Calls for a wealth tax have so far been made with little impact, amid fears that a levy on assets would not go down well with conservative – or even not-so-conservative voters, and could hurt people with valuable homes but little cash. However, the Wealth Tax Commission said the timing was ripe for radical change due to the devastating impact of Covid on the public finances and on inequality in Britain.

The Wealth Tax Commission was established in Spring 2020 to ‘provide in-depth analysis of proposals for a UK wealth tax’. It’s not a government body, but a ‘think-tank’ funded by the London School of Economics, Warwick University and the Economic and Research Council (itself a public body). The Commissioners comprise a senior academic from the LSE and Warwick university and a very well-known tax barrister.

Whilst conclusions published last week may therefore not directly reflect government policy, they do propose an academic and practical solution to shore up public finances in these times of crisis – and should be afforded some serious attention. Readers may consult the full 126-page report here. For those with less time, the key points are below.

The report does not argue for the idea of an annual wealth tax. However, it’s strongly in favour of the levying of a wealth tax on a one-off basis to deal with an exceptional need – being that of repairing the alarming hole in public finances caused by coronavirus. The basic premise is therefore based not on redistribution but pragmatism – and the best place to get the money is from people who have it.

Interestingly, that pragmatism contrasts with the reasons that people who support the idea of wealth tax give for doing so: ‘filling a hole in public finances’ comes in only at fourth place, after ‘the gap between rich and poor is too large’; ‘the rich have got richer in recent years’; and ‘better to tax wealth rather than income from work’.

The report leans on a simplified design and implementation to maximise the efficacy of the tax – with the scope to avoid the net limited to such matters as redistribution, relocation or releveraging – all within a potentially short period of time.

How do the Commissioners propose a Wealth Tax should work?

  1. It should be levied at the same rate on all assets including the family home, businesses and pension funds. Special reliefs or exemptions would reduce the efficacy of the program by decreasing the yield, complicating the administration and affording opportunities for avoidance.
  2. It should be levied by reference to wealth as at a single ‘assessment date’ with only very limited scope for reassessment or revision of the tax should there subsequently be a dramatic fall in value.
  3. There would be the option to pay the tax over five years, with further deferral possible in defined circumstances of illiquidity. Payment of tax in respect of pension fund wealth would automatically be deferred until retirement.
  4. There should be little or no advance warning of the implementation of the tax, so as to minimise the effect of ‘forestalling’ or advance planning.
  5. The tax should, broadly, be levied on people who are tax-resident in the UK on the ‘assessment date’ and by references to assets whether in the UK or overseas. But special rules would apply to both recent arrivals in the UK and to people who had left the UK shortly before the ‘assessment date’.
  6. Non-residents would be liable only in respect of UK real property.
  7. Trust assets would be included if the settlor or a beneficiary was UK-resident at the ‘assessment date’.
  8. The assets of minor children would be aggregated with those of parents. Spouses and civil partners could elect to be taxed as a unit.
  9. At thresholds of £500,000, £1m and £2m per person, a wealth tax would respectively cover 17%, 6%, and 1% of the adult population. An illustrative rate of 1% at a threshold of £1 million per household (assuming two individuals with £500,000 each) would raise £260 billion over five years after administrative costs.

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