One hopes the overworked staff in the Office of Tax Simplification get overtime. This year they have surely earned every penny.
A glance at the Conservative Party’s Manifesto for the last general election must have inspired British taxpayers: ‘The Conservative Party believes in lower and simpler taxation. … Our ambition is to create the most competitive tax system in the G20 within five years. We will restore (sic) the tax system’s reputation for simplicity, stability and predictability.’
This last sentence reminds us of one of the most heartfelt tributes ever paid to the British tax system (which has received so many well-merited accolades over the years). In 1965 Lord Justice Diplock was moved to observe: ‘It would be a poor compliment to the draughtsman of Section 28 of the Finance Act 1960 if this [three-man] Court [of Appeal] were to be unanimous as to its meaning.’
Naturally, in the light of the 2010 Conservative Manifesto, our expectations were high. But we could scarcely have dared to hope for the scale of the simplification that has now been vouchsafed to us. For the Finance Bill (No. 4) 2010-12, seeking to enact the provisions of the recent Budget, goes further than anyone anticipated. It has proved impossible to contain all its brevity in fewer than three volumes. Victorian biographers could have learned lessons here.
As one leafs through the 686 pages of the Bill, one cannot withhold murmurs of admiration at the beauty of the prose – almost rivalling that of accounting standards! – that the draughtsmen have managed to incorporate. In the ten Parts comprising Volume I, its 227 sections are admirably concise; though they may have overdone the terseness of Part 2, covering Insurance companies carrying on long-term business, which takes up a mere 94 sections and fifty-five pages. One reaches the end of this Part, conscious of a poignant wish: ‘If only it could have gone on longer.’
But the best is yet to come. For Volumes II and III between them contain 38 Schedules and 540 pages. Invidious indeed to choose a favourite! Maybe Schedule 2, with its 40 pages covering ‘Profits arising from the exploitation of patents etc’. Or Schedule 6’s 55 pages encompassing the gripping ‘Seed enterprise investment scheme’. But then again, it is hard to resist Schedule 13’s 36 pages on ‘Employer asset-backed pension contributions etc’. The heart thrills at the very words!
Every captivated reader of these inspired pages will have his or her own special fancy. Who would have thought that Schedule 16 could cover its vital content (‘Part 2: minor and consequential amendments’) in a mere 34 elegant pages? On balance, though, I would award the palm to Schedule 20, on ‘Controlled foreign companies and foreign permanent establishments’. What a tragedy that this Schedule closed with its number of pages (97) still just short of a century. It is a miracle of compression that nobody who has read it from start to finish will ever be quite able to forget.