The Budget post-mortem

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The Independent Online
Chancellors of the Exchequer are prone to make heady claims about the likely place in history of any reforms they announce in their Budget speeches. Gordon Brown is no exception.

Early in his speech, Mr Brown claimed he was about to deliver his promised fundamental reform of capital gains tax (CGT). In fact, it was not quite as earth-shattering as he implied. Many of the complex provisions and reliefs, which make it such a difficult tax to compute and which result in such a low yield to the Treasury, apparently survive. Nevertheless, the changes are radical enough and, needless to say, there will some winners but also some losers.

Young entrepreneurs will be pleased by Gordon Brown's change to retirement relief - business people no longer need to wait until they are 50 to attract retirement relief as it is to be phased out over five years. The replacement tapering relief on business assets is geared solely to length of ownership (over 10 years), reflecting the modern trend for businesses to start up with a specific intention to float or achieve a trade sale in the medium- term. It will, however, disappoint short-term speculators.

On the other hand, he has made it more difficult to avoid any charge on the disposal of an asset just by becoming "non-resident". Until now, if you became "non-resident" for a period of three years, during which time the asset was sold, there would be no tax to pay. Brown has extended this period of non-residence to five years.

However, for those tempted to live abroad permanently after retirement, there is no mention of an exit charge on all relevant assets upon emigration as was feared, so they can still realise assets tax free.

The popular "bed-and-breakfasting" exercise, usually undertaken to "wash out" capital gains each year within the annually exempt amount, or to create some losses on under-performing shares, has been blocked. This caught us all napping and no doubt stockbrokers will regret the loss of commission.

"Business Angels" - those individuals willing to provide risk capital for businesses - can breathe a sigh of relief. The Chancellor has retained reinvestment relief, which was designed to create a source of funds from individuals for investment in shares in qualifying companies. On disposal of any asset, the gain can be reinvested, deferring the tax charge until the newly acquired shares are, in turn, disposed of. Even better, if these shares are retained until death, all latent capital gains liabilities are exempted.

Additionally, investors in the enterprise investment scheme (EIS) will be in a better position from 6 April 1998. Originally, an investor could not defer a capital gain realised from other assets by investing in shares under the EIS scheme. This was relaxed in November 1994, with the proviso that the investor obtained income tax relief for his investment. From 6 April 1998 the Chancellor has removed this requirement and an investor will be able to claim deferral of a capital gain on the amounts subscribed under the EIS scheme, whether or not he qualifies for the income tax relief.

One of the biggest surprises was that inheritance tax was scarcely mentioned and, in the main, lifetime planning is unaffected by the Budget. Another pounds 8,000, bringing the total to pounds 223,000, can be passed to the next generation tax free.

The biggest cheer of the speech was reserved for the Chancellor's announcement on offshore trusts. He had, of course, already felt compelled to block one avoidance scheme several days before the Budget. Comment on this, however, has so far been confused and often inaccurate. Brown has blocked the importation of an offshore trust into the UK laden with unrealised losses where the plan was to realise the losses and sell on to those seeking shelter from gains tax.

He further proposes to extend a tougher tax regime, first introduced in 1991, to the pre-1991 settlements which were previously protected. However, since the measure takes effect on 6 April 1999, offshore trusts can re-organise, for example, by excluding as their beneficiaries the settlor, members of his family or companies which they control - thereby reducing their liabilities.

UK resident beneficiaries of offshore trusts, whether created by settlors who are UK resident and domiciled or not, will need to seek professional advice as to the tax consequences for them of any capital sums or benefits being made available to them by the trustees of offshore trusts, after 17 March 1998.

Company car drivers expected the worst and while some will undoubtedly suffer, many are no doubt quite relieved by the final outcome as swingeing charges on company car parking spaces and other horrors did not materialise.

Anyone provided with private fuel by their employers will suffer, for the next five years, punitive incremental increases in the scale benefit on which income tax is charged. Remember that the charge applies even if only pounds 1 of fuel is supplied. It is therefore only worth taking the fuel if the quantity supplied is more than the tax charge.

In an environmental move, the Chancellor has decreed that the car benefit itself (which is based upon a percentage of the value of the car when new, plus any accessories added) will be unaffected if it is modified, at additional expense, to run on cleaner road fuel gases. Similarly, cars acquired which already do so will have the extra cost disregarded.

The annual thrash up and down the motorway prior to each 5 April, to do enough specific business miles in order to reduce the tax charge, may become a thing of the past. Currently, the charge is reduced incrementally if business miles reach an annual total of 2,500 or 18,000 which, of course, positively encourages business travel - hence the far-flung business trips organised in March!

Gordon Brown is now proposing to change the emphasis to achieving fewer miles by reducing discounts, the higher the business miles undertaken. Specific proposals will emerge in due course.

David Harrison is national director of tax at Kidsons Impey, chartered accountants and business advisers (0171-334 4778).