Throughout its history, Britain has been driven by global commerce. Even the socialism of the Atlee years were a sensible antidote to private railway, coal, steel, shipyard and health industries on their last legs. Commercialism really got a modern shot in the arm under Thatcher. The two decades of boom that followed could be justified by the broad reach of the prosperity thus generated.
For all its image of dusty reserve, Britain has been an enthusiastic member, if not actual leader, of the charge towards commercial exploitation ever since Europe broke out of the Middle Ages with the Renaissance. Elizabethan privateers led to exploration and colonisation, which led to trade, industry and empire. None of those would have succeeded on the scale they did without complete disdain for the human rights and equality given prominence these days. ‘Progress’ appeared to benefit everyone, even if those benefits were spread unevenly.
After dabbling with socialism post-WW2, post-imperial Britain hit its capitalist stride in the two decades following the City’s ‘Big Bang’. Although never egalitarian, wealth spread as broadly across the country as it ever had. Modern homes, new cars and foreign holidays became the norm; North Sea oil repaid the National Debt, kept taxes low and lubricated the world’s fifth-largest economy. Senior public servants secured hefty pay hikes that were dwarfed by inflated salaries and bonuses of boards and CEOs but neither triggered recriminations. Even lefties embraced the change in the shape of Blair’s New Labour.
Then came the financial storm of 2008. Though many global companies were humbled, none of the executives involved suffered more than opprobrium and ineffectual cross-examination from politicians with insufficient experience to outmaneuver them and find where the bodies were buried. There was a tacit understanding that large institutions were “too big to fail” and that minor players like stockholders, SMEs and employees would survive. To a large extent, this turned out to be true. But the senior executives, already schooled in high salaries from piratical practice did not adjust to the austerity being visited on the less fortunate.
Creative tax avoidance did not begin in 2008. In fact, tax havens like Jersey, Isle of Man Bermuda and Cayman Islands became that with the blessing of pot-WW2 UK governments for their own purposes. But public exposure of Fed Goodwin’s £8m bonus from a baled-out BS or Philip Green’s retention of half the £750m he siphoned off the BHS pension fund before it went bankrupt are just the tip of a very lucrative iceberg. Not only has inequality of income between the better and worse off widened appreciably in the last decade but some very rich have become past masters at not even paying the resulting whack due to the Treasury on their hefty earnings.
Prime among techniques deployed is non-residency. Those citizens not domiciled in the UK need only spend more than 183 days each year abroad to be considered a foreign resident and tax-exempt. HMRC will also consider ‘ties’ like family and home ownership in the UK. But they do not consider company ownership as a tie. The March 17th of The Times ran a 4-page article exposing that, of Britain’s 98 billionaires, 28 are no linger resident and half of those left since the financial crash. Such people may own UK companies—joining 6,700 citizens who, among them, control over 12,000 UK companies from offshore havens. Almost 2,000 of those are registered in one modest office block in the Cayman Islands. Non-resident owners avoid paying the 38.1% income tax on dividends, as well as the 20% capital gains tax on the sale of shares. Since the financial crash, the total number of tax exiles has risen 16% to 210,000.
Even HMRC has no idea how much revenue it loses from this and must therefore be made up from punters not rich enough to elude the taxman in such style. Estimates for Monaco, the top non-British tax haven after Switzerland, are £1bn in lost HMRC income. That alone adds £43 to every UK resident taxpayer’s bill. To give you some idea of scale, the top half-dozen Monaco ‘residents’ are worth more than the entire £45 million annual UK defence budget:
- Jim Ratcliffe (~£21 billion, founder of Ineos)
- David and Simon Rueben (~£15 billion)
- Andy Currie (~£7 billion)
- John Reece (~£7 billion)
- Eddie and Sol Zakay (~£3 billion)
If that’s not enough to get readers all steamed up, many of these people have been knighted—including Stelios Hajl-Ioannou who founded EasyJet but was resident in Britain for only four years and John Whittaker, a construction boss worth £2.2 billion who runs 230 UK companies from the Isle of Man.
But, most egregious of all, as UK citizens our tax exiles are free to fund political parties and movements in a country where they do not live, A 2009 bill that would have banned large offshore donations received royal assent but has never been enacted by the Tories who have been in government ever since. There is more than a whiff of turkeys and Christmas here. On that decade, £4.4 million have been donated to parties by our 28 ‘non-residents’. £1m of that went to the Tories just before the 2017 General Election, half of it from Lord Ashcroft in Belize. £798,900 has gone to the Tories from the Monaco-based Reubens listed above, along with £487,000 from Virgin-Islands-based Richard Branson. No wonder, when asked, the Tory Government deemed the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 to be “unworkable because tax status is confidential” Aye, right.
“ It is obscene that some of the super-wealthy think it us fine to avoid paying UK tax. It is even more obscene for people living in tax havens overseas to be funding politics”. —Dame Margaret Hodge MP, Public Accounts Committee Chair
“It’s a very common thing nowadays. British people who have a tax problem because they have a high income are setting up their residency in different counties.” —Kensington wealth manager Mariam Schroeder