exile.
Capital gains tax applies on profits you make from investing in shares and other assets. Admittedly, you don't have to pay capital gains tax on your main residence when you sell it. But you do have to pay stamp duty when you buy your house, not to mention inheritance tax when you die in it. There is also council tax while you are living there, whether you own your home or not. We'll look at all these taxes on property in Chapter 3 as well.
Taxes on businesses
Company taxation has become a vexatious question. Are multinational companies like Google and Starbucks paying their fair shares? It sometimes seems that if the government went after them, the rest of us would have to pay a lot less.
It's true that some multinationals pay little tax in the UK, and the rules have recently been tightened up to deal with this. Remember, though: Google and Starbucks are American corporations so they should pay most of their tax in the USA. In any case, if we tax companies more, that doesn't let ordinary people off the hook. They still end up paying because company taxes are stealth taxes too. Companies all have customers, employees and shareholders. If you have a pension, life insurance policy or an ISA, you probably own shares in some big companies. Any tax on business has to be passed on to real people, so taxing companies is just another way of taxing you, but several levels removed so you are largely unaware of it. In Chapter 4, I'll clear up some of the common misconceptions about corporation tax and explain why many economists now realise that business taxes should be kept as low as possible.
That said, the international tax system is way behind the times. In the modern globalised economy of e-commerce and the internet, ideas (called 'intellectual property' in the jargon) are the most valuable things around. But because they are so mobile, taxing ideas is hard work. In Chapter 4, we'll also look at how governments have offered tax breaks for intellectual property to stay put, and how multinationals can move it around the world to keep their tax bills down. Luckily, in the last couple of years, there has been an international effort, initiated by the British government, to ensure that multinationals pay the right amount of tax.