Garnishment and Distress Proceedings

Two proposals announced in 2017 Budget Speech – inserting into the Income Tax Act distress proceedings similar to the provision in the Value-Added Tax (VAT) Act, and garnishment of funds in bank accounts for the settlement of tax arrears – have caught the national attention. The discussion has not been helped by the misinformed and misguided statements in the media, even by columnists and persons who have a duty to be better informed.

That failure which is the cause of much of the confusion, misinformation and “noise”, has led to a situation whereby two very different provisions are conflated and wrong premises are used to defend or justify the two proposals. They should be addressed separately. Here is why.

The terms garnishment and distress are of significant legal and constitutional import and depending on circumstances may have different application to action against the person (in personam) and against the thing or property (in rem). As these matters apply to our Constitution they also raise the tension, if not the clash, between, on the one hand, Article 65 which grants to Parliament the power to “make laws for the peace, order and good government” and on the other hand, Article 142 which protects property rights subject to exceptions, as well as Article 8 which makes void any law inconsistent with the Constitution.

But first a piece of history. There was no garnishment provision in the original British Guiana Income Tax Ordinance passed in 1929. That came thirty-three years later as one of the measures introduced by the PPP Government in Act 11 of 1962 to give effect to that year’s Budget presented by C.R. Jacobs Jnr. but which came to be known as the Kaldor Budget. Persons from my generation will recall that that Budget was described by then Opposition leader Forbes Burnham not as the cause of war but the occasion for it. Of course, being an erudite lawyer, Burnham used the Latin for the aphorism although as the events unfolded in February 1962, the consequences were far from learned.

So what is now being proposed is the crude strengthening of a measure to which the PNC and the United Force were violently opposed and were prepared to do anything to block it, among others. Our columnists and self-serving and opportunistic politicians who have had an epiphany about the illegality and evils of tax evasion being such a bad thing may wish to go on the internet and google Wynn-Parry Report.

Both distress proceedings and garnishment are provided for in the VAT Act (section 49 and section 51 respectively) although instead of the word Garnishments used in the marginal note in the Income Tax Act, the corresponding marginal note in the VAT Act is “Recovery of tax from third parties”.

While the provision in the Income Tax Act pre-dates the 1980 Constitution and the VAT Act came much later, both are subject to the Constitution. And while the Constitution naturally allows an exception to the protection of property Article in the case of taxation, (otherwise how would the government be able to finance public services?) a taxing statute or a provision therein may be set aside as unconstitutional if it is confiscatory, discriminatory, disproportionate, or provides inadequate protection machinery for the taxpayer.

Perhaps somewhat confusingly, section 49 of the VAT Act speaks of both “distress proceedings” and “executing distress”. Distress is a summary remedy by which a person is entitled to take possession of the personal chattels of another without legal process while execution imports a legal process to give effect to a judgement of the Court. Moreover, section 49 is directed at goods, including perishable goods and allows the entry into premises accompanied by a police officer. Clearly, the Minister of Finance could not be referring to this section in discussing the expansion of garnishing funds from bank accounts.

The garnishment provisions of the VAT Act in fact mirror those of the Income Tax Act and have no direct or indirect reference to a bank account. Since the Minister wants to harmonise the VAT and the Income Tax Acts in these enforcement procedures, it may be presumed that the VAT Act will also be amended in this regard.

With respect to garnishment under the VAT Act, it is highly doubtful that the Commissioner can lawfully apply the provision before he has made a proper assessment on the taxpayer and after the taxpayer has exhausted his right of objection to the Commissioner, and appeals to the VAT Board of Review and to the High Court. Of course, if the taxpayer refuses to exercise his statutory rights of appeal, or to seek a remedy by way of judicial review, the Commissioner General would be within his rights to pursue the debt.

Absent from the discussion too, is any recognition of two other drastic procedures for recovery provided in the Income Tax Act. The first is under section 97 providing for the enforcement of a tax debt by way of parate execution, a Roman Dutch legal concept generally available to banks. As applied in the Income Tax Act, parate execution allows for the relatively speedy process for the disposal of property by the GRA. The second is under section 101 which provides that a certificate registered with the Registrar of the Supreme Court has the same force as a judgement of the High Court. The Act is unclear whether the Commissioner is required to avail himself of the section 101 process before seeking to apply 102. But instructively, section 101 is also a product of the 1962 Act referred to above.

It is probable that the idea for the introduction of distress proceedings into the Income Tax Act arose from someone who is unaware of sections 97, 101 and 102 of that Act and of the Rules of the High Court dealing with enforcement of judgements. The Commissioner General has confirmed that the distress and garnishment provisions in the VAT Act have never been applied and we know as well that the Income Tax provisions for parate execution under section 97, for a certificate under section 101 and for garnishment under section 102 have not been applied in all or the better part of fifty-four years, so why should anyone believe that strengthening any one of them is necessary? Does Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, the leader of the National Assembly know these things or wants to know them, insulated as he is from the day to day challenges of the working class whose interest he once claimed to champion?

The measures purportedly to improve tax administration seem more designed as a substitute for effective, professional administration and constitute a textbook case of draconian legislation. To use the words of the Sri Lankan Bar Association in similar circumstances, the proposed legislation is “discriminatory, draconian in their nature and harsh and superfluous”, grounds under which it successfully brought a constitutional challenge.

Provisions of the various Tax laws already give the GRA enormous powers for the administration of the Act and the collection of taxes. Its new head is familiar with the successful operations of those laws, having been part of the tail end of the glorious days of the Inland Revenue Department when it was respected for its professionalism, impartiality, competence and independence, characteristics which no doubt enabled it to operate effectively using the existing laws.

The new head does not need new, additional and draconian powers to be effective. He needs to apply the existing tax laws without fear or favour, with the same deference to big and small, and undaunted by touchable and untouchable alike.

Tax rates hardly matter

Introduction
As promised, this week’s column looks at the importance of tax rates in the overall scheme of tax policy in any country. I start by saying that lower rates of tax do matter – they allow the taxpayer to retain a higher level of the income earned which they can use for re-investment or higher dividend payments to shareholders. They can also make a country more competitive since prospective investors pay some attention to countries’ nominal tax rates in their investment equation. Hence, the decision to reduce the corporate tax rates by five percentage points would be welcomed both by companies and individuals, as evidenced by the swift response of the Private Sector Commission (PSC) to the announcement by the Minister of Finance.

In making his announcement the Minister said companies benefiting from this measure would be in a position to retain and invest a significantly higher share of their profits. While some may suggest that the reduction in the tax rate had an unmistakable eye on the upcoming general elections, they cannot argue with the effect advanced by the Minister since by definition a reduced tax charge leaves more after-tax profits which are available for investments, higher dividend payments and related party loans. But seemingly too quick to please the political directorate, it was the private sector representatives who stated that the reduction would make Guyana competitive in terms of tax rates.

The private sector leaders travel around and must know that the corporate rate in two of our major Caricom trading partners (Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados) is 25% while our reduced rates are 30% for non-commercial companies, 40% for commercial companies and 45% for telephone companies. Non-regional investors on the other hand would be familiar with much lower tax rates in their own countries, so that our 30%/40% would still sound to them extremely high.

Government failure
The biggest but unacknowledged problem for the private sector is the failure by this government to address tax policy and tax reform which it has been promising for eighteen years. For example, tax policy would address how we treat one sector over another, whether a single person should receive the same personal allowance as the single parent with a number of children, whether there should be differentials in tax rates, the balance between direct and indirect taxes, extending the use of the withholding tax to domestic contractors, etc. Unfortunately what passes for tax policy is the demand for tax revenues to finance a bloated, politicised and inefficient bureaucracy and a government that seems to have an insatiable appetite to spend, spend and spend.

I strongly believe that the flat, across-the-board reduction of five percentage points is both intellectually lazy and politically cowardly. If the officials of the Ministry of Finance were to read the report of the Bank of Guyana (latest mid-year 2010) or indeed the statistics in their own National Estimates, they would see that the business community is increasingly investment-averse despite all the tax and contracts goodies thrown their way. As the following table shows, growth in the economy is being driven by the public sector.

[table to be inserted]

Source: National Estimates 2011

Goodies
The tax laws are now replete with all forms of incentives, some of which are general and others specific, some found in legislation and others in agreements signed by the political arm of the government. Some are intended to encourage exports (the export allowance), investments (the Income Tax in Aid of Industry) which also provides tax holidays for investments in the hinterland, low cost housing and exemption from VAT.

More than a decade after its introduction and generous exemptions for public companies investments, the Stock Exchange remains extremely inactive with no new issuers, i.e., companies going public, or existing companies offering new issues. In the absence of rules on thin capitalisation and the differential tax treatment of loans versus dividends, even our larger public companies find it cheaper to borrow than to raise new capital. There was a time when Banks DIH and DDL could be relied upon to make rights issue or bonus shares which allowed for some greater liquidity in the market. They have not needed to do so.

The commercial banks hold deposits of more than $230 billion dollars of which loans and advances, inclusive of the public sector loans, amounted to $68.9 billion. For several years the government has been critical of the commercial banks and Minister Manzoor Nadir, the self-appointed chief spokesperson of the 2011 Budget is on record as stating that “the commercial banks have been penalizing our people for too long.” He is also on record for cautioning against differential tax rates to protect the locally manufactured products since they “protect local inefficiencies.” That Mr Nadir now supports the things he had earlier railed against shows how politicised the tax system is, how it is influenced by the changing tides of political opportunitism and why we have a tax system that is, by any measure other than revenue collection, so dysfunctional.

Drivers
Tax policy has to be driven by a vision and relevant information. This column has called for more relevant information to be disclosed in public documents. Principal among these would be the annual report of the Guyana Revenue Authority which the Minister of Finance has failed to table in the National Assembly for some time now. Let us see how much the construction sector, the bauxite sector, the forestry sector, the agriculture sector including rice, sugar and other crops sectors contribute to the national coffers, and how much remissions, rebates and holidays they receive which may amount to billions each year. And yes, we should be able to see how much each region contributes and compare this with their receipts from the central government.

The Minister has access to data that would tell him that the bulk of the corporate taxes collected by the GRA is paid literally by a handful of companies. These are the commercial banks, Banks DIH and DDL, GT&T and Digicel and the oil distribution companies. The majority of companies could not care about tax rate – they decide how much tax they will pay and have their accounts prepared accordingly. This of course is also true of the self-employed, for which Regent Street is a metonym and to which political protest is as applicable as tax evasion is. There is a strong suspicion that setting a payment level for any period is also true of VAT, and as I have written before in this column, that some politicians have given pledges to the business community for tax support in exchange for votes.

Conclusion
Tax policy and tax reform will clearly have to wait for some years. The Jagdeo-Singh duo is comfortable with the status quo under which urban workers and consumers are the biggest contributors. They are equally comfortable with some sectors and segments making no contribution to the national coffers while demanding so much. The parliamentary debate on the 2011 Budget will close without any discussion on either tax policy or tax reform. In that sense, we are all losers.

Take from the Poor and Give to the Rich

Introduction
Perhaps not surprisingly the only feedback I received to last week’s column on tax evasion and tax avoidance was from persons who would generally be considered among the better off. And who want more from the society and the tax system because “they work hard, create jobs and have a choice.” Those comments are filled with arrogance, self-importance, self-interest and self-delusion. As though the stevedores, the public health workers, the cane-cutters and others do not work hard, or do not have a choice. They have a choice and that is why they daily flock the Passport Office in Camp Street from 5.30 AM for a passport to go to the Caribbean, North America, to anywhere, to work harder, to earn and to enjoy the fruits of their harder work.

In Guyana the tax system is heavily weighted against the poor and the commentator and columnist was only mildly exaggerating when he said that workers pay a total of 49% of their income in taxes – 33 1/3% income tax and 16% VAT. In fact that commentator forgot to mention the employees’ 5% NIS contribution which in public finance is a form of tax while the rough calculation of 49% ignores the range of zero-rated VAT items and the personal allowance of $35,000 per month. Overall however, the tax burden is very much around the 50% tax to GDP which makes Guyana one of the most heavily taxed countries in the world.

Soaking the Poor
Yet, for some reason there is no real commitment to tax reform about which we have been hearing since 1992. Tax reform is rat poison, for all practical purposes off the table, better understood by those who pay taxes than those who impose them. This is ironic, for some of the most important steps in the march to democracy involved taxation. The Boston Tea Party has to be given pride of place for its inspiration to the independence movement in the US and the iconic statement “no taxation without representation”. How can those of us who were around in the sixties, forget Peter D’Aguiar’s Axe the Tax Campaign when then Premier Dr. Cheddi Jagan sought to introduce a measure of tax reform? Ann Jardim, one of the leaders of the UF carefully ignored the introduction of new taxes but rallied the working class against a miniscule increase in the rate of the personal income tax. Today those who have followed her in the UF are part of the new scheme that takes from the poor to give to the rich, in taxes and state assets.

In the sixties, the political classes were on different sides of the political divide – a left-leaning government seeking to achieve a more equitable sharing of the benefits and responsibilities of citizenship by the trader and business class. Today while the ruling party may have vestiges of working class preferences, its Government seems beholden to the business class whose position of influence – whether at the head table at the Office of the President or at the Pegasus Poolside on Friday evenings – has come to be the defining feature of the Jagdeo Administration. We no longer hear about equity in the tax system, let alone the distinction between horizontal versus vertical equity. Indeed, any acceptance of the concept of tax reform by this Government is not out of conviction but out of a commitment made as a precondition to receive more and more gifts and grants from the donor community.

Stranglehold
Businesses’ stranglehold on the agenda is not peculiar to Guyana. The current wave of globalisation, driven first by the Reagan-Thatcher axis and adopted and sold by the international multilateral institutions across the developing world like snake oil salesmen of old, has witnessed a concentration of wealth and income and a widening of the socio-economic divide. The effect has been a corresponding increase in business’s ability to set the agenda for political discussion and its effective veto over public policy. In Guyana, under the agreements made by the Administration with the donor community any semblance of economic policy is driven by the National Competitiveness Council that is dominated by business interests rather than national interests. The NCC has been more successful at stalling in the interest of the status quo than at achieving any meaningful changes.

Recent research under President Bush revealed that elected officials tend to be unresponsive to the policy preferences of low-income citizens and that they disproportionately favour business interests and the wealthy in all areas of public policy. Like their counterparts in the US, those interests in Guyana also opt out or are favoured by a tax system set up in 1929 for the ruling plantation and trader class and only episodically reviewed subsequently for reform. Indeed, since 1929, there have been only two or three events that could qualify as tax reform and with only one being targeted at getting the rich to pay a fair share of the tax burden. The first of the reforms took place in the early sixties when Dr. Cheddi Jagan brought in Hungarian-born world-class economist and socialist thinker Professor Nicholas Kaldor, to overhaul the country’s tax system. Those reforms included the introduction of the Capital Gains Tax, the Property Tax and steeply progressive but at the highest end, counter-productive, marginal tax rates that went up to 75% from a base 5%.

Burnham and Hoyte
In 1970 the Burnham Administration enacted the Corporation Tax Act which introduced a separate regime of companies while incorporating over seventy sections of the Income Tax Act into the new Act. The next wave saw the abolition of dividend taxation and pensions, unification of the corporate tax rate, the abolition of the progressive income tax and the abolition of allowances – all pro-business and anti-worker in their effect. The PPP/C before President Jagdeo has the distinction of reversing the unification of tax rates and introducing the Minimum Corporation Tax on all, and then only on commercial, companies. Jagdeo has to his credit the immoral imposition of the 16% Value-Added Tax. Now, if tax evasion is illegal then we have to find a word for the imposition of a tax at a rate that is knowingly and admittedly excessive and wrong.

Barring one or two exceptions, every reform then has favoured the wealthy and the powerful at the expense of the poor. Here are some of the starkly contrasting provisions in the tax legislation.

1. Wages and salaries are fully taxed. Dividends are fully exempt.

2. Income from personal exertion is taxed at 33 1/3%. Capital gains and interest income are taxed at 20%.

3. The employer-provided vehicle, and sometimes more than one, driver(s) and security are fully exempt from tax. A travel allowance to the worker to help her defray the cost of getting from home to work is fully taxed.

4. The entertainment allowance paid to the executive is fully exempt; the meal allowance paid to the worker is taxable unless a strong case is made for it to a skeptical and uncompromising revenue officer who will claim that a meal is a private expense. As if entertainment does not include a high level of private benefit as well.

5. There is no limit to the pension that is tax-free. Most workers on retirement have to make do with under $20,000 per month. The retired top-executive receives hundreds of thousands tax free.

6. Overseas passage assistance – a throwback to the British planter class, is exempt for all but can only be enjoyed by those with spending power.

7. The working poor are taxed at source; the self-employed with all their benefits and concessions, can decide how much tax they want to pay.

8. There are ethnic and gender biases in the tax system that no one even wants to whisper, let alone acknowledge or debate.

9. The wage earner gets no deductions or allowances; business can deduct most expenses, whether it be the magazine or the business trip.

10. Duty and tax concessions favour those who have economic or political power over those who do not. Just look at the beneficiaries of the duty-free vehicles.

11. Businesses get tax holidays; their workers’ earnings are fully taxed.

12. The entrepreneur has a choice between taxable and tax-exempt business activities; the employee’s only choice is not to work.

No vision, no tax reform
The above, is a brief review of the relative position of the workers versus the executives and the “entrepreneur” under our tax laws. Those laws clearly cry out for reform. But then as the late Richard Musgrove, public finance specialist said, tax reform needs a clear and detailed vision of where we are going – a vision that is sadly lacking in President Jagdeo. That is why he could be so easily diverted to the LCDS as a tunnel-vision strategy for development and even as he heads CARICOM, could be completely sold on a Continental Destiny with neighbouring Brazil. If what he said in a recent speech he gave at a private function is to be believed, he is now looking to Brazil to help us with our rice industry even as his Government pumps $400 million in what by implication is an inefficient industry.

The cry for reform, no matter how compelling or loud, is unlikely to be heard or to win support from those of power within and influence without. A review I saw recently by a leading donor to the Guyana economy, actually praises the country’s fiscal performance, completely ignoring the tax burden that the citizens of the countries making up that donor would regard as completely unacceptable given the low level of public benefits available in Guyana. In many of those countries the entertainment allowance is now denied at the corporate level and in Australia the Keating Tax Reform Package dealt an effective blow at non-cash fringe benefits.

Conclusion
But at the domestic level there simply is no need or pressure for reform. With perhaps a single exception, the top tier of the opposition political parties has shown no interest in tax reform, confirming the view that there is no ideological or class difference among the political elites. Labour has been emasculated by personal interests and petty rivalry exploited by, again, the politically powerful while Ann Jardim’s successor is just another of that elite.

The Ministry of Finance has been depressingly slow at taking any initiatives in tax policies. It has left these to the tax administrators, a fundamentally flawed position – the two roles and functions being obviously different. We need lower rates of tax both on individuals and corporate, removing not the loopholes but the chasms that in some cases discount the nominal rate of tax by as much as 75%. We need a society in which the fiscal benefits and obligations are shared and borne fairly by all and in which relief must not be sought in tax evasion.

Similarly, the President has allowed elements in the private sector to hijack the social and economic debate including tax reform. If any progress is to be made, then the hijackers will have to be brought into line. Failing that, we are left with an inequitable and dysfunctional tax system, high tax rates and massive evasion. That is in no one’s interest.

Question: What’s the difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion?

Answer: the thickness of a prison wall

That is how the former Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer in the UK, Denis Healey defined the two related practices but which have distinctly separate consequences. He was also tough on tax evasion and also said “It will squeeze the rich until the pips squeak.” The first quote in fact matches the general view on the contrasting level of permissibility of what others may call aggressive tax practices. Remember however that Mr. Healey made his statement decades ago. Internationally, things have changed since then and not only tax administrators but legislators and very importantly, the courts, certainly in the more advanced economies, are taking more direct action against aggressive tax practices.

It may in fact be due to Bush’s War on Terror targeting not only those who pulled the trigger or threw the bomb but those who financed those who pulled the trigger or threw the bomb. The evidence is that the coordinated and sustained efforts to contain domestic tax evaders and the tax haven jurisdictions that have for decades facilitated them are yielding significant results. As one international tax specialist wrote recently, “the seemingly endless game of cat and mouse seems to be shifting largely to the cat’s advantage.”

In 2008, Germany paid an informant for records taken illegally from a Liechtenstein bank, in an effort to track down German tax cheats including some of its international tennis stars. But it was the United States that has shaken the very foundation of Swiss bank secrecy – which essentially forbids access to information of or about the account of any person other than the account holder – when it demanded from the Swiss bank UBS the names of 52,000 account holders suspected of tax evasion. The Swiss initially refused but the tide had been turning against those “fiscal and moral termites who have been eating away at tax revenue bases throughout the world in an unprecedented fashion over the last thirty or so years.”

The Swiss blinked and now the Obama Administration is planning to go even further with the enactment of new legislation, the Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act – that is designed to better enable US authorities to obtain information about offshore trusts and accounts used by Americans to hide their income and assets from the Internal Revenue Service of the US. The position is that the US can access the information under the scores of Double Taxation Treaties which the US has with countries across the world or under what are called Tax Information Exchange Agreements such as the one it has with Guyana. In the alternative, the US simply threatens sanctions against those it considers uncooperative.

Tax evasion, tax avoidance and tax planning
It seems fairly simple to distinguish between tax evasion and tax avoidance. It is the difference between working outside the law and working within the law (though against its spirit). Tax evasion can and often is contrasted with tax avoidance, but also with tax planning/mitigation, and it is here that the issue becomes difficult. Tax evasion typically involves the non-payment of a tax that would properly be chargeable if the taxpayer made a full and true disclosure of income and allowable deductions. Common examples of tax evasion include a deliberate failure by a business to report the full amount of revenue received or the deliberate claiming of a deduction by a business for an expenditure it has neither incurred nor paid. There is no ambiguity about tax evasion – it is illegal and a crime under our laws. On the other hand, tax avoidance can be considered either as permissible or impermissible, although they are not that easy to distinguish.

Tax planning or tax mitigation can be traced back to a well-known and oft quoted case involving the Duke of Westminster in which the court ruled that “every man is entitled to order his affairs so that the tax attaching under the appropriate Acts is less than it otherwise would be”. One simple example of tax planning is where a business promoter makes his decision on the form of the entity on the basis of the applicable tax considerations. If the trader was to set up a company it would be taxed at 45% and be subject to Minimum Corporation Tax. On the other hand if he operates under his or a business name the profits all accrue to him and the trader would be taxed as an individual at the personal tax rate of 33 1/3%. Tax planning may also include the decision to lease or buy an asset which would have different tax consequences but both of which are entirely legal.

Pandemic
Where it becomes really difficult is in respect of “impermissible tax avoidance”, which refers to artificial or contrived arrangements, with little or no actual economic impact upon the taxpayer, and which are usually designed to manipulate or exploit perceived “loopholes” in the tax laws in order to achieve results that conflict with or defeat the intention of Parliament. In fact this is what section 74 of our Income Tax Act seems to address but uses the words “artificial” and “fictitious” and gives the Commissioner wide powers to disregard or set aside such transactions. In tax jargon our section 74 is a general anti-avoidance rule (GAAR) and is designed to protect the revenue base from erosion by “fiscal termites” that seem to have created a pandemic in our economy, much worse than any Swine Flu or AIDS. .

Since revenue collection is a primary function of any tax system, any systematic and widespread avoidance activity will clearly have an adverse impact on that function. But avoidance does more than this – it also significantly affects the efficiency and equity of tax systems by siphoning off resources from more productive ventures, redistributing the tax burden and threatening to undermine compliance. We seem not to care that the poor employees are burdened by high and unavoidable tax personal taxes and wrongly charged VAT, all for the benefit of the private sector entrepreneurs, a term that has come to include drug dealers, money launderers and tax dodgers.

Changing administrative approach
Across the major economies, national revenue authorities have been taking measures to identify and shut down perceived impermissible tax avoidance activities. Within the UK, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs Anti-Avoidance Group co-ordinates anti-avoidance activity including litigation strategies in relation to avoidance. To counter tax avoidance, the Group deploys its resources where it considers the risk greatest and provides direction for the effective use of resource within other areas of HMRC. The approach is now a form of cooperation between the tax authorities and larger entities that is designed to bring about effective consultation, certainty and speedy resolution of tax issues. Changing from the old command style tax administration to a more co-operative approach, the authorities enter arrangements with the taxpayer whereby the latter would submit its tax strategy on a particular issue and have this cleared by the tax authorities in return for which it is saved the time and cost of revenue audits and litigation.

Another approach is increased cooperation among the tax authorities of various countries with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Joint International Tax Shelter Information Centre set up by Australia, Canada, the UK and the US being prime examples.

The tax authorities are also aware that much of the tax avoidance by the big companies is hatched and or blessed by their tax advisors.

They have therefore not been hesitant to go after the larger accounting firms that design and market packaged boutique packages sold under attractive but expensive labels including asset protection and the virtues of mainly offshore tax shelters.

Both corporate as well as high-net worth individuals seems to consider the risks associated with tax evasion as more than compensated for by the rewards.

The changing attitude of the courts
The Duke of Westminster case (1936) has long dominated the thinking of the courts and more recently they have propounded what is called the Ramsay principle (1982) under which the courts would examine transactions that seem to have no commercial purpose and ignore or set them aside as envisaged by section 74 of our Income Tax Act.

The Ramsay principle was seen as a separate theory of revenue law which said that tax laws must be interpreted very strictly in favour of the taxpayer. That principle appears to have ended in 2005 in a case that came before the House of Lords.

The latest case essentially ruled that tax provisions dealing with tax evasion should be given a purposive construction which could have wide effect since all anti-avoidance measures are designed to prevent tax evasion. But life will never be as simple as this and no doubt the courts will continue to be challenged by the creativity of tax advisors and dishonest taxpayers even as the nature of transactions become ever novel and complex even for tax administrations.

The Guyana scene
There does not appear to have been any reported case out of the Guyana courts addressing section 74. That is equally true of the region with one notable exception in Jamaica, involving a leading case on asset stripping, under similar anti-avoidance provisions.

On the other hand, there are some frequently used permissible tax planning strategies, none of which again appear to have reached the courts but this is because they have not been challenged by the Revenue Authority. Some of the more common strategies include the structuring of the business (corporate or individual); the efforts to take advantage of the differential tax rates applicable to companies (non-commercial company and therefore taxed at 35% or commercial and taxed at 45%); and transactions designed to benefit from low or no tax under some of the provisions under Double Taxation Treaties of which the Caricom Treaty is a prime example.

What seems more common is the rank tax evasion where income is blatantly ducked and the money laundered abroad under the permissive exchange control regime we enjoy and very often abuse.

Another is to charge all forms of personal expenses to the business and get full deductibility while yet another is the use of fake invoices which overstate the figures in the accounts and understate those given to the Customs, both of which are accepted unknowingly by the GRA. Businesses can generally count on finding a friendly accountant willing to sign off on their make believe financial statements that seem to get past just as easily, the tax authorities as well as the lending institutions.

Guyana is the only regional country that has a net property tax capturing the assets held here and abroad. The overseas assets are almost invariably overlooked by the GRA despite arrangements that allow for the exchange of information with the tax authorities of all our major trading partners. The Cambios seem custom-designed to facilitate such evasion while the country appears only willing to pretend that we have serious intentions about preventing money laundering.

One glaring example of how tax evasion takes place under the noses of those in administrative, political and professional positions is with respect to political donations. It is known that businesses contribute significantly to the elections war chest of the major political parties, sometimes more than they pay in taxes. Yet, none of this gets its way into the books. Is it just possible that some of these donors who are feted under the full glare of publicity actually pay more to the political parties than in taxes? Or is it that they consider that this gives them tax immunity?

Conclusion
Tax reform in our case has first to deal with tax evasion and administration. This government has been paying lip service to tax reform ever since it came to power seventeen years ago. Unless it thinks that imposing VAT on top of high personal tax rates is tax reform, it has done nothing and tax evasion is now worse than it has ever been. VAT has brought in immoral windfalls, reducing the incentive for reform which the Government has delegated to the National Competitiveness Strategy. So far, that body which is chaired by the President has shown no intention, appetite or capacity to deal with it. And the GRA is either overwhelmed by the level and scale of tax evasion or is not utilising the tools and deploying the resources at its disposal to deal with the crisis.

Brassington confirms QA II rent at $12-17 million annually

Introduction
Contradicting several earlier statements about the rent the Government would be getting from the lease of 20 acres of land to Queens Atlantic Investment Inc. (QA II), Executive Head of the Privatisation Unit and the state-owned company NICIL, Winston Brassington, in an e-mail to me last week confirmed that the rent is “between 12 -17 M per annum  Yrs 2-5 and in Yr 6 (2013) it will be approximately G$45 M.”

You may very well wonder how Mr. Brassington would rent 20 acres of the most valuable land in Guyana and not know the rent by a margin of close to 50%. Having advised the Privatisation Board that the rent is $12 million only to be publicly corrected that at the rate per square foot specified in a leaked document authored by him, the amount has to be $18 million, Mr. Brassington needs to give himself ample wriggle room. This is as astounding as it is dangerous from the person who this country has placed in a position where he negotiates individually with all sorts of investors and other persons doing business with Guyana. He travelled often to Russia to negotiate with Rusal before another give-away of our country’s non-renewable resources and was mainly instrumental in the purchase of generating sets for GPL late last year costing millions of US Dollars. His recommendations are accepted by the Privatisation Board and Cabinet with the same conviction that a fundamentalist Christian would accept the Bible.

Half true
The answer about the rent came in response to persistent efforts to have Mr. Brassington confirm a number of matters that have surfaced since the tax concessions to QA II became an issue on June 5, 2008. These questions included the price and proceeds from the sale of land to Guyana Bank for Trade and Industry (GBTI) and the date of payment by John Fernandes Limited (JFL) of the sum of $320 million for land sold to that company in 2007. Mr. Brassington confirmed that GBTI paid G$201 M but in relation to the timing of the JFL proceeds he would only say that the “JFL transaction was only completed in March 2008”, which can lead to the inference that no monies were received until 2008. In fact there were two payments made by JFL in 2007 and the balance paid in 2008.

Mr Brassington has refused to answer my follow-up questions particularly about the correctness of the Privatisation Unit holding on to money that should properly have been paid into the Consolidated Fund and for information on the expenses incurred and dividends paid by the Privatisation Unit (PU). In fact all that was new from Mr. Brassington during the week was a press report of him saying that “previous privatisation processes have created ad hoc accounting processes in Guyana.” His incorrect line has been that the proceeds of privatisation have to pass through NICIL, a limited liability company which he claims incorrectly can only pay dividends into the Consolidated Fund after its accounts are audited. It seems that Mr. Brassington does not appreciate that interim dividends are permitted under corporate law and it is not unusual for companies to pay more than one such dividend during the year as Banks DIH has been doing over the past couple of years.

More abuse of the Consolidated Fund
Only monies legally due to NICIL or any of its subsidiaries would be subject to Brassington’s accounting but certainly not monies due directly to the Government such as on the sale of property including shares, land and other assets not owned by NICIL or its subsidiaries. At least some of the land sold to JFL falls into this category and the proceeds should have been paid into the Fund but are instead retained by the PU/NICIL under the control of Mr. Brassington.

Mr. Brassington refused to provide me with the names of the directors of NICIL or copies of its audited financial statements for the year 2006 while noting that the 2007 accounts are with  the Auditor General for audit. NICIL as a company operating under the Companies Act 1991 has been in breach of that Act with respect to the filing of any annual return to the Registrar of Companies as it is required to do nor are its financial statements and reports tabled in the National Assembly.

Such disregard for the country’s supreme and other laws, for good conduct, transparency and truth would in any society where the rule of law prevails, have resulted in the most severe sanctions against those responsible. The political opposition and so-called civil society including the accounting and legal professions have a public duty to act to stop this lawlessness. What is the meaning and relevance of the Constitution and the laws if professionals could ignore them if only to show loyalty and obedience to the politicians?

Deja vu
Two years ago, this column was very critical of Mr. Brassington’s conduct in its March 12, 2006 issue when it wrote about the improper means and tactics applied to corral workers’ funds of the National Insurance Scheme and depositors’ funds of the New Building Society for the Berbice Bridge. I reported then that Mr. Brassington even sought to have me postpone an article and give him time to get some necessary paperwork done by the NIS! The necessary paperwork was a letter enclosing, among other things, an irrevocable special power of attorney and requesting the NIS’s co-operation in having the voluminous agreement and four schedules signed one day later. The Privatisation Board was given the same or less time to endorse Mr. Brassington’s recommendations on the QA II deal.

Just as an aside, in that March 12 article one of the subheadings was Making the unlawful lawful as we see with the QA II tax holiday law!

For all the vast proceeds from privatization that are  now being boasted about, only $7.3 million was paid into the Consolidated Fund in 2006, $1.4 million in 2006. The manner of drawing  up the National Estimates does not allow the reader to determine how much was paid in in 2007 or is budgeted to be paid in in 2008.   Where then is the GBTI money and the JFL funds amounting to more than half a billion dollars? Is this another Lotto Fund scandal where the money is used for all sorts of unauthorized payments such as the $20 million to Courtney Benn Construction for breach of contract relating to works for the Kingston phantom hotel?

The tax seminar
Mr. Brassington obviously enjoys the confidence of the President and with his control of perhaps hundreds of millions of public funds he was indeed well-placed to organise the Taxation Seminar last month. While the Seminar scored poorly on organizational arrangements – a head table of 13, no recording and just one microphone for 200 persons – it was certainly well orchestrated and controlled. The seminar was organised for a Cabinet Day so that after the Finance Minister had left the meeting with his two colleagues from Cabinet and the Privatisation Board there was no one authorised to answer questions on policy from an audience consisting of several state executives and accountants anxious to learn the tax system. Mr. Brassington gloated over the $24 billion proceeds from privatisation since 1994 when he took over but he did not say that in the process the nation lost control of several key assets including Bauxite to Rusal which we then turn around and give a tax holiday! That is hardly how successful privatisations are measured.

Much was said too about transparency but let us not forget that had information not been leaked to the press there would have been no Seminar. In my contribution during the Question and Answer session I pointed  to an apparent conspiracy by the PU, Go-Invest and the company to misrepresent information fed to the public on the QA II investment, drawing attention to some of the statements made by Messrs. Brassington and Da Silva and how they differ from the facts that have surfaced from documents written by Mr. Brassington and agreements signed between the QA II group and the Government.

I pointed out too that Mr. Brassington’s creative explanation for the charge to JFL compared with the rent agreed to be paid by QA II, led to no other conclusion but that the PU either overcharged JFL or was undercharging QA II.

At the Seminar, Mr. Brassington lavishly praised for their contribution to the success of the privatisation programme the Privatisation Board made up of three Cabinet Ministers including the Minister of Finance who chairs the Board, and representatives from labour, business and consumers. My enquiries suggest that even allowing for the imbalance of the political influence Mr. Brassington gets the Board to arrive at a desired result by submitting to them his recommendations often with no more than a few hours notice. I understand too that the Board has dispensed with its sub-committee that had as its principal responsibility the examination of proposals and tenders and has transferred this task entirely to Mr. Brassington with whatever political input and direction that may apply.

Different rules
Astoundingly, in a recent article in the Kaiteur News Mr. Brassington is quoted as saying that “Previous privatisation processes have created ad hoc accounting processes in Guyana” and that “What you did not have was adherence under the law of how you distribute a company’s assets.”

That this statement would have been made at a Seminar to disabuse accountants of their ignorance of the tax laws was outstanding for its sheer arrogance and  uninformed ignorance! It is Mr. Brassington who does not understand the law and who created these “ad hoc” and unconstitutional arrangements that are so blatantly abused by the PU/NICIL. Has Mr. Brassington ever read the relevant sections of the Constitution or the financial rules or sought guidance on how these operate?

Where is the Auditor General?
As a non-statutory body, the Privatisation Unit is no more than part of the Ministry of Finance and so it has sought legal cover under NICIL, the state-owned company that Mr. Brassington operates without observance of the laws. Money that should constitutionally be placed into the Consolidated Fund are spent by the PU/NICIL as it now likes to call itself, to create a huge bureaucracy including legal expertise, and to by-pass the parliamentary process for authorizing the expenditure of public funds.

These are matters so significant that one would have expected the Auditor General to have paid particular attention to it and to comment critically thereon. These funds are on the same level as the Lotto Funds in that they are public monies that are required to be deposited in the Consolidated Fund under Article 216 of the Constitution. The Lotto Funds are too infamous to miss while equally huge sums of a similar nature go unnoticed by the Audit Office. In fact that Office should feel accused by Brassington’s claim of “ad hoc accounting processes”.

Conclusion – many cheques but few balances
It is clear that far from being efficient and transparent, the privatisation process is shrouded in secrecy and is managed without regard for elementary rules of good governance, the rule of law and knowledge of accounting. Much of the resources of this country have been given away in many cases for a pittance, in a process involving many cheques but few balances. This Unit and NICIL under Mr. Winston Brassington ought to be investigated by the Economics Affairs Sub-Committee of the National Assembly.

If that body fails to act, then some public-spirited citizen(s) should invoke the provisions of the Companies Act and demand an investigation of the operations of NICIL and its alliance with Mr. Brassington’s Privatisation Unit. We should not simply excuse and exonerate public officials’ improper and unlawful acts by attributing those acts to unaccountable politicians. They must be held equally accountable and culpable.

Next week we will look at the role of Go-Invest, the other partner in the saga.