Entrepreneurs' Relief is worth defending

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Defenders of Entrepreneurs’ Relief are on the back foot. In the corridors of power, rumblings have been heard that this tax relief is under threat. As entrepreneur Guy Mucklow writes in City A.M.:

Originally introduced by Labour seven years ago, the Entrepreneurs’ relief lifetime allowance was doubled by the coalition government to £10m in March 2011. However, according to a report by the National Audit Office in November 2014, the cost of the relief has increased to almost £3bn. Subsequent political scrutiny could put its future in jeopardy.

Entrepreneurs’ Relief offers business owners a lifetime allowance of £10m of gain taxed at the reduced rate of 10% for individual shareholdings of over 5%. Since its introduction in 2008 – when it replaced Taper Relief – the allowance has been raised to £2m, 5m, and finally its current level of £10m.

Its success may well contribute to its downfall. The £3bn has been "lost" because entrepreneurship is flourishing in the UK – partly because successive government have realised how vital entrepreneurs are and therefore offered people tax incentives to take the leap. If the idea is to encourage entrepreneurs, it is short-sighted to bemoan the loss of tax revenue (an inevitable by-product of the policy's success).

In our Manifesto, Tim Hames of the BVCA argued forcefully that we should be extending Entrepreneurs' Relief:

If the Government were to discard the 5% requirement, lure business angels yet further into the start-up scene and eliminate the current cap altogether, it would revolutionise the tax treatment of entrepreneurs in Britain. The howls of anguish from the likes of Berlin, Dublin and Luxembourg would be audible in the Treasury.

Getting rid of the 5% equity requirement should be prioritised in any move pushing for its extension. It may be pushing entrepreneurs to exit their companies or not take on extra funding in case they get diluted below the 5% threshold. Labour may be amenable. Its March 2013 Small Business Taskforce report stated:

Extend entrepreneurs’ relief beyond capital gains to dividends, in order to remove the incentive for entrepreneurs to dispose of their businesses rather than grow them. Reduce the 5% threshold for entrepreneurs’ relief to 1% or below to allow more employees to benefit from investing in the high growth companies they work for.

In contrast, the Liberal Democrats’ 2013 autumn conference, a policy paper entitled Fairer Taxes, Policies for the Reform of Taxation was endorsed by the party. It included the following statement:

We wish to focus Entrepreneurs' Relief to better serve the purpose for which it is intended; incentivising entrepreneurs and start-up business owners, and prevent it from simply being used as a way for wealthy investors to reduce their tax bills. We would therefore increase the shareholding requirement to 25%.

Extending it to 25% would definitely incentivise entrepreneurs to exit their companies early. There is no earthly reason why it should be raised from 5% and every reason why is should be cut. Britain is backing entrepreneurs – now isn't the time to take the foot off the pedal.