“Is ‘taxes borne’ a lot more credible than glossy reporting of corporate social responsibility?”
Updated: Mar 17, 2021
Two years ago I took a tetchy call from one of the Duke of Westminster’s flunkies.
The aide said that placing the Cadogan family - another London property-owning dynasty - above the Duke in the inaugural Sunday Times Tax List was little short of an outrage.
This little spat has relevance to us all, particularly anyone running a company today or who considers themselves pro-business.
In their accounts the Cadogans had published details of a wide range of taxes paid by their company, including VAT and stamp duty - a methodology referred to as “taxes borne”.
Grosvenor Group, the company owned by the Duke and his family, published only what it was obliged to publish: corporation tax and employer’s national insurance contributions.
We had accurately reported the numbers each group had filed with Companies House in their audited accounts.
It all got a bit testy at the time. There was even talk of his Grace’s learned friends, if I remember right.
Why don’t more businesses publish these “taxes borne” figures? Only a handful currently do so.
But a week or so later the Duke’s man rang back to tell me that Grosvenor’s Groups financial statements would follow the Cadogan family’s lead and make full disclosure of all the taxes they pay, not just in the UK - but overseas, too.
And this they have done. This year the Duke and his family appeared in the Sunday Times Tax List at number 15 - contributing an estimated £41.2m to the UK publication… and, crucially to some, above the £39.3m ascribed to the Cadogans at number 16.
We had not expected to be drawn into 300-year-old rivalries between London property dynasties when we set out to chart which individuals and families pay the most tax in the UK.
But this friction has raised an intriguing question. Why don’t more businesses publish these “taxes borne” figures?
Only a handful currently do so.
B&M, the discount retailer run by the three Arora brothers, is one of those that does. In 2019 it disclosed £182.8m of taxes borne.
Pub group JD Wetherspoon does too, adding in a gamut of other taxes including the climate change levy, carbon tax and fuel duty.
Schroders publishes a note on its taxes borne and collected on this page of their website. In 2019 it paid £125.2m of UK tax. This number includes employment and property charges, as well as corporation tax and indirect taxes.
Bet365, the online gambling giant, will join the taxes borne camp next month when it publishes its 2019-20 accounts.
“We don’t want to look like mugs,” one FTSE director sighed when asked why his company doesn’t report taxes borne. “If shareholders see we’re paying significantly more tax than others in the same sector we look like idiots
You might think companies might want to disclose how much they’re contributing to the public finances.
How many times have we heard business chief grumble about how much tax they pay. Surely failing to disclose the total numbers muffles their moans?
Wouldn’t total taxes borne numbers seem more significant than a lot of the glossy corporate social responsibility that often appears in annual reports?
“We don’t want to look like mugs,” one FTSE director sighed when asked why his company doesn’t report taxes borne. “If shareholders see we’re paying significantly more tax than others in the same sector we look like idiots. But perhaps we have been too defensive on this.”
I suggested to another FTSE board member, a finance director, that all large companies should disclose a taxes borne number.
“Perfectly sensible idea,” he said, adding: “[Although it] would need some sort of reporting standard to govern constituency of disclosure and calculation.”
Could the perilous state of Britain’s Covid-ravaged public finances now place a greater onus on wealthy individuals and their businesses to be more transparent about what taxes they pay?
“Interesting question,” the first of these directors replied. “You can see how it could get to a point where more and more businesses disclose all the tax they pay… putting pressure on those who aren’t as transparent.”
And, more importantly for us all, those who really aren’t paying much tax.