Luke Johnson: The UK needs to hang on to wealth creators and talent

There are many migrants fighting, but failing, to start a business in Britain. We need to allow talent to thrive.

by Luke Johnson
Last Updated: 27 Mar 2014

I received an unsolicited email recently headlined 'Should I Stay Or Should I Go?' It was not about the Clash song, but an invitation to a reception to hear about how to become a tax exile.

In the discreet splendour of Mosimann's private dining club, guests were to be advised on preserving their wealth by emigrating in the event of a change of government next May. The details of such arcane concepts as domicile, residence and the tax merits of different jurisdictions were on the agenda.

Unfortunately, as Peter Cook once said, I am watching television that evening, so am unable to attend. But it would have been interesting to see how many of the fabled 1% are getting worried. They already pay almost a third of all income tax. At some point, many might just leave.

If the polls are correct, and the two Eds take power, then the assault on the rich by the state will rev up considerably.

Whether these efforts raise any extra revenue remains to be seen. Individuals are much more mobile than ever - communications and travel are easier - so the temptation to escape the grasp of the taxman only grows.

But where to go? Where else offers the rule of law, a less confiscatory tax system, a temperate climate and a civilised capital city such as London?

I admire those who are brave enough to emigrate for good reasons: I have never had the opportunity (or perhaps, more truthfully, the courage) to study or work overseas. But I think those who depart for tax purposes are usually miserable. I once went to a farewell party thrown by a property developer who was decamping to the Caribbean to avoid tax. He seemed to exult in how much money he planned to save, while his investment properties remained here. It was a grim affair. He got his comeuppance a few years later in a vicious and expensive divorce.

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It was ironic that in the same week that I was enticed to consider leaving Britain, our think-tank, the Centre for Entrepreneurs, published a ground-breaking report into migrant entrepreneurs coming to this country. Thanks to our partner, DueDil, we showed how such immigrants are behind one in seven UK companies, and that nearly half a million people from 155 countries have settled in Britain and launched a business.

These migrants have created jobs, invested and innovated, and are grateful for the chances Britain has offered them to better their situation. Let us hope that, whoever is in power in the coming years, ours remains a nation where wealth creators thrive and talent wants to stay rather than flee.

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Shareholders may not be the perfect form of ownership for organisations. But they are probably the least bad in terms of the value they deliver to society. And the closer shareholders are to the undertaking, the better.

There is a widely held myth among many citizens, academics, politicians and journalists that non-profit bodies must be better structures in terms of the public good they produce - because they are more ethical, or take a longer-term view, or care more about all stakeholders rather than just concentrating on capitalist owners. But this is a simplistic view promulgated by those who suffer from ideological prejudice.

Although I have spent most of my career building and owning private firms, I have also served as a director or trustee of various public companies, charities, social enterprises and government entities for the past 14 years. Their activities have ranged across education, the arts and healthcare.

My experience is that many non-profit institutions lack discipline and focus. Their purposes are typically so vague that there is no real way of knowing what good performance is. Rigorous return criteria, which are typically applied to businesses, are almost entirely absent. Insider capture is endemic, and because the profit motive is missing, other, and often worse, motivations come to the fore among those in charge. Power, status and politics are all too often the driving forces among the leadership in non-profits.

The tragedy of the Co-op Bank is an example of this phenomenon writ large. Its aims as a mutual were noble: to provide an alternative deposit taker and lender to the mainstream clearers, with any surplus distributed to its customers.

But poor management, bad lending, ill-advised acquisitions, an inability to raise equity and the scandal of the 'crystal Methodist' mean its problems threatened the entire co-operative movement. Eventually, the wider Co-op was forced to both dilute its interest and put in more capital, while appointing new management.

Unfortunately, they picked the wrong man in Euan Sutherland to run the Co-op - an executive from the private sector. He seems to have spent much of his career jumping from job to job. He lacked the stamina to cope with an oddity such as the Co-op and resigned after just 10 months as chief executive, apparently because the detail of his £3.5m pay deal was leaked to the Observer.

I've chaired an institutional board that suffered leaks and there are worse things that can happen in business. Sutherland should have been more resilient, and if he did not understand the Co-op's governance before he took the role, he did insufficient homework.

I'm surprised the ex-CEO didn't feel a salary of at least 150 times the basic Co-op bank clerk's pay was adequate compensation for such challenges. I suspect they are well rid of him.

- Luke Johnson is chairman of Risk Capital Partners. Follow him on Twitter: @LukeJohnsonRCP

Luke Johnson is speaking at our inaugural MT Live conference in June. Find out more here.

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