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One minute with... Jonathan Cooklin

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How did you end up in tax?

By accident rather than design. My original plan had been to go into business, so I qualified as an accountant and was accepted onto an MBA course at a US business school. However, having thoroughly enjoyed tax work during my stint with Price Waterhouse, I decided instead to requalify as a lawyer and specialise in tax.

Who in tax do you most admire?

Richard Ballard, tax partner at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.

Is there a common tax problem you come across time and again?

Ostensibly straightforward questions which, due to the complexity of the UK’s tax code, require a disproportionate effort to answer. I still struggle to understand why UK tax legislation needs to be so complex and lengthy. I suspect that, at least for certain parts of the tax code, we end up with rules that only a handful of people really understand. That can’t be good for business, the government, HMRC or the tax profession.

Looking back on your career, what is the key lesson you’ve learnt along the way?

There is no substitute for a thorough approach to tax law, combined with an ability to stand back to see if the answer makes sense in the round. Adopting a logical step-by-step analysis leading to precisely the wrong answer is an easy mistake to make.

Name a memorable moment of your career to date

I’m going to mention two moments: becoming a tax partner at Freshfields and then at Davis Polk.

Tax simplification – is enough being done?

No, I don’t believe so. Welcome measures which were designed to enhance the UK’s tax competitiveness – such as the substantial shareholding exemption – are enacted in such a complex way that they do not fully meet their underlying policy objectives. Looking at those measures afresh to see how they could be simplified and made more user friendly would be sensible (and probably more productive than looking again at the loan relationships and derivative contracts rules). This would be a practical way to give business more certainty and reduce compliance costs.

If you could make one change to UK tax law, what would it be?

Scrap the debt cap rules. There are ample other anti-avoidance measures dealing with interest deductibility, and yet more in the pipeline.

Is there a recent development in tax that concerns you?

I remain somewhat uncomfortable with the introduction of the GAAR. My main concern is that there is a significant risk of what is mainstream and acceptable tax planning today being treated by HMRC tomorrow as abusive tax planning. Hopefully, that concern will prove to be misplaced.

What has HMRC got right? What has it got wrong?

The open consultation process is very welcome. Legislation by guidance less so.

You might not know this but …

I enjoy 1960s music and in my early teens purposely bought my first guitar at Hessy’s Music Store in Liverpool, the shop where John Lennon reputedly acquired his first guitar. Similarities with John Lennon start and stop there!