It would be tempting to simplify the government's description of the new probate charges as a 'fee' rather than a 'tax' as being a clear example of a misnomer. But this would fail to address the basic problem with this choice of words and by failing to admit, at least publicly, that the new fee scheme is a tax, the government is entering dangerous or perhaps even Orwellian territory.
There is nothing trifling about death and taxes, and the government knows this; after all, the new fee regime is predicted to raise around £155 million a year for the court coffers. But, perhaps the worst of this is that it goes against the very basic ethos of the conservative party and it is, in fact, more akin to socialist wealth redistribution. One is tempted to wonder whether the government fails to know its own mind or is simply in danger of evading the truth.
As George Orwell wrote in his seminal 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language':
The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns to …long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting ink.
Describing the new charges as an ‘enhanced fee' is nothing more than the most blatant exercise in ink squirting. What can an ‘enhanced' fee be but a euphemism? In the case of the most valuable estates, this ‘enhancement' is in fact nothing more than a 2,700% increase in the cost of probate.
Surely, if the government wants to argue for a means-tested fee that places a higher tax burden on wealthier estates it needs to do so through the proper channels which will see the issue debated in parliament as part of a Finance Bill rather than going through an obscure, unsuitable, but crucially less scrutinised, process designed for statutory instruments.
The stubbornness of the government's insincerity over the issue reached new levels of farce recently when its own spending watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility, characterised the new fees as a tax, plainly and simply.
It said, "The Treasury expects the ONS to classify the new structure – with its 2,700 per cent increase in cost for estates valued over £2million – as a tax in the National Accounts."
Despite this, the Ministry of Justice remained steadfast in its denial, playing a barely credible game of semantics when it said, "This is not a tax and any decision by the ONS to define it as such would be purely for accounting purposes."
"Accounting purposes." Really?
Lies will pass into history
Even the 2% of those who favoured the new regime when consulted about the proposals in 2017 should be concerned: the issue has become about more than the fees themselves; it has also become about honesty, accountability and the transparent use of language by government. The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) certainly shares this view and has branded the fees as nothing short of an "abuse of power."
Despite all this and despite the appalling and paradoxical anomaly of the House of Lords reasoning that it could not vote the fees down because it does not veto taxation measures, the government continues to persist in trying to squeeze this stealth tax in via the back door.
New probate "fees"? More like a clear case of gaslighting by government.
The new probate fee structure was due to commence on 1 April 2019, following the original delay from April 2017, however, ongoing Brexit negotiations have further delayed the fees' introduction.
An approval motion will be required in the House of Commons before the statutory instrument will be able to be brought into force and, due to Brexit discussions taking precedence, The Ministry of Justice has said the motion will be introduced when a suitable time slot becomes available.