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Autumn Statement Is Business-Friendly, Say British Firms, But Tax Avoidance Details Are Unclear

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British businesses had much to celebrate from chancellor George Osborne's Autumn Statement, including work tabled for the construction industry, corporation tax reducing to 21% and capital gains tax's annual exemption amount being increased by 1%, reaching £11,100.

A pledge of £5 billion was made to spend on infrastructure, including upgrading a number of the UK's most used motorways, investment in the High Speed 2 railway line and broadband expansion - all music to the construction and industrial industries' ears.

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Britain's businesses have come out broadly in favour of Osborne's Autumn Statement

A £1bn loan and guarantee to extend the Northern Line tube to Battersea power station via Nine Elms was also confirmed, as was the news that the government's Business Bank was now open for business with £1 billion in funding from the government - originally announced in September.

Stella Amiss, corporate tax partner at PwC, said: "All in all, this was a solid and measured statement for British business.

"The chancellor has listened to business in producing a Statement that delivers stability ... This underlines the government's drive to deliver on the policy of Britain being open for business."

In construction, £1bn is being put into building and repairing Britain's roads, and £270 million has been announced to fund improvements in further education colleges and £1bn to expand good schools and build 100 new free schools and academies.

And from October 2013 all newly built commercial property completed between 1 October 2013 and 30 September 2016 will be free from empty property rates for the first 18 months, up to the state aids limit.

“Reducing the burden of empty property rates is a positive step towards encouraging Britain to start building again.," said Alex Michelin, founder of international design and development firm Finchatton.

"Introducing the grace period for new development empty property rates will let the property sector move forward more readily with construction in our towns and cities, regenerating communities and revitalising the economy. Construction levels in Britain are currently at their lowest since 1999, and the government is right to encourage growth through these measures."

Manufacturing received a few boosts too, with the annual investment allowance for investing in plant and machinery rising tenfold from £25,000 to £250,000.

Lee Hopley, chief economist at the manufacturers' organisation EEF, said: "This move starts to provide the foundations of a strategy that is serious about support more globally focussed companies choosing to invest and grow in the UK.

“But with the strong rebound in business investment still forecast to be a few years out, the chancellor cannot afford to ease up on efforts to build confidence about the UK as a place to invest and grow."

More was also promised in terms of helping British businesses increase their exports; Osborne declared he was increasing the funding for UK Trade and Investment by more than 25% a year, so it can help more firms build the capacity of British chambers overseas, as well as a new £1.5 billion export finance facility.

To fund some of the initiatives, the chancellor announced a new public finance initiative - having decried Labour's PFI as "discredited", he declined to give his interpretation a new moniker, but many in the City have already dubbed it PF2.

Chris Cummings, chief executive of lobbying group TheCityUK, said introducing PF2 will help provide the schools, hospitals and roads we need in the UK, deliver crucial inward investment and provide growth through the export of private financing expertise by UK practitioners.

However, he warned: "Imaginative work is required to bridge the current funding gap between long-term and short-term investors in infrastructure, given the government's priority to cut the deficit.

"Public-Private Partnerships need clear structuring to balance the risks taken by the private sector, for both the construction and maintenance of projects, with the appropriate rewards."

However, there is a potential sting in the tail with a crack down on tax avoidance, for both individuals and companies.

For the first time, the government has negotiated a tax treaty with Switzerland which will reportedly see £5bn come into the government's coffers from undisclosed Swiss bank accounts of UK residents.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Osborne said: "The vast majority of people, rich or otherwise, pay their taxes and make their contribution. But there are still too many who illegally evade their taxes, or use aggressive tax avoidance in order not to pay their fair share.

"This government has taken more action against these people than any before it. Prosecutions for tax evasion are up 80%. We are increasing by around 2,500 the number of tax inspectors going after evaders and avoiders."

There will also be the introduction of what chancellor George Osborne called the General Anti Avoidance Rule.

Michael Wistow, head of tax at law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner, was left unimpressed by the GAAR announcement, saying: "Clearer, simpler tax legislation, not political posturing, is the best way to create a favourable climate for UK businesses. If the government is not happy with the current rules it should change them, rather than talking about 'morals' in tax."

Wistow did note however that if the GAAR was introduced properly, it could prove to be an effective tool in tackling abusive tax avoidance.

“However, sufficient checks and balances are not yet in place and a GAAR also introduces risks to business certainty. Ironically, many of the schemes that a GAAR is intended to tackle did not work in any event. It should not be forgotten that the courts already have the tools they need without the uncertainties of a GAAR.”

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