Funny What Folks Get Nostalgic For

Modern tax laws lack old-fashioned charmBy Vanessa Houlder in FT March 3 2006 Vanessa Houlder
The volume of income tax legislation has expanded five-fold as a result of a painstaking effort to rewrite its Byzantine terminology in plain English.

The rewritten legislation, now spread over five volumes, is much easier to use and understand, according to a survey of tax professionals by Mori for Revenue & Customs.

But the survey uncovered pockets of resistance from experts who missed the “charm” of the old jargon, a lot of which dated back to 19th century legislation. A Customs official told Mori: “When you write things in plain English, it just doesn’t have the poetry.”

Such elegant phrases as “expenses necessarily incurred and defrayed from official emoluments” have been turned into themore prosaic “fixed sum deductions from earnings payable out of public revenue”.

This stripping of the mystique from tax law has proved unpopular with some specialists, particularly tax trainers and more senior tax lawyers, while other professionals criticised the rewriting project for failing to tackle the complexity of British tax law.

Kenneth Clarke, the former chancellor, likened rewriting the tax legislation to “translating War and Peace into lucid Swahili”For the best comment see Francis Bennion.

According to one expert the real problem of the tax law rewrite project, running since 1996, was “the underlying outrageous complications of the tax law”.

Another told Mori: “It was meant to be tax simplification, but no one would buy that politically – it’s too difficult – so we came up with this fudged idea of doing a tax law rewrite.”

Some tax professionals questioned the devotion of so much manpower to such a drawn-out exercise. One said it was “a beautiful, esoteric idea that’s just turned into an absolute waste of everyone’s time and effort”.

The rewrite project, designed to make tax legislation clearer, was set up under the leadership of Lord Howe in the last few months of the last Conservative government. It has already rewritten legislation on capital allowances and three income tax bills and is now tackling corporation tax.

Similar exercises have been undertaken in Australia, CanadaDo any Slaw readers know when this happened? and New Zealand, with mixed results, according to Jeffrey Owens, director of the centre for tax policy at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. These countries found it impossible to simplify the law and make it easier to understand and administer without simplifying underlying tax policy.

Most tax professionals found the old act cumbersome, and over-complex, with the use of archaic terms such as “emoluments” instead of earnings. Some felt aspects of the old terminology, such as references to “lunatics” were offensive.

The experts said the introduction of simpler language would not make much of a difference to them, although it would benefit trainees. But they welcomed the consolidation of the previously disjointed legislation, which ensured all related issues were grouped together.

A minority of tax professionals questioned the value of making tax legislation more accessible to non-experts. They argued that the public would normally consult an accountant, lawyer or the Revenue about a query rather than turn to the primary legislation. An accountant said: “The man in the street might find it easier to read but I doubt that the man in the street reads it very often.”

The report also said the language of the old legislation “helped professionals feel like specialists as they were aware that only they would be able to interpret it.” But most professionals thought the government had a responsibility to make tax legislation clear, accessible and understandable, given the importance of self-assessment. The use of simpler language could also cut down the risk of errors.

Some tax experts thought the rewritten law was potentially ambiguous and could contain loopholes. The words used in the old act were inaccessible, but had very definite and strict meanings. Experts also liked the extensive case law that backed up the old act.

Concern was expressed over a “lack of transparency” about some minor changes to the law that occurred as a by-product of different terms having different interpretations. Some tax experts harboured suspicions that the Revenue used the rewrite as an opportunity to close loopholes.

Some lawyers were also uncomfortable with the increased in formulae as they were happier interpreting words than equations.

Many tax professionals felt it was too early to decide whether the implementation of the new income tax act, the Income Tax (Earnings and Pensions) Act 2003 had been wholly successful.

The report said tax professionals were “getting to grips with the new system”, adding that “it was not surprising that there are a few teething problems”.

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