Budget Special: Threshold on death duties raised but experts mourn missed chance on CGT

THE BUDGET AND YOU: Inheritance and capital gains tax
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The Independent Online
The decision to raise the inheritance tax threshold to pounds 215,000, while taking no steps to tackle the long-standing issue of capital gains tax, was described by tax experts yesterday as a "missed opportunity".

They said reforms of capital gains legislation had been strongly pushed for over several years and the Government had itself long accepted the need for change.

Patrick Stevens, tax partner at Ernst & Young, the tax specialists, said: "We have argued that capital gains tax [CGT] laws were very complicated and there were grounds to amend this. It is a pity that the Chancellor has decided not to move in this direction.

"Leaving the inheritance tax threshold [IHT] virtually untouched simply emphasises the importance of tax planning in a person's lifetime, possibly by means of gifting seven years before one's death."

Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, announced that IHT, which stood at pounds 154,000 until being raised to pounds 200,000 last year, would now be lifted by pounds 15,000, three times inflation.

The CGT threshold, which is uprated monthly in line with inflation, has been raised to pounds 6,500. Gains realised below this amount are not subject to tax.

Mr Clarke said: "IHT is a penalty on thrift, independence and enterprise. Lloyd George's maxim that `the most convenient time to tax the rich is when they are dead' no longer holds."

However, the Government had always said it would only cut these taxes when it could afford to. He added that this year's change meant IHT thresholds were 40 per cent higher than two years ago. IHT, which raises pounds 1.5bn a year, was introduced in 1986 to replace capital transfer tax. Tax is charged at 40 per cent on assets transferred on death and on gifts made within seven years before death.

The Inland Revenue said last night the measure would keep the number of taxpaying estates in the tax year 1997-98 down to an estimated 14,000, as at present. About one in 45 of all death estates will pay IHT. This is 1,500 less than if the threshold had gone up in line with inflation and will initially cost pounds 30m.

Help the Aged, the campaign group, said the measure would do little to reassure elderly people who felt their children's inheritance was being whittled away to pay for long-term care. Earlier, Ian Pearson, Labour MP for Dudley West, said scrapping inheritance and capital gains taxes would benefit 3 per cent of the population at most. He challenged the Prime Minister: "Why do you persist in supporting policies that favour the few instead of the many?"

Mr Stevens added that the Government could have abolished liability for CGT to a chosen date, before which no tax on gains would have been payable. This had been done in 1982.