Top taxpayers

Pay up! Around £750bn of income tax is raised in the UK each year.

The Sunday Times has released the 50 highest tax bills of 2021. Many see the annual list as a celebration of good citizenship. But how do taxes work? And why are they important to society?

  • What is tax?

    Tax is a financial contribution made to the government. It may come in the form of a reduction such as income tax, which is subtracted from your earnings. It can also be added to the cost of an item. VAT is added to the cost of most items, and so-called sin taxes are placed on items like sugar and cigarettes. There are also petrol and car taxes, and stamp duty, a tax on house sales.

    In the UK, everyone over the age of 18 pays council tax to fund street cleaning, waste collection and care for vulnerable people. The government also collects taxes to pay for schools, hospitals, the police, the army and other public services.

  • How is it calculated?

    Around £750bn is raised annually in tax – around £11,000 per person. Income tax is based on how much money someone is paid. The first portion of income isn’t taxed. This is known as a personal allowance. In the UK, this is £12,500.

    Anything above the personal allowance is taxable. For UK workers, that means any pound they earn above £12,500 will be taxed. Taxes come in bands, with a basic rate of 20% for incomes up to £50,000. Any income between £50,000 and £150,000 is taxed a higher rate of 40%, and an additional rate of 45% affects income above £150,000.

  • Is income tax different across countries?

    Yes. Countries choose to tax their workers in different ways. Sweden is known for its high taxes. In 2019, the highest earners paid a huge 57.19% – more than anywhere else in the world. Denmark and Finland were not far behind, both charging over 50%.

    At the other end of the spectrum, some countries do not have income taxes at all. Well-known examples include the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. The Cayman Islands and the Bahamas are also known for being tax-havens.

  • Does everyone pay tax?

    Yes – in countries with income tax. However, some with higher incomes conceal their financial information from tax authorities. This is known as evasion and is illegal.

    Others find ways to reduce how much they pay by using loopholes in the system. Although it is legal, it has many critics. J K Rowling, who is worth £795m, describes tax avoidance as “contemptible”. And when Jimmy Carr revealed he had avoided tax in 2012, the prime minister David Cameron described it as “morally wrong”.

  • Who were the top spenders this year?

    The deadline for income tax in the UK is 31 January, meaning that anyone yet to pay their income tax has to settle their bill. The Sunday Times traditionally releases a list of those who have paid the most. This year, the top spender was Denise Coates, who turned her family betting shop, Bet 365, into an online empire that makes over £2.86bn a year.

    Others on the list included Sir James Dyson who established the appliances company of the same name. Ed Sheeran joined the list for the first time and is the only musician to make the top 50 list. His bill is enough to pay over 1,000 teachers for a year.

  • Who didn’t make the list?

    To have made the list this year, taxpayers needed to have paid £13.1m. In some cases, individuals or families who have been on the list for decades have fallen off. The Beckhams only paid £10m this year after losing income during Covid-19. Sir Philip Green is also absent after his retail group, Arcadia, went into administration at the end of last year.

    Others may have earned enough, but they are not UK tax residents. One example is Lewis Hamilton, who earns more than £40m a year. However, he has a home in Monaco – well known as another tax-haven with no personal income tax for residents.

You Decide

  1. Should the superrich be taxed even more?


  1. You are the leader of your country and you have made a decision to raise taxes. Make a speech explaining the change, and how it will affect them.

Word Watch

Short for value added tax. It is payable to the government by a business that sells an item. Essential items like food are zero-rated. Children’s clothes are also exceptions.
Sin taxes
These are taxes added to goods that the government considers harmful. The extra tax aims to deter people from buying as much. Alcohol, cigarettes and sugar are all examples.
Personal allowance
If your job pays you less than the personal allowance, you are not required to pay any tax on your income.
United Arab Emirates
A country consisting of a group of emirates in South West Asia, including Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
A country in Western Asia, bordered by Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
A colloquial term for an offshore country that allows foreign individuals or business to be based there – therefore avoiding paying tax in their home country.
To evade something is to dodge or sidestep it, usually a problem or a task.
A small mistake in laws which allows people to do something that would otherwise be illegal.
J K Rowling
The author of the Harry Potter books is a great supporter of the welfare state, which supported her in her younger years. She is particularly critical of celebrities who find ways to pay less than they owe.
Something that deserves to be despised.

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