The 1% should recognise a big fortune is usually built on good fortune

Stop weeping about the £600,000 you take home every year shrinking by a few thousand. It is offensive to the people who survive on a hundredth of that, says Alex Andreou.

“The rich already pay their fair share,” said millionaire David Cameron in response to millionaire Andrew Marr.

This is a sentiment echoed by a number of Conservatives in the last few days. In support, they present figures which show that the top 1 per cent contributes a higher percentage to the total tax take than others. But what struck me was how all commentators persisted in only using percentages.

What about actual figures? Let’s talk numbers.

I will be extremely generous. I will make the assumption that we live in a world where a talented, expensive accountant cannot create a dozen shell companies in exotic places to hide income. I will make the assumption that this top 1 per cent declares every penny it makes and pays full tax on it.

I will accept every assumption made by John Redwood MP – the self-appointed chartered accountant of this Borg collective. I will use 2009-2010 confirmed HMRC figures to avoid charges of manipulation or error.

The total number of taxpayers in the UK is just shy of 30 million. The top 1 per cent is, therefore, 300,000 people. Total income declared across the UK was £870bn. Of that, £121bn was made by the top 1 per cent. The total income tax received was £145bn, of which £40.5bn was contributed by this top-earning 300,000 people. This yields an effective average personal tax rate of 33.5 per cent.

This leaves the top 1 per cent with an average annual personal income, after tax, of £268,000. Over a quarter of a million, on average, each year. It might be “chicken feed” to Boris Johnson, but it is a lot of money to most of us.

Let’s look at a smaller slice, still – the six thousand people in the UK who have a personal income of a million or more. After all personal tax deductions, they are left with over £600,000 a year. It would take a UK person on the median income over 30 years to make what the lowliest of these six thousand people make in a year. A whole working life. 

The additional insidious suggestion by David Cameron, the cause of much mirth at Tory Conference, was that by choosing to tax this top slice less he was not gifting them a tax-break, because “when people earn money, it’s their money”.

The implication being that this money was not made using the work of low-paid people forced to claim benefits to supplement their income; not made using the roads, airports and ports we all pay for; not made by all of us buying their goods and service; not made under the protection of the same police, fire and health services we all paid for.

No. This money magically came into existence out of the very same anatomical orifice of these “doers” and “risk-takers” out of which the sun, evidently, shines. A result of their entrepreneurship and get-up-and-go; nothing else.

Theo Paphitis is an interesting case study – held up perpetually as an example of that archetype. A few months ago, he was asked on Question Time what motivates him. He said it was the will to create things, to grow his companies, to employ people, to make his mark. Ten minutes later the panel was discussing the top rate of tax. He said that if personal tax was increased on those making more than a million, he would up and leave the UK.

So, which is it? Pick one, Theo. You cannot claim the mantle of wealth-trickling sainthood, while clinging on to every obscene penny with bony, Scrooge-like fingers, under threat of imminent departure for Barbados. You cannot claim that your wealth is the result of your hard work alone, while consistently calling it “my kids’ inheritance” on Dragon’s Den. What will they have done to deserve their share of your £170m estimated worth, when you’re no longer around?

None of us, including Cameron or Paphitis, would look at a couple in which one partner said “you’re at home raising the kids – no more hand-outs, you leech” with anything other than disgust. None of us would look at a wealthy family which refused to pay for its kids’ education or kicked out granddad when he became ill and think “bravo – tough love”. All of us admired how a community came together, took time off work, with no thought for their own self-interest, to look for a missing six-year-old.

At what point, precisely, do these qualities of selflessness, compassion and solidarity cease to be attractive? At what point do the rules change and we go from individual, couple, family or community to UK plc? Tax is simply the state’s expression of these qualities. A recognition that a big fortune is built, at least in part on good fortune, be it of birth, education, health or position.

The idea that everyone’s tax pays for a tiny percentage of benefit scroungers, is not only manifestly absurd, but damaging to the nation and destructive to one’s own morale. Isn’t it better to assume that your tax bought a wheelchair, educated a talented but disadvantaged kid, saved a diabetic, paid for a great teacher – which it does the vast majority of the time?

So, stop moaning about percentages. Stop weeping about the £600,000 you take home every year shrinking by a few thousand. It is offensive to the people who survive on a hundredth of that. Count your blessings and help those who have not had such good fortune; not to the tune of whatever percentage you consider fair, but as much as you can. Do the right thing. It is the only meaningful way to “make your mark”.

An Occupy protester in an Anonymous mask. Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.