Why any tax avoidance "clampdown" is a ridiculous game of whack-a-mole

Danny Alexander's "mansion tax lite" has been torpedoed by oligarchs claiming their £2m+ properties are "open to the public". It shows how hard it is to stop the rich - and their lawyers - finding creative ways to beat the taxman.

In all the furore around the Budget, the Spending Review and so on, many have ignored the introduction of the Lib Dems so-called "mansion tax for tax-dodgers". This "tax", which only affects properties worth over £2m, was actually the closing of a loophole. 

The loophole in question - which allowed people to avoid stamp duty on expensive properties using offshore companies - was theoretically sealed from the start of April. A super-duty of 15 per cent was imposed on the purchase of properties worth more than £2m by companies; and an annual charge of up to £140,000 every year was levied on them once they were bought.

Well, in theory, at least. Like almost everything else the Lib Dems have promised to do, this has all fallen down around their ears. Why? Well, that's all down to clever tax lawyers seeing a new loophole, accidentally provided by short-term lettings website Air BnB.

You see, there's an exemption written into the rules, which lets off properties which are "open to the public" from the new tax. It's meant to exempt stately homes and museums, which are often private homes but open for viewing over the summer, and quite legitimately put the earnings from the tea room into a company. No one wanted them to be hit with a levy intended to stop tax-dodging oligarchs.

Of course, when you close a loophole intended for oligarchs, you'd better be sure not to open another, or their lawyers will spot it. One bright tax lawyer came up with the idea that if you offer to let out your property - regardless of whether you actually let out - it's technically "open to the public", in that literally anyone could pay to go and stay there. Provided, of course, they can afford whatever you are charging.

It's probably pretty reasonable to charge a fortune for your One Hyde Park flat, given the amenities, which include all your mail being X-rayed, iris recognition in the lifts, panic rooms, bomb-proof windows, a 21-metre swimming pool, a cinema, a golf simulator, a wine cellar and room service via a secret tunnel from the five-star Mandarin Oriental hotel next door.

So, you advertise your One Hyde Park flat (registered to an offshore company, of course - as 59 out of 77 flats in the building are) on Air BnB, no one volunteers to pay the huge fee you ask for, and you save yourself 140 grand in tax. Worst case scenario, you have to let out your flat to someone, but you probably don't care, because you can arrange to be skiing in Gstaad for that week anyway.

Some of the properties currently being offered on AirBnb are at eye-wateringly high prices. While there is no evidence that, for example, this £3,175 a night flat is using the loophole I've described - I can confirm from a tax lawyer for a major firm (who asked not to be named) - that offering your flat out to rent has become the standard advice being doled out to his firm's "high net worth clients".

So, Air BnB will doing brisk - perfectly legal - business as every oligarch and his babushka registers. And no one who is well advised will pay the Mansion Tax-lite. And the Lib Dem plan is yet another failure. Thanks internet!

Of course, while there is some schadenfreude to be had from yet another Lib Dem flagship policy running aground on the rocks of reality, it's also a salutary lesson for policy makers on the sheer difficulty of clamping down on tax avoidance. Even if they close the "AirBnB loophole", the lawyers of the rich will find another, as long as the "open to the public" exemption still exists.

This story is a great example of how the government's attempts to clamp down on tax avoidance amount to a ridiculous game of whack-a-mole - if we want to get serious about tackling tax avoidance, what we need is root and branch reform, not tinkering at the edges. Put away the mallet, George, and pick up a bazooka.

One Hyde Park in London: many of its apartments are owned by companies in the British Virgin Islands. Photograph: Getty Images

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder