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A lost opportunity

Winterthur Life’s senior analyst John Colbeck believes Gordon Brown missed out on a perfect chance to prove how committed this Government is to pensions.

Many Treasury measures are announced through means other than the Budget Report. This, usually, means that the Chancellor holds something back in order to spring a surprise on the financial pundits, in his Budget Day speech.

This year, because Gordon Brown had so little room for manoeuvre, pre-BUdget predictions were fairly accurate and there were no surprises. As expected, it was a necessarily neutral affair. But with pensions high on the political and election agenda, he missed a golden opportunity to show how committed this Government is to ensuring the means for a comfortable retirement for all.

Ever-present topics were there, notably more measures for combating tax avoidance and further details on the taxation of trusts but there was no mention of pension simplification, other than references in a press release to the Revenue’s technical note and to the extension of the time schemes will have to amend their rules. They will now have until April 6, 2011.

The problem of rising house prices outpacing index-ed increases to the inherit-ance tax threshold, together with the failure to increase the stamp duty land tax threshold, has become a perennial around Budget time and the Chancellor decided this year it was time to make a helpful gesture at fairly minimal cost.

The increase of the stamp duty land tax threshold from 60,000 to 120,000 is expected to eliminate 50 per cent of firsttime buyers’ transactions from tax liability. For residential transactions, in certain designated disadvantaged areas, a higher threshold of 150,000 exists. However, the step-up from 1 per cent to 3 per cent at 250,000 remains.

With property high on the agenda of those looking to include bricks and mortar in their pension scheme next year, when the rules on permitted investments are broadened, this nod to stamp duty is likely to have an indirect benefit for buy-to-let investors, with products such as Sipps than for those trying to get onto the property ladder.

Early in Gordon Brown’s Chancellorship there was talk of an inheritance tax reform but his announcement that the IHT threshold would be fixed at levels slightly ahead of inflation for the next three years suggest that this has receded. The nil-rate band will be 275,000 in 2005/06, followed by 285,000 and 300,000 for the next two years.

With little prospect of any change in the short term and the Chancellor’s reluctance to make substantial rises to this threshold, means the importance of IHT planning and the use of trusts will still be relevant to many people.

Revised tax planning will be an issue for many same-sex couples when the Civil Part-nership Act takes effect from December 5. The associated tax changes giving civil partners the same status as married couples will take place at the same time. The new status will be beneficial for tax purposes, although it also brings the individuals within the definition of “associate” in the Income and Corporation Taxes Act and also within anti-avoidance provisions which currently apply to married couples. Current pension tax legislation will be amended to include civil partners in the same way as spouses.

The taxation of trusts featured again, with the news that there will be a new standard rate band (a basic rate band but relevant to the rates applied to the different types of income) for all trusts paying tax at the rate applicable to trusts. There will also be a separate tax regime for trusts for vulnerable people.

The standard rate band for trusts will be 500 and will be introduced on April 6 2005.

The regime for “trusts for the vulnerable” which will be backdated to 6 April 2004, will be based on the beneficiary’s personal allowances and tax bands, rather than at the tax rate applicable to trustsThere are further measures on trust taxation which will be included in next year’s Finance Bill. This is as a result of extending the consultation to address concerns about aspects of some of the proposals. This is, again, an example of how long and complex regulation has become under this Government.

More strands have been added to the other long-running issue, tax avoidance, which is also carried over from the last Budget. Several more ways of avoidance have been countered by legislation which became effective immediately. Included in this is a tax avoidance device which has been identified in this year’s Budget as avoidance through arbitrage. It works by exploiting differences in national tax codes which results in a tax deduction being given in the UK as well as in another country for the same expense (a double dip).

Another scheme, subject to the new legislation, avoids capital gains tax through the exploitation of double-taxation agreements in a similar manner to arbitrage. The measures will ensure that nothing in a double-taxation agreement can be read as preventing the UK having taxing rights over any chargeable gains. A range of other avoidance devices are also caught by the new legislation.

The likely tax receipts generated from countering tax avoidance are expected to finance the concessions the Chancellor did make.

In addition to the increases to the IHT and SDLT thresholds, he produced some modest giveaways to specifically targeted groups, without affecting the overall monetary balance of the Budget. Princi-pally, the beneficiaries are pensioners and schools.

The introduction of a UK real estate investment trust took a step closer with the publication of a discussion paper, following on from the consultation paper published in last year’s Budget. Subject to finding a solution to three challenging issues which have been identified, the Govern-ment hopes to report on progress later in the year with a view to legislate for a UK-Reit in the 2006 Finance Bill.

There is concern that property has become too much of a focus within pensions but this type of investment veh-icle may provide some good opportunities in the future.

With a further Budget expected this year, this was an interregnum budget.

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