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TAX TIPS: Spirit of Christmas lost

Hector took lessons from Scrooge on seasonal cheer, writes John Andrews
Remember Hector, the smiling tax inspector, exhorting us to fill in our tax return back in the summer (and in the autumn, and next year, etc, etc). You might imagine that at this time of year such a benign gentleman would be changing his bowler hat and pinstripe for a Santa suit, ready to shower us with gifts - for which read tax concessions.

Forget it. There are no freebies on offer - indeed, Christmas is one of the trickiest tax challenges for a company trying to be generous to its workforce. (What a good excuse!)

Start with the office Christmas party. Hector can be a real party-pooper unless spending is kept to Scrooge-like levels. Employers are allowed to lay out no more than pounds 75 a head (VAT included) for the annual knees- up without staff facing tax on the party as a "benefit in kind". Exceed that limit by even a cheap glass of wine and the whole cost becomes taxable.

Our friend will even be watching to see how you get to the party, and how you make your (unsteady) way home. If your thoughtful employer picks up the tab, that will be counted against the pounds 75 limit. The same goes for any dress hire cost if it is a fancy dress party. Even if you go dressed as a short-sighted, middle-aged gentleman clutching a tax return (a la Hector), there is no concession.

If your employer has already funded another event earlier in the tax year, such as the summer cocktail party, this also counts towards the overall limit. If there are, say, three parties a year, costing pounds 30 each, the pounds 75 exemption may cover two of them, leaving you to pay tax on the pounds 30 for the third.

But the tax man does not stop there. You might imagine there would be no problem with a little gift left on your desk. Again, you might well be wrong.

If the present comes from another company and does not cost more than pounds 150, it could be free of tax. If the package on the desk comes from your employer, this may cause him a bigger problem than simply having to dig into his pocket to pay for it in the first place. The rules stipulate that it counts as a taxable benefit for the employee.

This means the company either has to negotiate a costly settlement with the Revenue for you and all other employees getting the goodies by paying your tax bill, or it has to disclose the cost of the present to you on a form P11D next April, leaving you with the responsibility of paying the tax on it. Not much fun for either the employer or you - you may not have much liked the present anyway, and he would rather you did not know it was so cheap.

In contrast, if your boss decides to buy you something out of his or her own pocket, without recharging it to the company, this will be free of all tax ramifications - as long as it is a token of "personal esteem" rather than a "reward for service".

q John Andrews is president of the Chartered Institute of Taxation and a partner at Coopers & Lybrand.