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  • Writer's pictureRobert Watts

“The Tax List - could tax become new philanthropy?”

Updated: Mar 17, 2021

The rich, we’re often assured, pay no tax.

They’re all living in gilded Monaco estates and parking their money in Caribbean boltholes. And those that are here are probably all using nefarious tax avoidance schemes.

But hang a sec.. What about that hedge fund manager David Harding, who once insisted that his firm and its staff paid more than £1bn into the public finances over 10 years?

Or the telecoms tycoon John Caudwell, who has said he paid £250m of tax over a five-year period?

Who is right here?

That was the run of our thoughts when we launched the first Sunday Times Tax List two years ago.

Tracking the tax paid by the wealthiest individuals and families in the UK always seemed like a tall order - even to the team who had produced the Sunday Times Rich List for 30-odd years.

We have no access to personal tax returns, of course. We would instead be working, initially at least, from a mass of publicly available financial statements filed by private and public companies.

We set to work on methodology. To us it seems sensible to include taxes paid by a person’s businesses in proportion with how much of that company they own. After all, we’re talking about people who have the power to shift these businesses overseas if they so wish. It seemed fair to highlight those who were staying put. We would count all UK corporation tax paid by these companies - but not corporation tax paid overseas.

Where a company disclosed in its audited accounts stamp duty, VAT and other levies paid we’d add that in too. Where they didn’t, we wouldn’t.

We would also include employer’s national insurance and exclude that paid by the employees.

Only when an individual’s salary was made public could we include their income tax and personal national insurance. We would include tax on their dividends - but not when they were owned by trusts.

This year’s Sunday Times Tax List, which you can read here, shows 50 individuals and families contributing at least £13.1m to the Exchequer that we can see.

All of those in the top 10 plugged in £60m or more into the public finances, either in personal tax and or that paid by companies they own.

Tax is a highly emotive subject, of course.

There are readers and commentators who champion those on our list. They argue those at the top end hand over the sort of sums that pays to build a hospital or a school - not just a nurse or teacher’s salary.

Other readers see it very differently. Some find comparing someone’s estimated wealth with how much tax we can see they have paid much more pertinent.

And who is missing from our list and why? Is it right that billionaires who earned their money from businesses thousands of miles away can seemingly contribute little to the UK’s public finances?

Some of our readers find the multiple millions of tax paid by an individual an irrelevance - compared with what can be a far smaller sum avoided some years ago signing up with a film investment scheme or other initiative that cut their tax bill.

"We don't pay taxes… only the little people pay taxes,” the late American tycoon Leona Helmsley.

Journalism should provoke and inform the public debate.

The Tax List does exactly that. It’s now harder for a politician to blithely opine the rich pay no tax.

Arial shot over Monaco harbour - image used to reinforce the subject matter of the story
Tax haven Monaco - photo by Matthias Mullieby from Unsplashed

If that really was true, it wouldn’t matter much to the public finances if more billionaires jetted off to Monaco, Switzerland or Singapore.

The reality is that some of the super rich do pay a lot of tax - and some seemingly don’t.

Highlighting those who do contribute inevitably puts the spotlight on those who, it seems, aren’t pumping fortunes into HM Revenue & Customs.

That attention is probably no bad thing.

"We don't pay taxes… only the little people pay taxes,” the late American tycoon Leona Helmsley once boasted. That was, I should add, before she was jailed for tax evasion.

Helmsley’s notion that the super rich have no obligation to pay tax is just as bad for Britain as those who opine billionaires contribute zilch to the public finances. Here, at least, is something to optimistic about.

The Tax List has only had three editions but already some of the super rich are sending us their tax returns and making contact to demand inclusion - some sounding disappointed when they don’t make the final cut.

Could being seen to pay a big whack of tax become the new philanthropy?

If it does, we all win.


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