Interview: Vanessa Lee, tax partner at BDO Leeds

An experienced tax adviser says she and her colleagues are now dealing with circumstances in which “every aspect” of their clients’ lives has been put under pressure.

Vanessa Lee is a tax partner based in BDO’s Leeds office and leads the Private Client Services practice across the North of England.

She said: “Most of our clients’ challenges derive from change – which of course is constant – but perhaps never more so than in the past two months.

“Personal relationships, wellbeing and finances are all strained. This can create complex and stressful situations, and clients come to us for clarity and to help them navigate where next.”

Lee joined BDO in 2019 with more than two decades’ experience as a tax adviser in big four accountancy firms, working with entrepreneurs, high-net-worth individuals and families.

She leads the firm’s matrimonial team across the UK, bringing together specialists from Forensics, Valuations and Tax Dispute Advisory to help clients manage tax issues in divorce cases.

Originally from Hull, she studied accountancy in the North East before moving back to Yorkshire in 1997 where she started a graduate role at PwC.

She is chair of the Finance and Investment Committee and is a Lay Member of Council for The University of Hull.

She sits on the Development Committee for The Prince’s Trust across Yorkshire and Humber and is an advisory board member of Tax Aid, supporting vulnerable individuals with their tax affairs.

Commenting on the main challenges facing her clients before the pandemic, she said: “It feels like another world. At the beginning of March, we were gearing up for Rishi Sunak’s first Budget and making predictions about what the announcement could mean for our clients and advising them accordingly.

“When we survey clients to ask what they want to see from tax policy, the answer is consistent. People want tax simplification even if that means paying more.

“As the 11th March Budget approached, the UK was facing the outbreak of Coronavirus, so the Chancellor’s speech understandably focused on the fiscal measures designed to underpin the economic response.

“Whilst we were anticipating reforms to Inheritance Tax which had been widely tabled, these didn’t materialise and I suspect have been merely deferred.

“There were very few changes to the taxation of individuals, although an area which had posed a potential challenge to business owners was the speculation around the abolition of Entrepreneurs’ Relief (ER).

“This allows business owners to benefit from a reduced rate of Capital Gains Tax (10%) when disposing of all or part of their business, subject to conditions being met.

“The relief was retained to encourage genuine entrepreneurial risk-taking, but was reduced to a lifetime limit for qualifying gains from £10m to £1m.”

Since then Lee and her team have been contending with the impact of COVID-19. She notes they were already well prepared for remote working.

“The transition to a remote yet connected workforce has been straightforward from a technology perspective, which is what most of the discussion on this subject seems to centre around,” she said.

“The BDO Leeds team moved to Central Square in 2017 and at that time, recognised the way people work was changing.

“The focus on digital connectivity and approach to flexible working was already intrinsic to our culture.

“That doesn’t get away from the fact we’re the largest private client team of any firm both nationally and here across the North.

“Locally we’ve continued to invest in talent, with Aniella Bodnar recently joining the Leeds team during lockdown as a highly experienced senior tax manager.

“My job has been to make sure our people still feel connected as a team, with other advisers we work alongside and ultimately with our clients. I’m immensely proud of how everyone is looking out for each other.

“We’ve historically run a lot of seminar and dinner events for private client intermediaries and clients in the region.

“We’re launching a series of digital events and although we miss seeing people face-to-face, I think the time and productivity savings for attendees that comes with being online will stick around for years.”

Reflecting on what sort of economic recovery the UK faces, Lee said: “It’s very early to say. I hope we will see this as an opportunity to ensure the pace of recovery across UK regions is levelled-up.

“Brexit is still to be addressed with clarity, but we have an opportunity to re-shape the economy with the regions playing a greater role.

“If we’re successful, the result will be a more resilient, innovative and sustainable economy.”