Top accountants squabble over tax avoidance morality

When David Cameron described comedian Jimmy Carrs use of the K2 artificial tax scheme as “morally wrong”, little did he know that he was kicking off a debate which is now going direct to the heart of the accountancy profession. Much of this has centred on comments made by the Chief Executive of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, Michael Izza, both on his blog and in an interview with the Financial Times.

The core issue revolves around the traditional notion that tax avoidance is legal while tax evasion most certainly is not. Mr Izza feels that this no longer washes with the general public who are increasingly focusing on the morality rather than the legality of tax avoidance devices. He wants his colleagues in the accountancy profession , particularly those who aggressively promote extreme tax-avoidance schemes like K2, to start looking at themselves in the mirror and asking themselves whether individual measures pass what he calls the “smell test”.

The fact is that most people take advantage of tax avoidance at some point in their lives. Every time anyone contributes into a pension scheme, they are effectively reducing their Income Tax liability. The same can be said of people who invest money in tax free ISAs or employ their wives as “secretaries” when they never actually perform the role.

Mr Izzas basic contention is that accountants and their clients effectively cross the line when they use artificial, clearly contrived tax avoidance schemes such as K2. However, many of his members do not share his somewhat sanctimonious views arguing that a good accountant will present his client with all the available options for legally reducing his tax liability and will then let the client make the final decision on which route to take. Anything less and the accountant might well be accused of professional negligence.

Another ICAEW member, Jason Selig, has an even more forthright opinion – “How is this a moral question?- there is no “right” or “wrong” about paying tax ” he insists.

Of course, many experienced clients of accountancy firms will most likely view all this hair tearing by the profession with complete indifference in the full knowledge that there have always been those accountants who effectively work for the Revenue and those who work for their clients. The former like to play things exactly by the book avoiding anything that can remotely be described as “edgy”. They think that having a reputation like this results in all their clients tax returns being waved through without query. The latter group whom one might describe as specialist tax accountants are used to playing the game with the Revenue and have all the answers ready should anything be questioned.

It seems that in the world of accountancy and tax, as in most other fields, you pay your money and you take your choice.

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