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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 March 2008, 18:31 GMT
Novice hurdler looks for stable budget
By Aidan McLaughlin
Head of Tax with Tenon in Scotland

With racing abandoned at Cheltenham, all eyes were focused on the Westminster Novice Hurdle, with Alistair Darling, wearing blinkers according to some, making his first outing.

He appeared to make a stable start, indeed the word "stability" featured no fewer than 10 times in his opening preamble.

Perhaps bruised by the onslaught of criticism after his pre-Budget statement, the chancellor started with good news for motorists, delaying the 2p per litre rise in fuel duty for six months.

Alistair Darling
Alistair Darling was delivering his first Budget

But a factored 2p rise for 2009 with similar promised for 2010 lessened the impact.

There is a major drive towards reducing CO2 emissions, with transport targeted as a major culprit and a major source of tax revenue.

Gas guzzlers will be hit with an annual road tax charge of 950 by 2010 but greener cars will be rewarded - a first year's exemption from road tax for cars emitting less than 135gm of CO2 per kilometre - which in fact covers a great many currently on sale.

Rises in tobacco duty usually come under the banner of concern for the nation's health, though a significant drop in consumption of tobacco and alcohol could leave the government's coffers in a state of terminal decline.

A rise of 11p for a packet of cigarettes was therefore not unexpected.

The news for Scotland's many drinkers wasn't much better; 4p on a pint of beer, 15p on a bottle of wine and a massive 55p on spirits, with the promise of above inflation rises in the next four years.

The huge hike in alcohol duty will be greeted with dismay by the whisky industry and the chancellor added insult to injury by preferring water to the golden stuff to sustain him during his speech.

'Damp squib'

So if you enjoy a tipple, you may feel like reaching for the sick bag, but even if it's a plastic one you got at the checkout, you won't be taxed on it for the time being, as voluntary measures by the retail industry to control wasteage are assessed.

All of these tax rises will help fund a major programme to help the poorer sections of society, such as children affected by poverty and to encourage the unemployed into training and back to work.

For Scottish businesses, particularly smaller businesses, this was a damp squib of a Budget, with little to encourage Scotland's army of entrepreneurs.

Small/medium companies face a rise in corporation tax rates to 21% next month, with a further 1% rise next April.

Conversely large companies receive a 2% deduction from April, perhaps signalling an eventual convergence of corporation tax rates?

traffic getty
The government wants to reduce gas guzzler cars

There has been strong pressure recently, from the CBI and others, to restore the UK's perceived lead as a low-tax destination for companies.

That will be of little comfort to the Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SME) sector, which in Scotland faces a bill of up to 50m a year in additional corporation tax for each 1% rise in the headline rate.

Coupled with that are changes to the capital allowances regime, some of which are effectively retrospective - the phasing out of allowances for the hotel/leisure industry, and a reduction in the capital allowances rate from 25% to 20% per annum.

Against that, a new annual investment allowance of up to 50,000 per annum is being introduced from next month.

To encourage SMEs, there is the carrot of winning up to 30% of government contracts by 2013.

Income-shifting rules

To what extent Scottish companies benefit from this has still to be seen but whether having the government as a paying customer will improve cash flow as the chancellor suggests is open to debate!

There is also the promise of further measures to simplify the tax system although what that will amount to in practice remains to be seen.

At least the much criticised income-shifting rules, which threatened more red tape for family companies, have been delayed until 2009.

Clearly the full impact of these had not been thought through and at least the government has taken heed of the consultation process.

The breathing space will go down well in Scotland, where there is a high number of family-owned enterprises.

Capital gains

Last but not least, capital taxes and of course the much highlighted CGT changes.

The abolition of the 10% taper relief and its replacement with a flat-rate 8% rate caused an outcry back in October.

The level of criticism led to the introduction of a new entrepreneur's relief which will allow the first 1m of lifetime gains arising post 5 April to be taxed at 10%, a saving of some 80K at most.

That offers some respite at least for the many Scottish business owners who otherwise faced an effective doubling of the CGT rate on the ultimate disposal of their business.

And if all of this is enough to make you want to give up the will to live, then at least the Inheritance Tax rules are being relaxed, to allow much greater flexibility for couples, whether married or in civil partnerships, to benefit from a combined 624,000 nil rate band.

So it wasn't entirely a blank afternoon for racing aficionados, a chance to see the novice hurdler showing us his visions for a stable economy.

It's unclear though that this performance alone will be enough to make him and his colleagues favourites for the next political Grand National.

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