Tax Avoidance: Footballers (And Others) Need To Learn The Offside Rule

Two things are certain in life: death and taxes. But there is also a third: big money and football are wildly, madly in love. Not everyone is happy with the affair. So, it's not a particular surprise that UK tax authorities are poring over the books at up to half the clubs in the Premier League, according to reports over the weekend. Their interest is another sign that society, generally, is now intolerant of tax avoidance schemes that seem to favour the rich, famous and infamous at our expense. But the risk from these high profile crackdowns is that we lose an ability to distinguish between careful tax planning, which involves a few official incentives, and the aggressive avoidance of paying money that is due, at least by any reasonable standard. We should tread carefully before storming the barricades armed with moral indignation. What constitutes a reasonable standard is harder to define than many people think. For example, most of us have pension and insurance plans that may invest partially in offshore locations to avoid tax, and all in a way that is officially condoned. Meanwhile, the football inquiry is complex. But it essentially boils down to where money paid in transfer fees really ends up. On the face of it, the sums go to the agents. But the suggestion is that it passes to other agencies, and through intermediaries, to offshore accounts, perhaps avoiding the tax that would have been due if the money went directly to the ultimate beneficiaries. There is doubtless a labyrinth of paperwork to investigate in this particular money-go-round. And as Britain has one of the world's most weird and complicated tax systems, it will doubtless take time and expensive court cases to sort out whether anything illegal has taken place. Separately, the latest revelations contained in the leak of millions of documents relating to the tax affairs of individuals and corporations has done nothing to reduce the sense of a world knitted together, at its richest end anyway, through a chummy web of complex offshore relationships. These people may not know each other, but they all seem to know the same advisers and sunny locations where their cash can rest undisturbed. Again, there is no suggestion here of any technical illegality. But it is all grating for everyone else stuck powerless in the prosaic world of payroll taxation and the relatively small change of Budget 'giveaways'. They seem to be crumbs from a table groaning under the weight of money that other people are managing to keep almost entirely for themselves. It obviously won't do. Whole systems of Government are threatened if the vast majority of taxpayers feel patronised and treated as fodder to protect the fortunes of an elite. They feel played. A small minority of the mighty army of professional service advisors in this country know every turn and tributary in the tax code, can navigate through waters others fail to even see. But they have missed the memo about tax transparency that came with the financial meltdown of 2007. It said this: They need to decide not just what they can, strictly, get away with, but what is acceptable. That is now the law, however fuzzy, and adds a moral dimension. Morality shouldn't be there, and would not be, if lawmakers produced watertight regulations. But it is and they don't Meanwhile, advisers, agents and other connected with the football industry may be losing sleep over their cleverness. The rest of us should stay awake for the show. It could be about to get very interesting.