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Latest bailout is one too far

After a brief delay, the draft Finance Bill was finally published on Friday. As the Government was collapsing around him, Brian Lenihan was forced to renege on the proposed abolition of the controversial property-based tax incentives.

Taxpayers are not happy with this. They see it as another cave-in by the Government, as it protects those who sheltered their income from tax -- yet another case of those who gave the least benefiting the most.

At least that is how the general taxpayer sees it. They bailed out the banks, the developers and the bondholders. Now it's the turn of the tax cheats.

The only people who aren't entitled to a bailout are homeowners with distressed mortgages and small businesses trying to hold things together. Surely this is wrong.

Well first of all, those who invested in tax-based property schemes have done nothing wrong. They used legitimate tax-planning techniques that are entirely legal and they are not tax cheats. Of course, if we take a closer look at these schemes, it is clear that many of them are cleverly devised to cut tax in ways that the Revenue Commissioners never thought was possible.

They can involve professional advisers setting up clever property-ownership structures. They match people with money to invest and income they want to shelter from tax with investors who need capital but cannot claim tax relief.

The investors get funds they might not have been able to borrow directly from the banks. Those who have the funds to invest cut their tax bills through these schemes. Everyone was happy -- at least until the economic crisis hit.

The Government is blind to everything except propping up the banking system at all cost. If the bailout of bondholders does not bankrupt the country, its extension to tax investors certainly will.

How can the Government agree to this while taxpayers are losing their homes?

We have seen how mismanagement and a lack of understanding of the Nama arrangements allowed developers hide their wealth and transfer their debts to the taxpayer.

Our public representatives see it as a game of cards and they continue to lose one hand after another. It's time to call a halt. No more bailouts.

We need a Government that knows what it is doing and will act in the best interest of the taxpayer. It's time for tough decisions but nobody is willing to make them.

Our public representatives are too close to the problem. They helped create it. Now they can't see the wood for the trees.

They can't distinguish what is right from wrong. They are just adding to our problems. Is it any wonder that consumer confidence is dashed?

Many of the tax investors in these schemes got involved in good faith. They did nothing wrong. They acted within the law. However, passing their investment losses to the general taxpayer is not the solution. The promoters and their professional advisers guarantee many of these schemes.

Like the bondholders, they need to accept their losses. There is no capacity to absorb these losses by the general taxpayer. Bankruptcies might arise and they need to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.

It may be possible to tap into the group that fuelled and benefited from these schemes. A wealth tax might be appropriate to raise funds to sort out the problem if the need arises.

We must be careful in what we ask for. It doesn't always work out as we expect.

James Fitzsimons is an independent tax and financial adviser

Sunday Independent