A top City law firm has called on the Government to scrap its new code for tax on controlled foreign companies (CFC), introduced in the Budget, or risk falling foul of EU laws. Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) criticised George Osborne for his changes to the CFC regime, despite announcements from WPP – led by Sir Martin Sorrell – and United Business Media, that they would move their headquarters back to Britain as a result of the plans.
Vodafone and Cadbury Schweppes both took the Government to court over the old CFC rules. Vodafone successfully argued at the High Court, and the European Court of Justice held in Cadbury Schweppes' favour, that the rules restricted the freedom of establishment enshrined in an EU treaty.
BLP warned the Chancellor that the new code could leave the Government open to further challenges and said the CFC rules should only apply to subsidiaries set up in offshore tax havens if the UK is to be truly competitive.
Neal Todd, a tax partner at BLP, which has the largest tax practice in the City, said: "Any distinction based on territorial principles is inherently discriminatory. The only question is whether it can be phrased in such a way as to be in compliance with the UK's obligations to the other member states of the EU.
"The challenge for the UK government will be to reform the rules in a way that makes it attractive for groups such as WPP to return their headquarters to the UK without leaving it open to another EU challenge. The answer is to ensure the rules only apply to true tax havens such as the Cayman Islands, not European countries where tax is only slightly lower than the UK."
Mr Osborne is also trying to lure multinationals back by reducing the headline rate of corporation tax more quickly than expected, with a 2 per cent cut to 26 per cent, instead of the 1 per cent previously announced. It will fall by a further 1 per cent a year until it reaches 23 per cent.
For companies in the retail sector, though, the warmer spring weather will do more for sales than any government measures. The extension of a business rate relief holiday for small businesses will help independent retailers and the 1p cut in fuel duty charge may encourage a few more shoppers into their cars to the nearest shops. But the best news came from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Retailers will be able to budget for the next year or so with better clarity on changes to the minimum wage. The department also pledged to open cross-border online retail and give extra help to town centres.
The retail sector also welcomed plans to improve access to finance for small businesses. Stephen Robertson, the director general of the British Retail Consortium, said: "Small businesses are a vital part of the retail sector; 92 per cent of retail businesses have fewer than 10 employees. Moves to widen their access to the finance they need to expand and increased reliefs on investment are positive."
But although the business rate relief extension is welcomed by many, the Government faced criticism that it didn't go far enough, with retailers and their landlords calling for the Empty Property Rate Relief to be reinstated. Mr Robertson said: "The business rate relief holiday extension is second best to full re-instatement of Empty Property Rate Relief. There is still much more that needs to be done to bring predictability and affordability to the business rates regime for all companies."
Online retailers operating off shore will grumble at the Low Value Consignment Relief being cut in November from £18 to £15. But it could help struggling retailers such as HMV.
Lorraine Parkin, Grant Thornton's head of VAT, said: "The sale of CDs and DVDs has particularly benefited from this relief. Ninety per cent of all CD sales in the UK are said to be affected. The relief is having a clear effect on UK retail sales and the latest estimate of its annual cost to the Exchequer is £130m in 2010. However, we question whether the £3 difference will be enough to make the difference the Government intends."
The swathes of empty retail space – nearly 15 per cent of shops are empty – was also addressed in the Budget. But it is not clear if the news will be good or bad for retail.
According to Guy Bransby, Jones Lang LaSalle's planning director: "Moves to make it easier to convert redundant commercial buildings to residential use accord with sustainability objectives. It should also help meet house building targets, albeit it is unclear how local planning authorities and local communities will react."
But the British Council of Shopping Centres, the body for retail shops, called for prudence: "Much of the vacant space on our high streets is not in the right place or in the right format for retailers' requirements. However, caution is needed and local authorities must not be allowed to arbitrarily choose residential classes over retail, which is needed to support viable communities; if old units are no longer suitable, then new developments must be encouraged."
The retail sector will be hoping that a later Easter and sunny bank holiday in April will boost sales, following an extremely tough February.
The hotel sector will be hoping for the same and wants the Government to do more to encourage tourists to visit. David Roche, the president of Expedia-owned Hotels.com, called for the Government to look at slashing air tax for arriving travellers to coincide with any rises in fuel tax. "If the Government wants to persuade visitors, it could do more to alleviate the rise in fuel to the travel sector. It could freeze air tax when fuel costs rise. This would be a welcome boost.
"Air fares have ballooned. With increases in air fares, travellers have less to spend on hotels and spending in the country they are visiting."
The Budget did delay the air passenger duty increase to next year but the sector wants more. It is still waiting for clarification on whether London will see a bed tax implemented in time for the Olympics next year.
The banks have nothing similar to look forward to. The much-maligned sector is having to deal with growing tax burdens over the next five years. Mr Osborne raised the levy on banks' balance sheets to 0.078 per cent from next year. This is much higher than the 0.075 per cent expected, which is up on the current 0.05 per cent.
The move will offset the reduction in corporation tax and experts estimate it will cost the banks about £1.2bn over five years. The Chancellor hopes the levy will raise an extra £285m next year and £100m a year thereafter, on top of the £2.5bn expected to be raised from the original bank levy.
Angela Knight, the chief executive of the British Bankers' Association, said: "Without satisfactory double taxation arrangements in place, this is putting banks operating in the UK at a long-term disadvantage – both internationally, as they compete against banks not paying such a levy, and domestically, as they compete with other sectors of the financial services industry. This change is not as straightforward as it first appears."
Meanwhile, oil and gas companies reacted with anger to a surprise tax rise and warned that jobs will be lost. The supplementary charge – introduced in 2002 at a rate of 10 per cent and increased to 20 per cent in 2006 – will rise dramatically to 32 per cent and the sector will face a marginal tax rate of 81 per cent.
Industry group Oil & Gas UK warned that thousands of jobs could be axed as a result of the tax rise, saying: "It's going to have a depressant effect upon investment."
Derek Leith, an oil and gas partner at Ernst & Young, said: "Recent discussions between the oil and gas industry and tax policymakers in government had been encouraging. The shock announcement that the supplementary charge will dramatically rise to 32 per cent will undermine much of what it hoped to achieve and demonstrates to industry in an unambiguous fashion that there is no real concept of fiscal stability in the UK. Many companies will now be frantically re-appraising their plans for capital investment in the UK continental shelf in the coming days."
The Chancellor said that he would monitor petrol prices at pumps to ensure that oil companies do not try to claw back money lost to higher taxes.
The property sector, in contrast, breathed a sigh of relief at the Budget with encouraging news for the planning system, the housing sector and those wanting to form listed real estate investment trusts (Reits).
The Budget outlined plans to relax rules on converting to a listed Reit. Clare Hartnell, the head of property and construction at Grant Thornton, said: "With the move to relaxing the rules for Reits and the stamp duty land tax relief on bulk portfolios, we will see a drive toward serious players considering residential Reits."
The move will encourage institutional funds to build some much needed homes in Britain. James Moss, the managing director of Curzon Investment Property, said: "Reits were originally introduced to help the housing sector but instead only provided a tax wrapper for the biggest commercial developers. Simplifying the system to make it cheaper for new entrants will encourage housing Reits – perhaps from councils and social landlords – which will provide a boost in housing investment and supply."
It is thought the Budget news will be particularly good for Aviva Investors, the investment arm of the insurance giant, as it is planning a £1bn residential fund to invest in the private rented sector. It is thought to be in talks with US residential specialist Pinnacle and a UK-based housing specialist to launch the fund.
First-time home buyers may not be as happy. Despite a move to make it easier to buy, as for commercial property, buyers still need to borrow and without available mortgages many will not be able to take advantage of government help.
Mark Collins, the head of residential at property adviser CB Richard Ellis, said: "Large deposits are a big impediment to first-time buyers and the Government has taken an important step towards alleviating this problem by introducing £250m of low-cost loans and extending the stamp duty holiday for homes under £250,000.
"However, the lack of available mortgage finance remains the most significant challenge for the housing market with first-time buyers disproportionately affected. Buyers who can raise deposits may still struggle to obtain a mortgage, so steps need to be taken to loosen credit constraints."
Scientists and biotech entrepreneurs were delighted with the boost of £100m to be invested in the Babraham Institute in Cambridge and the Norwich Research Park. George Freeman, MP for Mid Norfolk, heralded the move saying that the UK's lead in life sciences could spearhead a "third industrial revolution".
Businessmen also welcomed the return of Thatcher-style enterprise zones – where tax relief is given to specific locations to encourage private sector investment and the development of new businesses – to help certain regions move away from relying on the state.
Cities and regions will shortly be vying to be among the 21 new enterprise zones, with the locations of the first wave likely to attract businesses into the areas. The sites include chemist and retail chain Boots' headquarters in Nottingham, Peel's Liverpool Waters, Manchester Airport and east London's Royal Docks. But the relief does not go as far as the 1980s Thatcher pledge did – and some have questioned whether it will make as big a difference as is claimed.Reuse content