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Richard Curtis leaves Taxation magazine

02 March 2021 / Richard Curtis
Issue: 4782 / Categories: Comment & Analysis
Hit the road Jack

Those who know me will know my fondness for the aphorism: ‘The only thing that’s constant in life is change’. All good things must come to an end so this is my opportunity to bid farewell to Taxation magazine and my role as editor. My predecessor, Mike Truman, explained that Malcolm Gunn, the previous editor, had likened Taxation to a classic car and it’s been great to be able to drive it around for a few years. It’s been a blast – the wind rushing through my hair when I had some – but now it’s time to push it gently back into the garage and hang up the keys. Hopefully, its new owners will find it in good condition.

I would like to think that we have kept the magazine well-serviced with interesting content for our passengers, I mean readers, and I’d like to thank all those contributors – too numerous to mention individually, but you know who you are – who have kept its tank full. My immense gratitude also goes to the team at Taxation – Allison Plager and Nick Raad – who have helped maintain it while I’ve been in the driving seat and Andrew Hubbard for his map reading and making sure that we were heading in the right direction. Also, of course, my thanks go to our often unsung but essential design, production, advertising, distribution and other support teams.

Joining the motorway

I was idly looking in the magazine’s glovebox the other day and found the map of how I arrived here and it was all down to Taxation. Having started my career in the, as it then was, Inland Revenue, I was a tax manager with a small team working for a well-known Hampshire firm of chartered accountants. I enjoyed the wide and varied work that such firms offered in the 1990s, but perhaps I was feeling a little shell shocked following the first self-assessment tax return filing deadline in January 1998. Although we did ultimately file all our returns on time it was, in the words of the Duke of Wellington after Waterloo: ‘A damned near-run thing’. As an aside, I had a recurring dream for a few subsequent years: I would be at work on 31 January when I suddenly realised I’d not completed any tax returns. Fortunately I always woke before the penalties arrived. The Tolley annuals were my Bible and Taxation was a regular weekly update of information.

I’m not sure that I would admit to reading the magazine from the back, but it was there that the advertisement for ‘tax newsletter editor wanted’ first caught my eye. In June 1999, I took over as editor of Tolley’s tax and VAT newsletters as well as some ancillary roles that only subsequently came to light. This gives me the opportunity of telling my favourite joke about everybody having a book in them, it was just that in my case it turned out to be Tolley’s Tax Office Directory. Sadly, the 2001 edition with my name proudly inscribed on the front is ‘currently unavailable’ from Amazon (

Indicate and manoeuvre

It was at a tax conference (does anybody else remember those?) that I happened to sit at lunch next to the much missed John Newth, then the deputy editor of Taxation. I was in his shadow, literally and figuratively, but during the meal he told me that he planned to retire the following year and that my background and experience in tax combined with my newly acquired publishing skills (no doubt much disputed by my then long-suffering newsletter production assistant, Matthew) would be very useful and that I might want to watch out for another advertisement in the back pages of his magazine.

A year later I found myself being grilled by Malcolm Gunn – a veritable mine of taxation information and with a seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of the Taxes Acts. Somehow (probably another near-run thing) I managed to convince him that I had the required abilities and was very happy to move to John’s recently vacated desk. As Malcolm’s loyal lieutenants, Allison and I were surprised when he moved back into practice, but before long we had a new editor in Mike Truman. Mike was editor from 2004 until 2015 and brought his own new and distinctive flair to the job.

Readers’ Forum

From day one on Taxation, as well as inheriting John Newth’s desk, I took over his other editing tasks, which included the Readers’ Forum. Oddly, the very first issue of Taxation in 1927 included a forum section with new queries and replies to other presumably previously unpublished new queries. I never quite figured out that conundrum. It was, I can only assume, a deus ex machina moment when the concept sprang fully formed from the mind of its founder and first editor, Ronald Staples, without any gestation period involving requests for queries and for readers to respond. Rather than the chicken and the egg it was presumably a question of which came first, the magazine or its readers? We may never know.

The forum continues, I hope, to be interesting with a wide range of questions and responses and we have never failed to publish four queries each week.

At this juncture, I should like to put on record that I do not spend my time dreaming up the Readers’ Forum questions –they are from Taxation readers. Further, and despite some occasional questioning on the subject, my lips have remained sealed as to the identities of those who write their replies under pseudonyms. Your true names remain safe.

I should also like to take this opportunity of encouraging readers to write replies. And for those who are seeking to place their feet under the authors’ table, this is a great way to start. Many times, when I suggest to people that they might like to write an article, I am met with the excuse that they wouldn’t know what to write about. With the forum, the subject is there on a plate. What’s more, we are not asking for a couple of thousand words; a reply of, say, 300 to 500 words is perfect. For those who are shy of sending them in, why not practise first. Use the question as an exercise. Write a reply and compare it to those published. If after a few attempts it seems that you are covering at least the main points that are appearing in the printed replies, why not start to send them in? If nothing else, there will be some time to put down on that continuing professional development record.

Those short replies can tempt authors to writing extended pieces. I think it was Mike Truman who compared publishing a weekly magazine to having a hungry animal that had to be kept fed. Naturally, we commission articles, but are happy to receive suggestions from those who are keen to write.

Hits and misses

On the subject of writing, my first substantive article for Taxation, in 2002 and shortly after joining the team, was ‘LA Shakedown’ – I was a fan of the similarly titled Michael Mann film. This questioned why elderly basic rate taxpayers were suffering a tax charge when a chargeable event resulted in a loss of the age allowance. I had found this a common problem when in practice and, while the amounts were not huge, the liabilities could be unwelcome and unexpected for those on limited incomes. My interpretation of the legislation was that top-slicing relief should have been available to them in the same way as for higher-rate taxpayers and, with the benefit of hindsight, I should have taken a case to the commissioners on a pro bono basis. To my regret I did not.

I recall that HMRC’s response to that article was along the lines of ‘Mr Curtis takes a novel view of the legislation’ and it is only in the past few years that this anomaly has finally been corrected. Perhaps this is a lesson that the fact that everyone else adopts a particular view does not necessarily mean that an opposing one is wrong. As a little aside, while rootling around under Taxation’s rear seats I see that there was a proposal during finance bill debates in, I think, 2004, to give this relief. It was defeated, but there may be a limited satisfaction in knowing where the moral high ground was.

We all know that getting it right or wrong is critical in tax and is something that, potentially, can have substantial adverse and unintended consequences. There is a more detailed article here that I always meant to write (there are others – perhaps I’ll now have time) on what I perceive as a failure by government and HMRC to appreciate the extent to which people can be motivated by money. Perhaps this is because those in power think that such amounts are ‘small change’. But spread over millions of taxpayers this can start to add up. One instance that sticks in my mind was the incentive for online filing of PAYE returns by employers, with stories of people setting up dozens of companies. Some time later, anti-avoidance measures were introduced and incentives were not introduced for subsequent online filing measures.

Similarly, the corporation tax nil-rate band – or nil-rate band fiasco – was another. Previously, unless there were specific commercial risks to be mitigated, a limited company was something that would usually only be considered by those earning reasonably substantial amounts. Then, much like Clark Kent transforming himself into Superman, the limited company was of great financial benefit to those with low business incomes. Surprise, surprise, there followed a massive increase in incorporations. Apparently unwilling to admit their mistake the government tried to squirm out of this problem of its own making by introducing a complicated non-corporate distribution rate until the whole fandango was quietly put to sleep a few years later.

On the one hand it has been entertaining to be a professional spectator to events such as these, but as a taxpayer it is always sad to see our resources wasted. That said, I was briefly able to participate as both a tax saver and waster last year. Tempted by the ‘eat out to help out’ campaign – and thinking that a detailed VAT analysis of the eventual invoice might be interesting from a professional point of view – I went to a well-known local fish restaurant.

The food was excellent, but unfortunately a fish bone became lodged at the back of my throat. Following unsuccessful and somewhat embarrassing efforts to cough this up in the gents, a journey to hospital accident and emergency was required. After a substantial wait – perhaps unsurprisingly, there were more urgent cases than mine – I was x-rayed and taken (in a wheelchair – walking was risky in my condition it seems) to see a doctor. After about another hour and various unsuccessful attempts which are probably best not reported in too much detail, another frenzied coughing fit eventually produced the offending article.

Quite how much this all cost the NHS I do not like to think. Let’s hope the benefit to the economy was at least as much.

The fast lane

Following Mike’s retirement as editor in 2015, I was fortunate to be promoted to editor and I would not want to underplay what a great privilege that was and I hope that we have kept the magazine well stocked with thoughtful and informative articles that have helped those providing tax advice – especially the ‘high street practitioners’ who are our core readership. We live in a fast-changing world, now more than ever. While many of us may have spent much of the past year looking at the same unchanging four walls of a home that has morphed into an office, the outside world has changed in ways that would have seemed unimaginable 12 months or so ago.

For those of us in publishing, networking with the great and good of the tax world has always been an enjoyable part of our roles even if this did involve late nights. I am sure we have missed discussing the latest tax developments, problems and cases with all and sundry.

Quite when those much missed networking events – and the Taxation Awards will resume is anyone’s guess – although I hope there is light on the horizon. More importantly from a professional point of view, I write as the 2021 spring Budget is expected – coincidentally, my last day as editor. This Budget is likely to be the most anticipated for many years as we wait to hear the chancellor’s proposals on how the nation’s finances will be rebalanced after the impact of the pandemic.

Whatever happens I expect continuing debate on simplicity and fairness. I imagine that this has been going on since the concept was first invented. It did occur to me that tax is too important to be left to politicians and I was idly wondering whether a tax commission should give some thought as to the ideal balance of tax between income and capital, earnings and expenditure, gifts and inheritances. I realise that a changing economic world will require changes in the scope and level of taxation, but on the other hand it is well known that businesses in particular as well as individuals, appreciate some certainty and consistency to enable them to plan their affairs. A start would be a restriction on substantive changes without full consultation, but I suspect that differing opinions of left and right make this a forlorn hope. I shall therefore continue to abide by my tax mantra: ‘Between nine and five, if at all possible, I shall not use the words “fair” and “logical”.’

Parked up

This year I expect to watch the Budget proceedings more as an interested personal observer rather than on a professional basis, but wish all our readers the very best in their tax work and deliberations. It has been hard work, but great fun.

As a final aside, I have been reading Neil Young’s book Waging Heavy Peace recently and this contains much on his love of classic cars and I might now have time to listen to those good old LPs. I can conclude in no better way than to finish with the title of one of his records as my parting wish for Taxation: ‘Long may you run’. 

Issue: 4782 / Categories: Comment & Analysis
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