Tuesday 23 July 2019

Richest people work system to pay less tax than those on average wages

Shocked to hear figures: PAC chairman Seán Fleming. Picture: Collins
Shocked to hear figures: PAC chairman Seán Fleming. Picture: Collins

Kevin Doyle and Paul Melia

More than 80 of the country's wealthiest people are paying the same or less income tax as the average worker, a shocking report has revealed.

Ten years on from the economic crash, a combination of clever accounting and loopholes is allowing some of the country's richest individuals to minimise their contribution to the State's coffers.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) reviewed how 480 people, classified as 'High Wealth Individuals' (HWI), interact with the Revenue Commissioners.

It was found that, despite having at least €50m in assets, they paid "relatively low amounts of tax due to the use of credits and reliefs".

One in four declared taxable income below the average industrial wage, which the C&AG cited as €35,672.

Overall 140 HWIs had taxable income of less than €125,000.

Remarkably just 10 taxpayers from this group were liable for 85pc of the total tax paid, which was €473m in 2015.

Chairman of the Dáil's Public Accounts Committee Seán Fleming reacted to the figures, saying: "Most people will be shocked to hear this."

In its report, the C&AG said: "Tax is generally assessed on income rather than wealth and information relating to assets is not required for income tax returns."

Almost one-third of the country's richest people have involvement in "real estate activities". One in 10 is linked to agriculture, forestry and fishing, while 5pc cite construction as their occupation.

The C&AG found that many reduce their tax bill by investing in assets like machinery, citing previous losses made on investments or using credits for tax paid in other countries.

The annual report also carries a warning that the State's Social Insurance Fund, which is used to pay social welfare and pension benefits, could be hit by Brexit.

It says an "acute short-term economic shock" caused by the UK's exit from the EU could lead to a severe reduction in PRSI receipts similar to what happened during the crash in 2008. The impact would be felt from 2020 and could restrict the Government's budgetary plans.

Brexit could also have a negative affect on growth, productivity levels and earnings, the report says.

In the area of housing, the spending watchdog found that only a fraction of a €50m fund designed to open up sites for new projects has been used.

Some €1.6m has been allocated from the Local Infrastructure Housing Activation Fund (LIHAF) as projects are not ready to go ahead.

The money was set aside for spending last year, to be utilised for new roads, drainage and other works necessary to prepare sites for new homes.

In return for State funding, developers were supposed to provide affordable units but in many cases, negotiations have not concluded.

Meanwhile, a battle between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil over how to reduce the tax burden on workers is set to intensify in the coming days.

The Government wants to see a change to the point at which people begin paying the higher rate of tax. However, Micheál Martin's party is keen to prioritise USC cuts over changes to the tax bands.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe has revealed the split between each measure is the subject of "strong views".

"I have now met the Fianna Fáil negotiators twice this week and I anticipate I'll have a lot of engagement with them next week and those negotiations will then determine what will be the Budget make-up. I have strong views in relation to that myself," he said.

Mr Donohoe warned it would not be a giveaway Budget, saying tax cuts must help people maintain their standard of living but the Budget must be affordable.

"I simply want to have a tax code in which somebody can be on an average income in Ireland and not already be paying the higher rate of income tax," he said. "That isn't about trying to deliver tax breaks, that isn't about trying to deliver unaffordable tax reductions. It's about trying to ensure that if someone is on a moderate wage they pay the appropriate level of taxation."

Irish Independent

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