The 'Tax Simplifier' series aims to make the case for a much simpler tax code with practical recommendations for policy change on a regular basis. Blogs are published twice per week, on Monday and Thursday. Read David's previous blog on tax incentives. You can follow David on Twitter @TaxSimplifier.
In the 16th century Edward VI said “I would wish that ... the superfluous and tedious statutes were brought into one sum together, and made more plain and short, to the intent that men might better understand them.”
If Edward were born again today he would be quite astonished - of course by modern technical advances - but also by the growth of law and regulation.
A much more recent commentator on the subject is Tom Bingham, formerly Senior Law Lord, who ably expressed the point in his book “The Rule of Law”. He said that if the law is not reasonably accessible to the public, the rule of law itself is undermined.
Tax law is not alone, but it has long since ceased to be reasonably accessible to the public, and Parliament should begin to take this problem seriously.
The amount of new legislation introduced by any Government department should cease to be seen as a sign of virility, but more likely as a sign of failure. Good law endures, and does not need constant revision.
Outside of tax law an example of this principle was the Law of Property Act 1925, which still provides the core of English Land Law. An example of good tax law is the code for intangible fixed assets, now contained in the Corporation Tax Act 2009. It provides a complete code for taxing such assets, which has required remarkably little amendment since it was enacted (other than in the course of the tax re-write project).
It should now be generalised to provide a complete business code for all assets (other than trading stock), to help give us a much simpler tax system.
A contrary example is our capital allowances legislation, which, having an unsatisfactory basis, has required constant change.
The tax re-write project was intended to make the law more intelligible but not to reduce its complexity. Unfortunately, tax law is still inaccessible to the ordinary citizen by reason of its complexity.
This matters. A citizen is entitled to understand his tax affairs without the need to seek expensive advice.