The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Steven Akehurst Headshot

The Myth of the Millionaires' Exodus

Posted: Updated:

This week the Treasury spin machine went into overdrive in response to Labour's push to highlight the cut in the 50p top rate of tax.

The centrepiece of their case was that the 50p tax had reduced the number of millionaires paying tax in the UK by 10,000 from 16,000 to just 6,000. The Telegraph faithfully reported their argument, informing us that "two thirds of millionaires left the UK to avoid 50p tax". The Mail did likewise, publishing unquestioningly Harriet Baldwin's extrapolation that this cost the UK "£7 billion in lost tax revenue".

This narrative has been accepted by the right - of proof of the age-old maxim that taxing the rich proves counter-productive - and even by the left, as a cause for despair. It's also reached the other side of the Atlantic, giving succour to the Republican blogosphere in their argument against Obama's case on the 'fiscal cliff'.

The trouble is, it isn't true. Or at least there is no credible proof that it is.

The figures used have been worked up on the same basis as the HMRC's report on the 50p tax back in the Spring - and they're disingenuous for that same reason.

As I argued in a piece for LibCon back in March, this report was fatally - and probably intentionally - flawed, seemingly fixed to reach the conclusion George Osborne wanted it to. Primarily, this was done by isolating the top rate tax yield for tax year 2010/2011 - the year the 50p tax was introduced. The report showed a significant drop in top rate revenue for 2010/2011 from 2009/2010, and this was the main basis of the argument that the 50p tax 'raised no money' which justified it's abolition.

A gaping hole in this argument is that by the HMRC's own admission, a great deal of this drop was accounted for by (the non-PAYE paying) super-rich bringing bringing forward their income ('forestalling') and declaring it in 2009/2010 tax year instead, ahead of the pre-announced 50p tax rise. The key point is, by its nature forestalling can only happen once - those who did so could not have kept doing it in the years after; they would have had to have paid up. The 2010/2011 yield was thus artificially deflated; totally anomalous, and unreliable as a baseline. There may have been other more permanent forms of evasion in the mix, but the only way of knowing this - and the true effectiveness of the 50p tax - for sure would have been to wait for 2011/2012 returns. Which is presumably by Osborne avoided doing just that (given there was good evidence it raised a significant sum of money).

And so to yesterday's numbers. They too take 2010 figures, on the number of people declaring an income above £ 1 million, compare it to 2009 and note a drop - leaving the Telegraph and Mail to argue without evidence that they have all moved abroad. But just as with the tax yield, these figures are highly distorted and unreliable, given we know many top rate payers moved their income for 2010 forward to 2009 (this is especially likely to be the case with millionaires, as few would be on PAYE).

Treasury sources go on to state that the number of millionaires is now 10,000 - and shamelessly attribute this to Osborne's announcement of his intention to cut the 50p tax. In reality, it's much more likely that this increase is simply those who forestalled in 2010 returning, as they inevitably have to (a large part of the remaining gap between this figure and the mid-to-late 2000s numbers is likely explained by the financial crisis).

There remains little to no evidence that high earners have, or are planning to, move abroad in response to high tax regimes. For people on the right and left to take such blatantly skewed figures at face value does a real disservice to the level of debate an area as totemic as tax policy should demand. Sadly, I doubt the sleight of hand will stop here. My guess is the next trick will likely come a year before the election. Given the cut in the 50p tax has been pre-announced, it's possible that some income will be delayed being declared until after the cut - some chartered accountants are already advising the super-rich on just that. This will artificially inflate the 45p rate 2013/2014 revenue, allowing Osborne to compare it to 2010/2011 and announce the top rate cut a great success in getting the rich to pay more. If the debate on this issue so far is anything to go by, it's likely he will go unchallenged.

There are evidently parts of the Government intent on fighting a war on behalf of the richest 1% in our society. The first casualty of that war looks to be the truth about the 50p tax.