Last night’s BBC Panorama (available on iPlayer here) lifted the lid on the alleged tax avoidance of Formula 1 empresario Bernie Ecclestone, who is said to have avoided a tax bill of some £1.2 billion through a complex series of transactions involving his former wife, and ending in a collection of family trusts in the tax haven of Liechtenstein.
Although bearing all the hallmarks of an aggressive tax avoidance manoeuvre, the offshoring is technically legal so long as Ecclestone himself is not involved in the administering of the trusts. Panorama set out to show that the F1 boss was, in fact, intimately involved in their operations, including appointing a close confidant to manage the assets and overseeing the sale of a £50 million London mansion which was owned by the trusts. Ecclestone has said, according to court transcripts, that his tax bill would top $2 billion if his involvement in the trusts could be proven.
Most damningly, Panorama claims the Ecclestones settled with HMRC after a nine year investigation into their tax affairs for just £10 million – which amounts to six weeks of interest payments from their combined Liechtenstein assets. With HMRC’s track record of “sweetheart deals” for wealthy companies and individuals, the taxman is under pressure to explain the settlement.
Emily Thornberry, the shadow attorney general, said of the payment:
“£10 million may sound like a lot to some people but you have to look at it in the round. If we’re talking about a trust fund in which they are making huge amounts of money like this, then it isn’t very much is it?”
Mr Ecclestone told The Guardian the £10 million payment was simply what HMRC had calculated he had underpaid in tax – and pointed out he paid £52 million in taxes last year. The Ecclestones’ net worth is estimated to be around £4 billion.
Photo by Ryan Bayona