We are delighted to feature an interview with Hugh Lask, tax partner of Harris & Trotter LLP. Harris & Trotter, established over 75 years ago, are best known as a leading media, sports and entertainment firm of Chartered Accountants based in the West End of London. Hugh deals with all aspects of taxation for the firm although he is quick to point out that, whilst the entertainment work (specifically pop music) is the glamorous part, Harris & Trotter looks after a very diverse range of clients and their interests, with property in all its guises representing the single largest sector. The one aspect of the firm of which he is most proud, however, is the charitable work that they do. In particular the innovation of adding a small voluntary donation to each invoice, which is matched £ for £ by the firm, has raised a significant amount over the past few years. This and other fund-raising efforts has seen the firm’s charitable trust raise over £1m for a very wide range of good causes across the world.
Hugh's contact details are set out at the end of this interview.
Why did you get into tax?
I qualified as a Chartered Accountant with Dearden Farrow, following the traditional audit route. When I finished my exams there was an invitation from the senior tax partner to all newly-qualified members of the firm to consider a career in personal tax. I jumped at the chance. I knew then that there are many reasons why people need an accountant, and tax is all of them.
Who has been the most influential role model for your professional life?
The reality is that you never stop learning and picking up ideas from all of those you meet. As someone once told me “every day is a school day,” and there is not a day that goes past without something new cropping up.
In the early days, when I was cutting my teeth in tax, I learned a huge amount from my colleagues in the Dearden Farrow personal tax department. When I left DF to join H&T I was told that it would be “like leaving the womb”. It was. DF was a top-20 firm with hundreds of partners, staff and support staff and technical back-up; H&T at the time had just 2 partners who were looking for a qualified person who had some tax experience. My very first task was to prepare a VAT return for a chain of nightclubs; I had never done one before so found myself learning very quickly indeed! Now, we are an 11-partner firm with some 60 staff and I have a tax department of 10 people, including two very experienced technical managers, with a third in training as we speak.
We are a highly entrepreneurial firm and each of the partners brings something different to the table. In their own way, each one is a role model.
What do you see as the biggest trend(s) affecting your client base over the next 10 years?
There is no question that despite claims to the contrary, the intrusion of the state into everyday life gets worse and worse all of the time. The biggest thing on the immediate horizon is the prospect of the digital tax account which will require the self-employed, landlords and others who live on investment income to file information with HMRC on a quarterly basis. This was trumpeted as de-regulatory: pah!
What is the most important change to the UK’s tax system that you would implement, if you could do so tomorrow?
What a question! There are so many things wrong, and getting worse, with the whole system.
Inheritance Tax is probably the most iniquitous of all. You work hard all of your life, paying tax as you do so that you have left, broadly, 60% of whatever you have earned. Then, as you shuffle off this mortal coil, the government take 40% of whatever’s left!
The nonsensical restrictions on pension savings are lunacy. The state should be encouraging me to save as much as I can afford at the moment into a pension fund so that I can look after myself in my retirement. The state cannot afford to keep me in the manner to which I have become accustomed!
The whole personal tax system is far too complex. I would instigate a flat rate of income tax of, say, 25%, with a system of credits for the lower paid to ensure that everyone had a sufficient level of household income. There would be no exemptions and anything that sought to avoid tax would face a 100% penalty. Capital Gains would be taxed at the same rate, with a discount for business assets, but only if held for 5 years. The fact that you can qualify for Entrepreneur’s Relief after only 12 months makes a mockery of encouraging long-term investment in British industry.
I haven’t started on the corporate side yet: how much longer do I have ... ?
In a movie of your life story, which actor or actress would you like to play you?
This one really has got me thinking: I am struggling to remember which Hollywood legend most looks like a middle-aged accountant. In the absence of someone fitting that bill, I would nominate my cousin, Sacha Baron-Cohen.
What would be your dream job if you didn’t work in tax?
One of my clients gave up his job as a very senior corporate lawyer to become a landscape gardener. I am not sure that I am cut out for that, and I have to accept that I will never make it as a sportsman. I could see myself owning a boutique country-house hotel: hopefully not as a latter-day Basil Fawlty. Alternatively, being paid to fly all over the world as a travel writer/photographer just sounds too good to be true.
What is your biggest extravagance?
I suppose that it would be my season ticket at Old Trafford, although the way that the team are playing at the moment, it is more a penance than an extravagance.
What do you do to relax?
Relax? We were promised that computers would give us so much leisure time that we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves. The reality is that with smartphones and e-mails, one remains on call for one’s clients 24/7. The trick is to ensure that when you do have a holiday, you ration when you look at the phone. The best relaxation is immersing yourself in something different, so the theatre and cinema are both good outlets. My wife and I are hooked on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and try and spend a week there each August.
What is your favourite holiday destination?
Anywhere that I haven’t been before. Everything is so accessible nowadays.
If you really press me on this, my parents have owned a house in the Dordogne area of France for over 40 years. When you step out of the front door all you can see is vineyards. It is so peaceful and you can instantly unwind there; until the phone rings, of course!
What piece of advice would you give your 25-year-old self?
Take up opportunities when they are presented to you; they will not come your way again. Live life for today because you never know what is around the corner. Look after your stomach and your wallet, the rest will take care of itself!
Contact details for Hugh Lask
Tax Partner, Harris & Trotter LLP,
Chartered Accountants, Registered Auditors & Business Advisers,
64 New Cavendish Street, London, W1G 8TB, UK
+44 (0)20 7467 6300