How an ‘Inequality Tax’ could restore some fairness to Britain

In his latest Left Foot Forward column, accounting expert Prem Sikka shows why it's time for a new tax on high pay.

The ‘polluter pays’ principle states that those producing negative consequences for others should bear the cost of managing or preventing damage.

The same principle also needs to be applied to the instigators of inequitable distribution of income.

Age of extremes

The 2019 report published by the Social Metrics Commission shows that the UK has extreme inequalities. Some 14.3 million people, including 8.3 million working-age adults, 4.6 million children and 1.3 million pension-age adults, live in poverty.

Inequalities in the distribution of income have harmful consequences as they affect access to education, housing, healthcare, pension, food and security. They affect life expectancy, infant mortality, mental illness and social mobility. Inequalities create alienation, social divisions and segregation as those on low pay become trapped in dilapidated neighbourhoods and face diminished opportunities for social advancement.

Meanwhile, the rich are able to erode democratic choices by funding political parties and campaigns and shifting the agenda through lobbying and the media. Yet the instigators of inequalities face no social costs. Society needs to address the imbalance by levying an inequality tax.

The national share of income of the richest 1% of households has tripled over the last four decades from 3% in the late 1970s to around 8%.

This is often highlighted by soaraway executive pay. In just three working days, the UK’s top bosses make more than a typical full-time worker will earn in the entire year. The average FTSE 100 CEO collects £1,020 per hour and £3.926 million a year and last year received an increase of 11%.

The excessive rewards are often the outcome of power rather than the performance of companies or their executives. Shareholders have shown little interest or have been unable to curb undeserved executive pay. In any case, they can’t deal with the systemic effects of inequalities and that task must fall to the state on behalf of the people.

Tipping the scales

An inequality tax should be levied on a company or a similar organisation for inflicting harms emanating from inequitable distribution of income.

All wages, salaries and benefits paid by employing organisations are currently treated as a tax deductible expense i.e. they reduce the taxable profit and tax liability of a company. Currently, companies are rewarded for excessive executive pay because that reduces its liability to corporation tax.

An inequality tax would place an upper limit on the amount of executive remuneration (salary, benefits, pension contributions, bonuses) that a company can deduct from its taxable profits.

The cap could be a multiple of the national median pay, the national minimum wage or even a straight sum which could be say £1 million per executive. This principle can also be applied to the remuneration of any employee.  

It is worth emphasising that the proposal does not place a cap on the ability of a company to pay large amounts to an employee/executive. It merely restricts the tax deductibility of excessive pay.

In 2017/2018, the CEO of Bet365 received remuneration of £265m and all of it was tax deductible. Under the proposals outlined above, only £1 million may be allowed as an expense in the company’s corporation tax liability calculation i.e. £264m would not be treated as a tax deductible expense.

The net result of this would be to increase the company’s taxable profits. At the prevailing rate of corporate tax rate of 19%, the company would be required to pay an additional tax of £50.2m (£264m x 19%) to compensate society for the negative consequences imposed upon it. Those revenues can be used for redistribution. Companies can avoid the additional levy by embracing a more equitable distribution of income.

Lessons from US laws

The idea of an inequality tax is not new. In 1993, in response to public outcry over excessive executive pay, US President Bill Clinton introduced legislation to limit the tax deductibility of top five executives’ salary at listed companies to $1 million each.

However, the $1 million cap did not apply to stock options, bonuses and benefits. Inevitably, executives exploited the loopholes and constructed pay packets in the form of stock options, shares and other forms of bonuses to ensure that the entire remuneration package remained tax deductible.

US legislators have now tabled the Stop Subsidizing Multimillion Dollar Corporate Bonuses Act which would extend the $1 million deductibility cap to all forms of remuneration for all employees. It remains to be seen whether the legislation would be passed.

It should be noted that the reform proposed for the UK refers to “total remuneration”. If enacted it will not dissolve the contradictions of capitalism. But it would be a major step towards ensuring that those fuelling inequalities and inflicting negative consequences on others bear some of the social costs.

See also: Boris Johnson will continue showering corporations with money without an economic return

Prem Sikka is Professor of Accounting at University of Sheffield and Emeritus Professor of Accounting at University of Essex. He tweets here.

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7 Responses to “How an ‘Inequality Tax’ could restore some fairness to Britain”

  1. Nhsgp

    SO more taxes solves everything, from the Queen’s std to general economic malaise.

    If you want to address inequality, austerity, lack of investment, poverty, you have to address where the trillions that have been paid to the welfare state have gone. Socialists have spent the lot leaving a debt.

    220 bn a year goes on the debts. That’s why there is a mess.

    So lets look into what excuses the accountants state for ommiting the state pension, the big debt from the books.

    https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/803751/WGA_2017-18_WEB_1.pdf is the WGA

    4,579.2 bn of debts admitted too. That’s some of the national debts.

    Now the state pension. It’s defined as a contigent liability. The Cabinet Office, the ONS, the NAO won’t say what a contigent liability is.

    How the stupid accounts let the cat out of the bag.

    A contingent liability is something where there is a very low probability of being paid.

    Your accountants Prem are setting up to not pay the state pension.

  2. Dave Roberts

    The writer of this article is a well known tax fiddler for major corporate interests.

  3. Tom Sacold

    – Tax all income over £100k at 60%, over £200k at 80% and over £300k at 90%.
    – Make all subject to PAYE for all income. Setup a State PAYE scheme for self-employed, etc. to remove the need for annual tax returns and tax accountants.
    – Tax all British citizens incomes wherever they earn it. Even if they pay tax in another country.
    – Tax all inherited wealth at 90%.
    – Local taxation of private housing based on the floor space in the dwelling.

    – Abolish all indirect taxes. But you cannot do that because we are in the EU !!!

  4. Jaheira

    When corporations pay 0.5% taxes on their earnings, how would a cap on tax deductability make a difference?
    When we have a system in place that grants executives crazy amounts of money, why would tax deductablity even matter?

  5. Julia Gibb

    What about people like Gordon Brown and his wife?
    Set up a cover Charity to “launder” your income then travel the World travelling 1st Class and staying at hotels which cost more for a couple of nights than most people earn in a year.
    Perhaps we could look closer at the Labour peers who charge 1000pounds a day for “advice” and prefer cash.
    The wealthy and corrupt will always find a loophole and the main problem is that no hard consequences ever result from “following the current tax laws and paying what is due”. They simply walk away and find a new scheme. They keep the Knighthoods, their seats in the Lords etc.

    The U.K. Is leaving the EU to protect these people and new schemes like the 10 open ports announced by Boris are designed to make tax avoidance easier.

  6. Julia Gibb

    On the topic of tax avoidance why is the Royal Family never included?
    Property all over the UK. Maintened via quasi government covers. Free cars, flights. Staff. Etc all hidden under an umbrella of secrecy.
    The sale of the land owned in central London could end poverty tomorrow.
    The various offspring live in luxury with no obvious evidence of an income to support the lifestyle.

    As for the rest of us ONE PERK and you instantly get a Benefit in Kind charge.

  7. Gary

    I agree in principal BUT it’s still far to easy to avoid paying tax for those who earn six figure sums. Any decent accountant will ensure you pay less than your cleaner (as did Margaret Thatcher)

    I spent years in tax collection with what is now HMRC dealing with exactly this kind of problem. The system is SO full of loopholes that for some, they need only fail to submit returns, pay the fines, estimates etc and STILL be far better off that they would be declaring their income properly. And NONE of that is a criminal offence.

    What would be far better is to close ALL loopholes, make the example I gave a criminal offence and collect the correct amount. If the tax due was collected we wouldn’t even need to make any changes.

    And whilst the DWP Investigations Teams receive massive funding and have plenty of staff investigating frauds for as little as £100 their counterparts in Tax Fraud have the same resource for the whole of Scotland and DWP have for the average town in Scotland. The tax fraud is MASSIVE and the benefit fraud is miniscule by comparison. But successive governments ignore the facts. I can only assume that their donors and friends who own newspapers wouldn’t like it.

    When we treat the rich fraudsters like we treat someone who has accidentally overclaimed a benefit we will see the end of much of the inequality…

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