Sunday, February 15, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey - another bad weekend for the bureaucracy...

So, now that the HSBC scandal appears to have transmuted itself into a contest to see who can pin the blame for the way HMRC operates on whom, it looks as though the general lack of interest in how the Civil Service functions has finally come home to roost.

This stuff is important. How you organise a state determines what it can deliver and how it does so. That's why constitutional reform (yes, I know you're bored already, but bear with me) is important, and why doing it piecemeal appears ineffectual but isn't. And, the sinews of day to day government are your actual civil servants - yes, those useless, tea drinking, idle good-for-nothings so often chastised by the media and, increasingly, by the politicians whose erratic instruction and desire to pass law have done so much to make our administration sclerotic.

Taking turns to give civil servants a good kicking isn't necessarily helpful - ask the staff of the Rural Payments Agency or Border Force, whose travails in the media contributed to rock bottom levels of morale. And, if you reduce morale far enough, you tend to depress performance and motivation. That is, motivation to carry out tasks that you, the people (through your elected tribunes), apparently require to be done. That offers something of a dilemma.

It is interesting that, in cutting the number of civil servants, including in HMRC, the thought that certain activities might simply not get carried out appears not to have been considered. Or, perhaps it has...

For some time now, the ability of the Civil Service to recruit staff with technical skills - lawyers, procurement experts, accountants - has been in question. And what has been done about it? Conditions have been allowed to decay - higher pension contributions, significant real terms cuts in pay, decline in job security - making it harder to recruit and retain the sort of talent that allows the bureaucracy to compete against its private sector opposite numbers. It increasingly requires an old-fashioned sense of altruism to aspire to a career in the Senior Civil Service - you will be worse off than your peers in the private sector, you will be subject to abuse by the media, by politicians and the public, and you will be expected to perform at private sector levels without private sector conditions. Would you? Really?

A very senior tax inspector takes home about £100,000 per annum. His/her opposite number in one of the big accountancy firms will be taking home four or five times that. That in itself does not mean that there is an imbalance in skills, but what it does mean is that there is an incentive for PricewaterhouseCoopers to recruit that bright young tax official, in the same way that the likes of Chelsea can afford to buy players to deny them to the opposition. The flow of skills is one way, and it isn't one that favours the State.

So, politicians can investigate the bureaucracy all they like. Ultimately though, they are going to have to decide whether or not they want an effective one, and whether the cost is worth it to them. Given that the question may involve better resourcing, the answer may not be very helpful. Pity, that...

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Of course you can have a rather shorter tax code. What are you willing to give up?

I see that there is now a discussion about the complexity of our tax code. Yes, it has many thousands of pages. Yes, it is much longer than 'War and Peace'. Yes, parts of it are fearsomely complex. That could be because we live in a complex financial world. Actually, it's mostly because we use the taxation system for social engineering and for the encouragement of certain activities which the State approves of.

So, let's take film tax credit, for example. The principle is easy, we want to encourage the making of films in the United Kingdom. So, you need to have a clause which allows this. That, as they say, is the easy bit...

You then have to specify the qualifying criteria for relief. What qualifies for relief, when does the relief becomes due and how it will be granted - all has to be stated and quantified. You also have to define your terms - what does theatrical release actually mean, what is a British film, what is qualifying expenditure?

You then need to decide what you do in the event that there are losses to be claimed, or how to give relief on a provisional basis. All of this requires more language, cautiously drawn up so as to address potential loopholes, but to include terms the exact definitions of which being somewhat elusive.

And, before you know it, you have this;


Chapter 3
Film tax relief

Introductory

1195 Availability and overview of film tax relief
(1) This Chapter applies for corporation tax purposes to a company that is the film production company in relation to a film.

(2) Relief under this Chapter (“film tax relief”) is available to the company if the conditions specified in the following sections are met in relation to the film—

(a) section 1196 (intended theatrical release),

(b) section 1197 (British film), and

(c) section 1198 (UK expenditure).

(3) Film tax relief is given by way of—

(a) additional deductions (see sections 1199 and 1200), and

(b) film tax credits (see sections 1201 to 1203).
(4) Sections 1204 to 1207 contain provision about unpaid costs, artificially inflated claims and confidentiality of information.

(5) In this Chapter “the separate film trade” means the company's separate trade in relation to the film (see section 1188).

(6) See Schedule 18 to FA 1998 (in particular, Part 9D) for information about the procedure for making claims for film tax relief.

Conditions of relief

1196 Intended theatrical release

(1) The film must be intended for theatrical release.

(2) For this purpose—

(a) “theatrical release” means exhibition to the paying public at the commercial cinema, and

(b) a film is not regarded as intended for theatrical release unless it is intended that a significant proportion of the earnings from the film should be obtained by such exhibition.

(3) Whether this condition is met is determined for each accounting period of the company during which film-making activities are carried on in relation to the film, in accordance with the following rules.

(4) If at the end of an accounting period the film is intended for theatrical release, the condition is treated as having been met throughout that period (subject to subsection (5)(b)).

(5) If at the end of an accounting period the film is not intended for theatrical release, the condition—

(a) is treated as having been not met throughout that period, and

(b) cannot be met in any subsequent accounting period.

This does not affect any entitlement of the company to relief in an earlier accounting period for which the condition was met. 

1197 British film

The film must be certified by the Secretary of State as a British film under Schedule 1 to the Films Act 1985 (c. 21).


1198 UK expenditure

(1) At least 25% of the core expenditure on the film incurred—

(a) in the case of a British film other than a qualifying co-production, by the company, and

(b) in the case of a qualifying co-production, by the co-producers,

must be UK expenditure.

(2) The Treasury may by regulations amend the percentage specified in subsection (1).


Additional deductions

1199 Additional deduction for qualifying expenditure

(1) If film tax relief is available to the company, it may (on making a claim) make an additional deduction in respect of qualifying expenditure on the film.

(2) The deduction is made in calculating the profit or loss of the separate film trade.

(3) In this Chapter “qualifying expenditure” means core expenditure on the film that falls to be taken into account under Chapter 2 in calculating the profit or loss of the separate film trade for tax purposes.

(4) The Treasury may by regulations—

(a) amend subsection (3), and

(b) provide that expenditure of a specified description is or is not to be regarded as qualifying expenditure.

1200 Amount of additional deduction

(1) For the first period of account during which the separate film trade is carried on, the amount of the additional deduction is given by—

where—

E is—

(a) so much of the qualifying expenditure as is UK expenditure, or

(b) if less, 80% of the total amount of qualifying expenditure, and

R is the rate of enhancement (see subsection (3)).

(2) For any period of account after the first, the amount of the additional deduction is given by—

where—

E is—

(a) so much of the qualifying expenditure incurred to date as is UK expenditure, or

(b) if less, 80% of the total amount of qualifying expenditure incurred to date,

R is the rate of enhancement (see subsection (3)), and

P is the total amount of the additional deductions given for previous periods.

(3) The rate of enhancement is—

(a) for a limited-budget film, 100%, and

(b) for any other film, 80%.

(4) The Treasury may by regulations amend the percentage specified in subsection (1) or (2).


Film tax credits

1201 Film tax credit claimable if company has surrenderable loss

(1) If film tax relief is available to the company, it may claim a film tax credit for an accounting period in which it has a surrenderable loss.

(2) The company's surrenderable loss in any period is—

(a) the company's loss for the period in the separate film trade, or

(b) if less, the available qualifying expenditure for the period.

(3) For the first period of account during which the separate film trade is carried on, the available qualifying expenditure is the amount that is E for that period for the purposes of section 1200(1).

(4) For any period of account after the first, the available qualifying expenditure is given by—

where—

E is the amount that is E for that period for the purposes of section 1200(2), and

S is the total amount surrendered in previous periods under section 1202(1).

1202 Surrendering of loss and amount of film tax credit

(1) The company may surrender the whole or part of its surrenderable loss in an accounting period.

(2) If the company surrenders the whole or part of that loss, the amount of the film tax credit to which it is entitled for the accounting period is given by—

where—

L is the amount of the loss surrendered, and

R is the payable credit rate (see subsection (3)).

(3) The payable credit rate is—

(a) for a limited-budget film, 25%, and

(b) for any other film, 20%.

(4) The company's loss in the separate film trade for the accounting period is reduced by the amount surrendered.


1203 Payment in respect of film tax credit

(1) If the company—

(a) is entitled to a film tax credit for an accounting period, and

(b) makes a claim,

the Commissioners for Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (“the Commissioners”) must pay to the company the amount of the credit. 

(2) An amount payable in respect of—

(a) a film tax credit, or

(b) interest on a film tax credit under section 826 of ICTA,

may be applied in discharging any liability of the company to pay corporation tax.

To the extent that it is so applied the Commissioners' liability under subsection (1) is discharged.

(3) If the company's company tax return for the accounting period is enquired into by the Commissioners, no payment in respect of a film tax credit for that period need be made before the Commissioners' enquiries are completed (see paragraph 32 of Schedule 18 to FA 1998).

In those circumstances the Commissioners may make a payment on a provisional basis of such amount as they consider appropriate.

(4) No payment need be made in respect of a film tax credit for an accounting period before the company has paid to the Commissioners any amount that it is required to pay for payment periods ending in that accounting period—

(a) under PAYE regulations,

(b) under section 966 of ITA 2007 (visiting performers), or

(c) in respect of Class 1 contributions under Part 1 of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 (c. 4) or Part 1 of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits (Northern Ireland) Act 1992 (c. 7).

(5) A payment in respect of a film tax credit is not income of the company for any tax purpose.


Miscellaneous

1204 No account to be taken of amount if unpaid

(1) In determining for the purposes of this Chapter the amount of costs incurred on a film at the end of a period of account, ignore any amount that has not been paid 4 months after the end of that period.

(2) This is without prejudice to the operation of section 1192.


1205 Artificially inflated claims for additional deduction or film tax credit

(1) So far as a transaction is attributable to arrangements entered into wholly or mainly for a disqualifying purpose, it is to be ignored in determining for any period—

(a) any additional deduction which a company may make under this Chapter, and

(b) any film tax credit to be given to a company.

(2) Arrangements are entered into wholly or mainly for a disqualifying purpose if their main object, or one of their main objects, is to enable a company to obtain—

(a) an additional deduction under this Chapter to which it would not otherwise be entitled or of a greater amount than that to which it would otherwise be entitled, or

(b) a film tax credit to which it would not otherwise be entitled or of a greater amount than that to which it would otherwise be entitled.

(3) “Arrangements” includes any scheme, agreement or understanding, whether or not legally enforceable.


1206 Confidentiality of information

(1) Section 18(1) of the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Act 2005 (c. 11) (restriction on disclosure by Revenue and Customs officials) does not prevent disclosure to the Secretary of State for the purposes of the Secretary of State's functions under Schedule 1 to the Films Act 1985 (c. 21) (certification of films as British films for the purposes of film tax relief).

(2) Information so disclosed may be disclosed to the UK Film Council.

(3) A person to whom information is disclosed under subsection (1) or (2) may not otherwise disclose it except—

(a) for the purposes of the Secretary of State's functions under Schedule 1 to the Films Act 1985,

(b) if the disclosure is authorised by an enactment,

(c) in pursuance of an order of a court,

(d) for the purposes of a criminal investigation or legal proceedings (whether criminal or civil) connected with the operation of that Schedule or this Part,

(e) with the consent of the Commissioners for Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, or

(f) with the consent of each person to whom the information relates.

1207 Wrongful disclosure

(1) A person (“X”) commits an offence if—

(a) X discloses revenue and customs information relating to a person (as defined in section 19(2) of the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Act 2005 (c. 11)),

(b) the identity of the person to whom the information relates is specified in the disclosure or can be deduced from it, and

(c) the disclosure contravenes section 1206(3) above.

(2) If a person (“Y”) is charged with an offence under subsection (1), it is a defence for Y to prove that Y reasonably believed—

(a) that the disclosure was lawful, or

(b) that the information had already and lawfully been made available to the public.

(3) A person guilty of an offence under subsection (1) is liable—

(a) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or a fine or both, or

(b) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum or both.

(4) A prosecution for an offence under subsection (1) may be brought in England and Wales only—

(a) by the Director of Revenue and Customs Prosecutions, or

(b) with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

(5) A prosecution for an offence under subsection (1) may be brought in Northern Ireland only—

(a) by the Commissioners for Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, or

(b)with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland.

(6)In the application of this section—

(a)in England and Wales, in relation to an offence committed before the commencement of section 282 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (c. 44), or

(b)in Northern Ireland,

the reference in subsection (3)(b) to 12 months is to be read as a reference to 6 months.



Chapter 4
Film losses

1208 Application of sections 1209 and 1210

(1) Sections 1209 and 1210 apply to a company that is the film production company in relation to a film.

(2) In those sections—

“the completion period” means the accounting period of the company— 

(a) in which the film is completed, or

(b) if the company does not complete the film, in which it abandons film-making activities in relation to the film, 

“loss relief” includes any means by which a loss might be used to reduce the amount in respect of which the company, or any other person, is chargeable to tax, 

“pre-completion period” means an accounting period of the company before the completion period, and 

“the separate film trade” means the company's separate trade in relation to the film (see section 1188). 


1209 Restriction on use of losses while film in production

(1) This section applies if in a pre-completion period a loss is made in the separate film trade.

(2) The loss is not available for loss relief except to the extent that it may be carried forward under section 393(1) of ICTA to be set against profits of the separate film trade in a subsequent period.


1210 Use of losses in later periods

(1) This section applies to the following accounting periods of the company (“relevant later periods”)—

(a) the completion period, and

(b) any subsequent accounting period during which the separate film trade continues.

(2) Subsection (3) applies if a loss made in the separate film trade is carried forward under section 393(1) of ICTA from a pre-completion period to a relevant later period.

(3) So much (if any) of the loss as is not attributable to film tax relief (see subsection (6)) may be treated for the purposes of loss relief as if it were a loss made in the period to which it is carried forward.

(4) Subsection (5) applies if in a relevant later period a loss is made in the separate film trade.

(5) The amount of the loss that may be—

(a) set against other profits of the same or an earlier period under section 393A of ICTA, or

(b) surrendered as group relief under section 403 of that Act,

is restricted to the amount (if any) that is not attributable to film tax relief (see subsection (6)). 

(6) The amount of a loss in any period that is attributable to film tax relief is calculated by deducting from the total amount of the loss the amount there would have been if there had been no additional deduction under Chapter 3 in that or any earlier period.

(7) This section does not apply to a loss to the extent that it is carried forward or surrendered under section 1211.


1211 Terminal losses

(1) This section applies if—

(a) a company (“company A”) is the film production company in relation to a qualifying film,

(b) company A ceases to carry on its separate trade in relation to that film (“trade X”) (see section 1188), and

(c) if company A had not ceased to carry on trade X, it could have carried forward an amount under section 393(1) of ICTA to be set against profits of trade X in a later period (“the terminal loss”).

(2) If on cessation of trade X company A—

(a) is the film production company in relation to another qualifying film, and

(b) is carrying on its separate trade in relation to that film (“trade Y”),

it may (on making a claim) make an election under subsection (3). 

(3) The election is to have the terminal loss (or a part of it) treated as if it were a loss brought forward under section 393(1) of ICTA to be set against the profits of trade Y of the first accounting period beginning after the cessation and so on.

(4) Subsection (5) applies if on cessation of trade X—

(a) there is another company (“company B”) that is the film production company in relation to a qualifying film,

(b) company B is carrying on its separate trade in relation to that film (“trade Z”), and

(c) company B is in the same group as company A for the purposes of Chapter 4 of Part 10 of ICTA (group relief).

(5) Company A may surrender the terminal loss (or a part of it) to company B.

(6) On the making of a claim by company B the amount surrendered is treated as if it were a loss brought forward by company B under section 393(1) of ICTA to be set against the profits of trade Z of the first accounting period beginning after the cessation and so on.

(7) The Treasury may, in relation to the surrender of a loss under subsection (5) and the resulting claim under subsection (6), make provision by regulations corresponding, subject to such adaptations or other modifications as appear to them to be appropriate, to that made by Part 8 of Schedule 18 to FA 1998 (company tax returns: claims for group relief).

(8) “Qualifying film” means a film in relation to which the conditions for film tax relief are met (see section 1195(2)).


1212 Introduction

(1) In this Chapter—

“the company” means the film production company in relation to a film, 

“the completion period” means the accounting period of the company— 

(a) in which the film is completed, or 

(b) if the company does not complete the film, in which it abandons film-making activities in relation to it, 

“interim accounting period” means any earlier accounting period of the company during which film-making activities are carried on in relation to the film, 

“interim certificate” and “final certificate” refer to certificates under Schedule 1 to the Films Act 1985 (c. 21) (certification of films as British films for purposes of film tax relief), 

“the separate film trade” means the company's separate trade in relation to the film (see section 1188), and 

“special film relief” means— 

(a) film tax relief, or 

(b) relief under section 1211 (transfer of terminal losses from one qualifying film to another). 

(2) The company's company tax return for the completion period must state that the film has been completed or that the company has abandoned film-making activities in relation to it (as the case may be).


1213 Certification as a British film

(1) The company is not entitled to special film relief for an interim accounting period unless its company tax return for the period is accompanied by an interim certificate.

(2) If an interim certificate ceases to be in force (otherwise than on being superseded by a final certificate) or is revoked, the company—

(a) is not entitled to special film relief for any period for which its entitlement depended on the certificate, and

(b) must amend accordingly its company tax return for any such period.

(3) If the film is completed by the company—

(a) its company tax return for the completion period must be accompanied by a final certificate,

(b) if that requirement is met, the final certificate has effect for the completion period and for any interim accounting period, and

(c) if that requirement is not met, the company—

(i) is not entitled to special film relief for any period, and

(ii) must amend accordingly its company tax return for any period for which such relief was claimed.

(4) If the company abandons film-making activities in relation to the film—

(a) its company tax return for the completion period may be accompanied by an interim certificate, and

(b) the abandonment of film-making activities does not affect any entitlement to special film relief in that or any previous accounting period.

(5) If a final certificate is revoked, the company—

(a) is not entitled to special film relief for any period, and

(b) must amend accordingly its company tax return for any period for which such relief was claimed.


1214 The UK expenditure condition

(1) The company is not entitled to special film relief for an interim accounting period unless—

(a) its company tax return for the period states the amount of planned core expenditure on the film that is UK expenditure, and

(b) that amount is such as to indicate that the condition in section 1198 (the UK expenditure condition) will be met on completion of the film.

If those requirements are met, the company is provisionally treated in relation to that period as if that condition was met. 

(2) If such a statement is made but it subsequently appears that the condition will not be met on completion of the film, the company—

(a) is not entitled to special film relief for any period for which its entitlement depended on such a statement, and

(b) must amend accordingly its company tax return for any such period.

(3) When the film is completed or the company abandons film-making activities in relation to it (as the case may be), the company's company tax return for the completion period must be accompanied by a final statement of the amount of the core expenditure on the film that is UK expenditure.

(4) If that statement shows that the condition in section 1198 is not met, the company—

(a) is not entitled to special film relief for any period, and

(b) must amend accordingly its company tax return for any period for which such relief was claimed.


1215 Film tax relief on basis that film is limited-budget film

(1) The company is not entitled to film tax relief for an interim accounting period on the basis that the film is a limited-budget film unless—

(a) its company tax return for the period states the amount of planned core expenditure on the film, and

(b) that amount is such as to indicate that the condition in section 1184(2) (definition of “limited-budget film”) will be met on completion of the film.

In that case, the film is provisionally treated in relation to that period as if that condition was met. 

(2) If it subsequently appears that the condition will not be met on completion of the film, the company—

(a) is not entitled to film tax relief for any period on the basis that the film is a limited-budget film, and

(b) must amend accordingly its company tax return for any such period for which such relief has been claimed on that basis.

(3) When the film is completed or the company abandons film-making activities in relation to it (as the case may be), the company's company tax return for the completion period must be accompanied by a final statement of the core expenditure on the film.

(4) Subsection (5) applies if that statement shows—

(a) that the film is not a limited-budget film, or (as the case may be)

(b) that, having regard to the proportion of work on the film that was completed, the film would not have been a limited-budget film had it been completed.

(5) The company—

(a) is not entitled to film tax relief for any period on the basis that the film is a limited-budget film, and

(b) must amend accordingly its company tax return for any period for which such relief was claimed on that basis.


1216 Time limit for amendments and assessments

Any amendment or assessment necessary to give effect to the provisions of this Chapter may be made despite any limitation on the time within which an amendment or assessment may normally be made.


Simple, this tax stuff, isn't it?...

Friday, February 13, 2015

190 new homes in Stowupland - a challenge for honesty in politics?

The neighbouring village of Stowupland forms about 88% of my District ward, the one I gallantly fought and lost in 2011. Had I won then, I would now be faced with what appears to be a highly unpopular planning application to build new houses on the eastern edge of the village, on what is currently agricultural land.

There is no doubt that the planned development is quite substantial, proportionately at least. 190 homes equates to about 22% of the existing housing stock, and would have a sizeable impact on local infrastructure. The village has no doctor's surgery and poor public transport links, although it does have a post office, two schools (primary and secondary), two pubs and a butcher's shop, plus a fish and chip shop and a Chinese takeaway.

From the proliferation of signs along the main road through the village, the development is most unwelcome but, if one is to be entirely honest, there are some strong arguments for building new homes in the village, even if the location might not be ideal.

People want to live in Stowupland. It's convenient for the A14 to Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds and Cambridge, and for the railway station at Stowmarket, and the village itself is not unattractive. Undoubtedly, we need more housing in Mid Suffolk - the new developments around Stowmarket didn't lack for buyers, and I often hear people remark about the difficulties their children experience in finding somewhere affordable to buy. Increasing the housing stock might help with that.

The problem with Mid Suffolk District Council's strategy on housing in recent years is that it presumes that most new development will be in Stowmarket, and given that the town is pushing against its development limits, that offers increasingly little scope for dealing with population growth inspired demand. Most villages in the District have a planning envelope that prevents any new development at all. And so, if developers can find scope for profitable housing schemes, they will push for them.

Given that Stowupland is surrounded on virtually every side by open country, any development will be on agricultural land - the only other option being the allotments between the village and the A14 (and woe betide anyone proposing building there...) - there will be an impact on the cherished rural vista. But, inevitably, unless villagers are intent to closing the door to expansion, and can successfully do so, more housing is going to come, and the village will become a suburb of Stowmarket.

My problem is that I am prone to taking a wider view on such issues, whereas a more cynical politician would ignore the realities of rural housing needs and campaign for something locally popular but possibly against long-term interests. And I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if a more cynical person doesn't offer themselves in May's District elections...

Tax evasion and avoidance - is this another sign that Europe is taking it seriously?

I receive a daily e-mail from the European Parliament, of my own free will, it might surprise readers to know. Generally, they're all a bit... well, dull and far too vast to read. However, occasionally, there is something that catches my eye...

The European Parliament as a whole voted on Thursday to set up a special parliamentary committee to look into EU member states' "tax rulings and other measures similar in nature or effect" and make recommendations for the future. The committee will have 45 members and is established for an initial period of six months.
Result of the vote: 612 in favour, 19 against and 23 abstentions. The composition of the committee was approved by a show of hands.
Mandate
The committee will look into tax ruling practices as far back as 1 January 1991, but will also review the way the European Commission treats state aid in member states and the extent to which they are transparent about their tax rulings. It will also seek to ascertain the negative impact of aggressive tax planning on public finances and will come up with recommendations for the future.
The list of committee members includes Anneliese Dodds (S&D, UK), Kay Swinburne (ECR, UK) and Patrick O'Flynn (EFDD, UK)
Background
The committee is being set up in the wake of a series of investigations launched by the European Commission into tax rulings for multinational companies in Luxembourg, Ireland, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee plans to draw up an "inquiry" report (non-legislative, own initiative), on tax rulings will now lapse, because its remit would have overlapped that the special committee.

So, one Conservative, one Labour and one UKIP, and it will be interesting to see whether or not they intend to focus on solutions or soundbites. I particularly look forward to Patrick O'Flynn's thoughts on tax harmonisation and sovereignty...

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A transport of derision, and why I feel sorry for Harriet Harman...

Gosh, there's a lot of fuss been made over a pink (or is it magenta) minibus this week. Anyone would think that it was a scandal, or that a General Election was only eighty-four days away...

From the perspective of someone with some sense of how you get attention, a bright colour that stands out from its surroundings is usually quite a good idea. And how many pink/magenta vehicles have you seen lately? So, in that sense, the colour is quite a good choice. Cliched? Well, yes, if you think in cliches, but isn't the content of those policies which Labour think will appeal to women voters rather more important than the colour of the bus? And, if you find the concept of "women's issues" patronising or insulting, and I know a lot of people who see it that way, why not argue that instead? And again, yes, I know that a lot of good people, some of whom I consider friends, are doing just that.

No, my ire is focused on the media, whose inability (for the most part) to address, or even recognise, the issues means that a campaign which will determine so much of our country's future will come down to a contest to avoid so-called gaffes, trumpet simplistic soundbites and evade most of the questions that the more thoughtful of us would rather like answered.

In the midst of all of this fuss about a bus, Harriet Harman stands, attempting to retain some gravitas. I am, I admit, not a fan. She reminds me in many ways of Hillary Clinton when she ran for the United States Senate - quite competent but not apparently grasping the concept of empathy. She also seems unable to convey a sense of humour, which all of us occasionally need. But, and this is an important 'but', she is potentially an influential person in our future politics. What she thinks, and why, is perhaps more useful to understand than what she feels about the colour of a bus.

And wouldn't it be nice to hear her explain why those issues that the Labour Party have defined, for whatever reason, as being most relevant to women, are more relevant, and why attention to them should influence, or repel women voters? I'm not a woman, and I'd be intrigued to be offered another perspective that might help me to take a broader view of the issues, especially those I know less about. I fear that it may be too much to ask though.

It doesn't get any better, this campaign, does it?...

HSBC Geneva: perhaps there's some mistake here?

It seems that a big story, some five years ago, has come to the attention of politicians, the media and now, the public. And, as it becomes clear that this information had been kicking about for some time, I find myself a bit perplexed.

There is no doubt that a press release was issued in 2011, confirming the existence of a list of British taxpayers who held accounts with HSBC in Geneva. The now ex-HMRC senior official, David Hartnett told the Treasury Select Committee that September that such a list was working with HMRC, and it was known HSBC had been strongly linked to said list, even if official confirmation had not been given.

The press release included what looks like a pretty standard 'cut and paste' quote from the relevant minister, David Gauke, which might imply that he knew about the list (admittedly, he may not have read the press release but one might assume that it wouldn't have been issued without him being made aware).

On that basis, elements of all three main political parties in Westminster would have known about the list, although not necessarily the role of HSBC in helping their clients to shield their assets from the various national tax authorities. They might very easily not have made the connections though. And nobody seems to doubt that HMRC acted upon the list, although whether or not the action taken was sufficiently firm is another question - albeit one that can't be answered to everyone's satisfaction due to the right to taxpayer privacy.

We don't know exactly what information HMRC were given, what rights they had to use it and, more importantly, transfer it on, and we also can't judge how cost-effective it would have been to prosecute more cases - if they aren't found guilty, you can lose everything in terms of additional tax raised.

So, it looks as though the original story was rather too complex for most key players - media and politicians - to understand, and now that HSBC have been, quite deservedly, hung out to dry, everyone is running to catch up, and to condemn those bits that they think they might understand (they probably still don't).

And, whilst HMRC are obliged to shelter behind the walls that taxpayer confidentiality provides, there will be a lack of clarity which will allow those with little understanding of taxation, but a tremendous sense of outrage, to volley accusations at the Government and the Official Opposition for weeks to come. I fear that, as was the case in the Vodafone saga, we will earn very little of value but squander further the credibility of bankers and politicians alike.

Mumbai and the Ranji Trophy - talk about a set of coincidences...

The Ranji Trophy
So, after a pretty horrible season, and a dramatic win over Baroda in the penultimate round of fixtures, it all came down to the last round. In group A, with three to qualify for the quarter-finals, Karnataka were through, whilst Baroda and Tamil Nadu, in second and third, played each other, the winner guaranteed a place and the loser, possibly.

With the intriguing points system - six points for a win, a bonus point for a win by an innings or ten wickets, three points for a draw with a first innings lead and a point for a draw otherwise, it was possible for any two of six teams to qualify.

Elsewhere, Railways needed to beat bottom of the table Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh needed to beat Bengal to stand a chance, whilst Mumbai took on probably the best state side in the country on form, Karnataka, probably needing a win to be certain.

Despite a good showing on day 1, Mumbai looked to at best have gained three points, which meant that, as the fourth day dawned, Mumbai needed the following;

  • Baroda to lose to Tamil Nadu
  • Railways to fail to beat Uttar Pradesh, and
  • Madhya Pradesh to fail to beat Bengal
The first looked likely, the second was completely open, and Bengal were following on against Madhya Pradesh. And, would you believe it, Tamil Nadu strolled to victory, whilst Uttar Pradesh comfortably made their target to beat Railways. It wasn't looking good for Bengal though as, needing 295 to avoid an innings defeat, they were 212-7 just after lunch. Surely, a struggling team like Bengal weren't going to resist for nearly two sessions?

But, the gap closed slowly but surely, and Madhya Pradesh couldn't make the breakthrough. Mumbai and Karnataka had shaken hands on the inevitable draw, and the Bengal eighth-wicket partnership ground on through nearly fifty-four overs, until the deficit was made up and a draw agreed.

There can't be much doubt that Mumbai have been rather more fortunate than their form deserves, and a quarter-final against Delhi will probably turn out to be the end of their season. But, all credit, they took the chance offered to them, and who knows, they've got nothing to lose now...


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

@AamAadmiParty - now that's what I call a landslide...

So, despite early opinion polls showing that the BJP, who rule at national level, were going to win, the Aam Aadmi Party's focus on the issues that mattered to ordinary voters in Delhi seems to have been overwhelmingly effective. For the first time in the history of the State, a political party gained more than 50% of the vote and with that 67 out of the 70 seats in the Delhi legislature.

There are about twenty million voters in Delhi, and 67% of them took part, so this is no mere protest vote borne on a low turnout but a real shock to the Indian body politic.

The big question is, can a political party which has existed for only two years, led by a former tax inspector, with little experience of actually governing, really reform in the way it claims is necessary. Can they change the way an entire state government, and its bureaucracy function and, if they can, what message does that send out to the rest of India?

There are also some other victims. The Congress Party, still led by Gandhis, was wiped out across the capital, and shows signs of redundancy, whilst the fragmented opposition across the country, much of it regional in its strength, will sense weakness in the Modi administration that will need to be countered. Hopefully, the response that comes will give a nod to the anti-corruption campaign whilst continuing the work of opening up India as a place to do business.

There is a message for political parties elsewhere too. Campaign for real change as though you mean it, and address the issues that really matter to people, and you might bring them with you. Spend your time attacking the insurgent, as the BJP did in Delhi, and as is so often the case here, and you risk losing the enthusiastic support of your core vote. After all, what are you for?

It will be interesting to see how they get on, for heaven knows India has real potential as an economic powerhouse and a political partner for the western democracies if we only work with them and develop a sense of their sensitivities.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Alas, my Mumbai, alas...

I am, in some ways, a hopeless optimist - some might suggest that, given my philosophical beliefs, that's a necessity - but Mumbai is enough to cause even the most rose-tinted spectacles to turn as black as the fear-sensitive sunglasses in "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy".

The air pollution is positively hostile, littering is an epidemic, not a problem, government is either incompetent, inept or both, and islands of immense glamour are surrounded by a sea of slums enough to make one wonder how such huge wealth can allow you to glance out of your penthouse window over such dire poverty. And yes, the city works, after a fashion, and yes, it may be true that life on the margins in the City of Dreams is still less awful than it is in the rural villages, but that says very little, I'm afraid.

Mumbai is a city where a dozen or so people die on the suburban railway every day (yes, really), where human life appears to have little value - even crippled beggars are abused for their nuisance value. And yet, it aspires to be a world city.

But perhaps what is so depressing is that, for the most part, its citizens accept this. Yes, the middle class protest about corruption - it makes their lives more complex, even as it throttles initiative and creativity - but the environment is a disaster, the city is in gridlock most of the time and you wouldn't even know where to start in terms of street cleaning. The scent of raw sewage in the air is, in a hot climate, merely a hint as to the quality of life for those unfortunate enough to live in the slums.

It is perhaps nostalgic to look back to a time when Bombay was somewhat gentler on the senses, before the streets filled with cars and the gutters with dirt, and perhaps time and memory give the city a sense of better days past, but until government and the people come together as one to reclaim the city as a place to live properly and well, rather than somewhere to inhabit, Mumbai will be a place which fails to live up to its ambition.

The contrasts just keep on coming...

The cricket over, and a little more shopping done, I went off in search of light refreshment in a typically unfocused sort of way. As I skirted Horniman Circle, I discovered something new in town...

Yes, it's a Starbucks. Frightening, when you think about it, that in a city where people sleep on the streets in their tens of thousands, and many others are only barely better off, you can buy an iced Raspberry Truffle Mocha for 294 Rupees - about £3. To put this into context, a twenty minute taxi ride costs about a third of that.

And yes, it's very nice, as a visitor to town, to have somewhere familiar and easy to stop and rest your feet, but given how few tourists come here, it is local custom that will keep it going.

India is brand crazy, with a curious inferiority complex when it comes to status - foreign always seems better here, and if you can afford the imported alternative, you buy it. Starbucks is merely taking advantage of that, so I guess that I shouldn't be terribly surprised. There is one obvious difference though, in that here, they are in partnership with Tata, which hopefully means that some of the money is circulating back into the domestic economy.

Ranji Trophy, 9th Round, Mumbai vs Karnataka

It is one of those strange things that, in all the years I have been coming to India, I have never actually seen any live cricket. And so, I've made my way to the Wankhede Stadium, between the commercial hub and the sea, to catch the last session of the first day's play.

For the visitors, the match means relatively little, as they qualified easily for the quarter-finals, but for Mumbai, the traditional giants of Indian domestic cricket, it is a must win game, following an erratic season. Losing their opener to the minnows of Jammu & Kashmir, at home, no less, set the tone, and an inexperienced batting line-up has struggled to impose itself.

The stadium itself is almost deserted, despite free admission - there are probably no more than 350 people in a stadium that seats over 60,000 - and the seats are thick with dust, reflecting just how grim the air quality in the city is. It's noisy too, with the railway into Churchgate rattling by just behind me, and plenty of traffic noise too.

Mumbai batted first, and were 230-5 when I arrived, just before the tea interval, and have pushed on since, knowing that their best chance is to make quick runs and give themselves as much time as they can to break down a strong Karnataka batting side. Even the new ball appears to be making little difference, as the sixth wicket partnership accelerates, making their runs at more than four an over.

So, all in all, not a bad day for the home side - even the local sea eagles, perched on top of the Vijay Merchant Stand, seem to approve. We'll see though...

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Typical of Mumbai - a metro system which isn't that obviously useful...

One of the things about being a Mumbaikar, is that you take a dim view of Delhi. In Mumbai and Bengaluru, money is earned and invested, whereas in Delhi an inept government wastes it for you. Mumbai is cultured, stylish, Delhi bureaucratic and backward.

And so, obviously, Mumbai is leading the way in terms of modern transport methods, right? Errr... wrong, actually. Whilst Delhi has five metro lines and an Airport Express route, Mumbai has one line, linking Ghatkopar, in the northern suburbs on the Central Railway, with Andheri, also in the distant suburbs on the Western Railway, before ending at Versova - still a long way from the central city.

It did seem worth an explore, however, so I caught a bus to Kurla and a commuter train to Ghatkopar, where I headed for the rather swish looking new station. And yes, the whole thing is rather impressive - clean, efficient (somewhat unlike most of the city outside), and with a maximum fare of 40 rupees, competitive with the local bus service.


But, whilst it passes near the incredible new International Airport, it doesn't serve it yet - there is talk of a spur that will do so one day - making it pretty useless for tourists whilst putting the cost of housing up in the areas served by it - where have I heard that before?

Something else that I have learnt on this trip is that commuter trains are much cheaper than local buses. For example, Santa Cruz to Hutatma Chowk is 30 rupees by bus, but only ten by train. There is probably a very good reason for this and, perhaps, someone will explain it to me...