Iain Stewart of Websense tells Georgiana Head that the UK should look at what tax legislation intends rather than what it says.
Iain Stewart is global head of tax at Websense, a company that protects firms from internal and external threats to computer security. He was previously a tax partner at KPMG and at Arthur Young (now part of Ernst & Young) and has worked in Paris, Scotland, London and Manchester. He is a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland and a chartered tax adviser.
What was your first job?
When I was 13 I had a marvellous job running a team of younger children organising the hire of rowing boats at Tigh-na-bruiach on the Clyde. In those days people would take a day trip from the city ‘Doon the Waater’ from Glasgow. The steamer would stop off at various coastal resorts dropping off passengers as it progressed. On arrival a few stalwarts would go for a row round the bay. This role was really enjoyable and it was a key summer job in the location. I got a lot of street cred from being the boat boy and decent tips when various adults needed to be rescued.
If you weren’t in your current job what would you like to be?
I have toyed with the idea of politics but keep postponing any action. I’m also very attracted to the idea of being a painter. My father was a surgeon but in his spare time was an excellent draughtsman and produced incredibly detailed watercolours. I wish I had inherited his talent.
What achievement are you most proud of?
I wouldn’t want to pick one thing in particular but my overall aim would be to leave everything that I touch slightly better off than I found it. I’m drawn to the ancient Thracian idea of putting a black or white pebble in an amphora for every day each representing a bad or good deed, then at the end of your life being judged on the balance of your deeds.
What’s the best advice that anyone has ever given you?
If there is a problem you can either fix it, or if you can’t fix it face up to the consequences and deal with them; indecision is not an option.
What’s the best thing about your job?
The level of engagement that tax has with the business – which means that I can really see where I can add value. I much prefer this to sitting in an ivory tower and waiting for technical work to come to me.
When you get out in the business it’s amazing the number of opportunities there to add value.
What is your favourite place in the world?
My happiest childhood memories are of Tigh-na-bruiach on the Clyde but I wouldn’t go back as I am sure that it has changed. China is also a phenomenal place – really exciting.
If you had the opportunity to meet someone from any era, who would it be?
I think it would have to be Genghis Khan.
And what question would you ask him?
How did he organise and motivate the Mongols such that he could create an empire of that size? It was an unbelievably impressive achievement.
He managed to take a warring nomadic people through Europe right to Hungary. That is a feat of incredible man management.
If you were the UK chancellor of the exchequer what one change would you make to the tax regime?
I would move to a simpler purposive regime, looking at not what the legislation says but what it was meant to do. Is it trying to encourage business with an incentive? Or is it trying to capture an abuse? Let the legislation serve its purpose.
If you compare UK legislation to the Netherlands or Germany the amount of detail in the UK is far more burdensome.
It would probably take at least a decade to do, would mean there would need to be more in the way of rulings, but would lead to a more stable regime for businesses and the revenue.