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Friday, 13 February 2015

Some questions for the über rich


How I wish I could sit down in front of a microphone with one of HSBC's "ultra wealthy" Swiss banking clients. How I'd love an opportunity to discuss with them the way they look after their money -- and dodge paying taxes.

Perhaps you remember Leona Helmsley, an American business tycoon who served 19 months in jail for tax evasion. A former housekeeper testified at her trial that she had heard Helmsley say: "We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes." She seems to have plenty of followers among the holders of Swiss HSBC bank accounts.

"Unfair," will be their response. "We do pay taxes. Lots and lots of taxes. We just don't pay more than we have to." I'll leave it to the regulators, the police and the courts to decide if any laws have been broken -- what I'd like to talk to them about are questions of ethics, responsibility, and their place in society. (I'll leave the smelly politics of it all for another day.)

But first, let's deal with a description of these very rich people that seems to be gaining much currency these days (pardon the pun). They are, apparently, no longer to be called stinking rich: no, they are "wealth creators". The hedge fund managers, the heirs to industrial fortunes -- exactly whose wealth do they claim to be creating? I'd rather we call them "wealth preservers" -- their own wealth, that is, not anyone else's.

Is this the politics of envy? Of course it isn't. It's the politics of justice, of fairness, of -- dare I say it -- "we're all in this together." It's the politics of wanting to live in a society in which everyone has a stake, and everyone pays what they should to make it function fairly and for the benefit of all.

So here's what I want to know. Who do these people think pays for the roads their limousines glide along, the bridges that take them across rivers, the flood defences that keep their riverside homes dry, and the military forces that protect our shores? Of course, the little people's taxes.

I'm assuming they don't send their children to State-run schools, or make use of the NHS. But who do they think educated the staff that they employ: their chauffeurs, gardeners, and housekeepers? And who pays for the education of their children, and their medical treatment? Ah yes, the little people's taxes.

And here's another thing I want to know. What do they actually do with all their money? If they have £10 million to squirrel away, why not pay 40, 45, or even 50 per cent tax on it? They'd still have plenty left, wouldn't they? Or would they really not manage to make ends meet?

What they do, they insist, is neither illegal nor immoral. It is merely "tax efficient". It is exactly what the rest of us do when we buy an ISA, or if we're self-employed, claim tax relief on legitimate business expenses.

Except it's not the same at all. They hire expensive accountants to advise them how to pay as little tax as they can get away. HSBC bent over backwards to make sure they were able to take advantage of every last loophole to keep their cash out of sight of the taxman. To them, tax is an unacceptable imposition, rather than an essential part of a society in which all members pay into a common pot, depending on how much they can afford.

So I'd really like to know how HSBC's richest clients would describe their own personal responsibility to those with whom they share this planet. "Oh, but we give a huge amount to charity, we set up philanthropic foundations, we even donate to political parties." So why on earth don't they pay their taxes at a rate that reflects their true wealth, rather than what they can get away with?

When a retired accountant withdrew £50,000 in cash from HSBC in a single year, did he have even a twinge of conscience? When a perfume heiress with £15 million in Swiss accounts took out a total of £60,000 in banknotes, did she stop even for a second to ask herself if this was, well, proper?

I'd love to know. I'd also love to know what Stephen Green, former chairman and chief executive of HSBC, and also an ordained minister in the Church of England, makes of that famous line in the Gospels: "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's …"

As far as I'm aware, Christ did not add the words: "Unless you can get away with not paying."

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