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Australia's Project Wickenby Shows Increased Results

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

While Australia’s Taxation Ombudsman, John McMillan, confirmed that the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) had established appropriate procedures for exercising its “access without notice” powers, a report on Project Wickenby to end-2009 showed the monetary results from its compliance programme.

The ATO has wide-ranging powers to enter a business or private premises without the owner’s permission to examine and copy documents, relevant to an investigation, that deal with income, indirect, pay-as-you-go, fringe benefits and energy–related taxes and superannuation.

McMillan made a random audit in 2009 that included observing a coordinated, simultaneous multi–site 'access without notice' visit in several states. He said it was right and proper that the ATO used its 'access without notice' powers only in exceptional circumstances, but that it had a genuine belief that documents might be destroyed if notice was given, a well–founded concern that fraud or evasion was occurring.

“The ATO takes the use of its access without notice powers seriously and has established a set of sound guidelines and manuals to assist its staff to apply the powers,” he added.

The latest figures issued by the ATO on the results from Project Wickenby, the multi-agency compliance program that targets a range of tax avoidance schemes, show the extent of its action. It is disclosed that, in the four-year period of Project Wickenby to end-December 2009, the ATO made 66 access visits with notice and 73 access visits without notice. In addition, it issued 2,026 notices to “furnish information” and 1,014 notices of tax assessment.

The ATO further stated that taxpayers who have been the subject of Project Wickenby interventions have voluntarily lodged more accurate tax returns and/or have lodged returns where previously they may not have done so. To November 30, 2009, it confirmed that AUD299m (USD265m) of revenue was collected as a result of this increased compliance.

In addition, since the launch in July 2007 of the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Initiative, where taxpayers are offered the chance to disclose undeclared foreign income in return for low or no penalties provided they do so before they are contacted by the ATO, it has identified omitted income of almost AUD355m and raised AUD69m in liabilities from over 3,500 disclosures.

Overall, as at December 31, 2009, Project Wickenby had collected AUD465m, with total tax liabilities raised of almost AUD533m. It was reported that Project Wickenby has already exceeded its targets, and expects further monies to be collected over the coming months.