Taxpayers may not benefit from changes to fiscal policy – we’re all going to be paying more tax – but they will benefit from simpler tax law. It took nearly two centuries from the introduction of income tax for Britain’s tax law to reach a colossal 4,555 pages by 1997; Gordon Brown more than doubled that in a decade. Depending on your politics, of course, you may believe he was well-intentioned – was it a deliberate ploy to mask radical redistribution? Perhaps he’ll tell us in his memoirs.
At all events, Britain’s tax system is now among the most complex in the world, and the effort and cost of compliance for individuals and small businesses in particular is a real headache. There are 400 separate reliefs alone up for review by George Osborne’s Office of Tax Simplification, the establishment of which was welcomed by the Law Society.
One of the objects of simplification will be to reduce tax avoidance. So it is somewhat ironic that John Whiting, a former tax partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, has been put in charge of the office. In 2006, one recalls, HMRC noted that the ‘big four’ accountancy firms were behind almost half of all (perfectly legal) tax avoidance schemes.
Still, now that he is tax policy director of the Chartered Institute of Taxation, there is no one better qualified than Whiting to tidy up the mess.