The cost of COVID: tax rises in the Budget?

This post is part of our Entrepreneurial team’s regular series of blogs.

In seven weeks, the Chancellor will deliver a Budget to the House of Commons that is widely expected to contain tax rises. There is, as there always is, excitement as to which taxes and by how much. The majority of commentators over the last few months – me included in December – seem to align with the theory that Covid support must be paid for and that the two taxes most likely to face increases are Capital Gains Tax (CGT) and Corporation Tax (CT).

CGT is divisive. Politically troublesome at least. Some people believe that it should never have been introduced (as it was in 1965) because investments can only be made using income on which tax has already been paid – so CGT provides a second bite of the cherry for HM Treasury.

Others think that it is a legitimate tax, but is rightly assessed at lower rates than Income Tax.

Still others believe that it should be increased to align with Income Tax rates. At present, there is a considerable difference between these rates, with the majority of gains taxed at 10%-20% while Income Tax is charged at 20%-45% in most of the UK and 19%-46% in Scotland.

The Office of Tax Simplification recommended in November to move the CGT rates to 20%-40%, whilst simultaneously reducing the annual exemption from CGT from around £12,000 to around £3,000. Taxpayers paid £9.5bn in CGT in 2018/19, so, in theory at least, there is around £10bn a year in extra tax up for grabs, should the government choose to move on these recommendations.

CT is also divisive, but for different reasons. It provides an opportunity for governments to make their country a destination of choice for companies to base themselves – companies that then hire staff, who pay income tax, national insurance and VAT when they buy things, stimulating the economy. The net receipts from these taxes dwarf those from CT, thus, perhaps counter-intuitively, lower rates of CT are more commonly seen as progressive and opportunistic. Kind of a loss leader. Ireland, with its 12.5% CT rate, is the most relevant example of this as it has firmly established itself as a competitor, albeit a friendly one, to the UK.

So, that is the theory, but what about the practice?

Fact: the UK is going to need money. Lots of it. COVID support is running the UK – and the global economy – into a borrowing spree the likes of which has not occurred in my lifetime.

Ask ‘the man on the street’ what they’d prefer – owners of assets and companies paying more tax, or a penny on Income Tax? – and I will bet all the money in my pockets that they would say the former. So when tax rates need to move, it seems likely it will be CGT and CT.

But we find ourselves again in a national lockdown. Officially this will run until the end of January in Scotland, with the option to extend, and in England the Prime Minister hinted yesterday that maybe this would be closer to Spring. Millions are furloughed. Is 3 March, when there is every chance the country will still be locked down, really the time when Mr Sunak will make his move? I am not so sure.

I am sure, however, that the only way to guarantee the current CGT rates will apply is for assets to be disposed of before 3 March. It is, at least in part, for this reason that we are currently seeing unprecedented levels of corporate restructuring activity – Mergers and acquisitions, Management Buy Outs, Share Repurchases and Employee Ownership Trusts being established. It makes sense to move now, all things being equal. But seven weeks is not much time to get a transaction through. There is much to be done.