When 2011's Sunday Times Rich List was published, it showed that the wealth of the 2,000 richest people in the UK had grown 18 per cent since 2010 - a total increase of £60 billion. There are now 79 billionaires in the UK, up from 53 in the previous year. If you combine the net worth of everyone on the list, you're left with a figure of £395.8 billion, which is well over one third of the national debt. The question that begs to be asked is: when everyone else is feeling the pinch, shouldn't these people be contributing more?
It's a debate that's reverberated around the world since the financial crash of 2008. In France last year, 16 wealthy executives led by Europe's richest woman, L'OrÃ©al heir Lilliane Bettencourt, penned an open letter in which they offered to pay a “special contributionâ€. Their gesture was welcomed by the French government, which promptly closed tax loopholes and raised tax on earnings over â‚¬500,000 (about £400,000) by 3 per cent.
Around the same time, Warren Buffet, the billionaire investor, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times entitled Stop Coddling The Super-Rich, which condemned the tax breaks for those who “make money from money". More recently, he offered to match any voluntary tax contributions from Republican Party congressmen (as yet, nobody's taken him up on it). Just last week President Obama announced his intention to implement the “Buffet ruleâ€, which would impose a minimum effective tax rate of 30 per cent on those earning more than $1 million (about £620,000). And as if the flames needed to be fanned further, Mitt Romney, the Republican Party nomination hopeful, recently published his tax returns, which revealed that he paid just 13.9 per cent income tax last year. Interestingly, if Romney becomes president and wins approval for his proposed tax plan, he will pay less in federal taxes than he would under current law.
While visiting the UK earlier this year, Microsoft impresario Bill Gates echoed the rhetoric of the prime minister David Cameron and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg in calling for a higher levy on the rich. Gates, who has previously advocated a “Robin Hood Taxâ€ on financial transactions, told the BBC: “I certainly agree that they (taxes) should go up more on the rich than everyone else. That's just justice.â€
The views of some of UK list's occupants on the matter are already in the public domain. Former Marks & Spencer boss Sir Stuart Rose (#1,892) has called for the controversial 50p income tax on high earners not to be reduced (high earners will only pay 45 per cent on the top slice of their income from April 2013). Sir Richard Branson has (#19) has suggested the government should lower taxes for everyone. The relocation to Monaco of Sir Philip Green (#13), the owner of the Arcadia Group (whose brands include Topshop) is reputed to have saved him £285 million in income tax, and he dismissed the notion of following the French model out of hand, saying to compare the UK's tax system with France or America's was like “comparing cherries with apples and orangesâ€.
But if we're all in this together (as Cameron would have you believe) then everyone on the Sunday Times Rich List should be willing to increase their contribution and steady the ship, right? As Google's director of research, Peter Norvig, recently said: “I know a lot of millionaires and dozens of billionaires. They never said that marginal tax rates (the highest rates of tax) were too high." So armed with a telephone and a headful of indignation, The Gateway decided to put this theory to the test. We attempted to contact 20 of the UK's richest people, asking a simple question: as one of the 100 richest people in the UK, are you willing to assist in addressing the nation's deficit by paying a higher rate of tax?
Calls to the offices of Lakshmi Mittal - the steel magnate who has topped the list for the past seven years - went unreturned. Gopi and Sri Hinduja, who, with a combined value of £6 billion are the highest new entries on the list at #9, “don't tend to discuss their tax affairs". Equally helpful was Mark Coombs (#53), who owns emerging markets bond specialists Ashmore, is Britain's richest self-made financier, and “tends to decline comment on this type of topic". We tried contacting Len Blavatnik (#6) through his LyondellBasell manufacturing firm only to be told he “isn't employed by this company". No, but he does own it.
Hours were spent on hold, until what's known in the trade as “research ear" began to set in (two hours later, it had graduated to “kind regards fingers"). Dozens of voicemail messages went unanswered. We were scorned by scores of bossy receptionists. And all for what? Well, nothing. The silence was deafening. Of the 20 people we attempted to contact, we didn't have a single response. If the spirit of solidarity exists among Britain's richest people, then those contacted seem determined to keep it under wraps. The idealist in us suspects our most affluent fellow Britons are missing a public relations trick. The realist, however, fears they may be missing much more than that.