A story about a Dutch company that did the rounds of the world’s press on April 23 got me checking whether the Netherlands, ever the laid back pot-smoker of Europe, celebrated April Fools’ Day a few weeks late. In a grand press conference it was announced that candidates are invited to apply for a one-way ticket to Mars sometime in the next decade. The project is to be funded by Reality TV rights. Welcome to the 21st century.
While Britain has a Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, it does not have a Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Dumb Humans, so I was not surprised when the BBC World Service cornered their prey a few days later. It turned out that one of the first people to put their name down for the flight was a young man with a distinct Lancashire accent. Now, if you are not a Brit you should understand that, while the BBC World Service has (highly competent) presenters from Uganda, South Africa, Canada and South-East England, it does not have many Lancastrians on its books. Someone searching for a broad Lancs accent on the BBC would be better-off tuning into Premier League Darts or The World Snooker Championship. This is entirely unfair to natives of Lancashire who are, of course, every bit as intelligent as everybody else, but it is an unfortunate urban fact.
Asked why he had applied, the Lancashire lad mentioned the appeal of Reality TV (OMYGOD) and then went on to talk of a new Frontier. At this point I clasped my steering wheel tight as I zoomed along the highway and braced myself for the inevitable G Force comment that was about to pin me to the back of my seat. And it did. He calmly told the interviewer that he wanted “to boldly go where no man has gone before”. Aaagh!
Talking to Israeli tax officials over the last week, all that was missing was that ping-pong-ball-stuck-in-the-back-of-the-throat Lancashire accent. Included in the just released preliminary draft of the Government’s Omnibus Bill were the first significant adjustments to the international tax provisions of the Income Tax Ordinance in 10 years. Listening to these highly intelligent people one could have been forgiven for thinking that they had just proposed the most radical shake-up of the tax law this side of the turn of the Millennium. A new frontier.
In reality, the amendment is less Starship Enterprise and more Apollo 13; less Captain Kirk on the ship’s panoramic deck and more Jack Swiggert trying to patch up the mess in the service module.
The main thrust of the proposal is in the area of CFC (Controlled Foreign Corporations) where many of the gaping holes in the legislation will be closed. As regards the fundamentals of the CFC regime, on the one hand, the law will be expanded to include companies with more than a third (previously a half) passive turnover or profit while, on the other hand, the CFC cut-off tax rate will be reduced to anything above 15% (currently 20%). The sad thing is that they did not use the opportunity for a clear re-think of the desirability of the law in its present format. It would have been nice to see some bold proposals rather than the S.W.A.T team peering nervously around every corner in search of possible tax avoidance schemes as they inch towards their target.
There is a change to the calculation of Foreign Personal Service Company income which closes a much abused loophole using companies in treaty countries, and a very controversial proposal to require new residents to report their foreign income. Under a 2008 amendment new and returning residents are exempt from tax on foreign income for 10 years. Until now they have also, perfectly reasonably, been exempt from reporting such exempt income. Perhaps not much longer.
But the daddy of them all is the proposed change to the 2006 Trust provisions. The Trust provisions have, since their inception, given rational advisers a headache. They were a valiant and, largely successful, attempt to prevent tax avoidance but, in their over-enthusiasm, left Israel taxing foreign trusts when there was no connection to Israel not to mention other weird and wonderful outcomes.
The new provision, although seeking to tax previously untaxed income from trusts settled by bona fide foreign residents, offers a glimmer of hope regarding those trusts where a settler dies and all beneficiaries depart for other shores.
The trouble is that, while they have had since 2006 to think about trust amendments, the authorities have managed to come up with some of the most ill-conceived mis-drafting seen in years. Together with colleagues from other accounting and law firms, I have been trying to join the dots all week. It has been like trying to get a sleeping bag back in its sleeve – every time you think you are there, something bulges out somewhere else. Perhaps they would do well to take a leaf out of the Beatles’ book; it is said that they composed some of their best lyrics when they were stoned.
I am reminded of a Yiddish expression which, roughly translated, goes: “He spelt the word ‘Noah’ with seven mistakes”.
It will be interesting to see if the authorities get all the bugs sorted out in the formal draft. In the meantime: “Houston, we have a problem”.