Comic Mark exposes 'tax dodge toffs'

Stately home owners pay less if they 'open to the public'. But some keep it quiet, writes Millie Jenkins

"You Know what they'll be saying next? says Mark Thomas. "That documentaries are the new rock 'n' roll." The comedian, who once chased William Waldegrave in a tank, hoping the former minister would help him to export it to Iraq, this week turns investigative journalist when he presents Dispatches, Channel 4's main current affairs programme.

When commissioning editors hire "alternative" presenters, hoping to liven- up current affairs slots, they are usually obliged to stick to "sexy" subjects, with "yoof" appeal - anything related to drugs, cruelty to animals or the environment. Thomas'ssubject seems about as unsexy as it gets - the Conditionally Exempt Land and Building Scheme, a 20-year-old Inland Revenue initiative that gives the owners of stately homes and open countryside exemption from inheritance tax in exchange for a public right of access.

But, as he puts it, "it's a story of death, money and politics". Instead of the traditional piece-to-camera, Thomas uses stand-up comedy to investigate the use and abuse of the scheme. What he discovers is that it is almost impossible for the public to visit the houses and grounds involved because no one is allowed to know which sites are tax exempt. If the Inland Revenue were to reveal who and what is on the conditionally exempt list, it would be breaking the principle of taxpayer confidentiality.

"In theory the scheme is a fair deal," Thomas says. "But at the moment it is riddled with stupidity and malpractice. It's worth remembering that many more people visit stately homes every year than attend live theatre performances. You're talking about an enormous amount of people who should be enjoying this scheme. But no one is accountable, and the bottom line is that people are being cheated out of their money."

Many of the tax-exempt owners he tracks down are what he calls "Trotskys in Tweeds" who say they would have no objection to being on a published list. But list or no list, they are also meant to make reasonable efforts to publicise the fact that they are open to the public, and Thomas finds that few do. The people living near Bradley House, the Duke of Somerset's residence, had no idea that they could visit his home. Thomas takes them there in coach-loads, places advertisements in the local press and flies a balloon, emblazoned with the Duke's telephone number, over the area.

This is not the first time he has become embroiled in the intricacies of tax laws - he investigated a similar scheme on his show, The Mark Thomas Comedy Product. Thomas admits to being "obsessive" about the subject, but denies that he is tilting at windmills. The world of heritage, he argues, is chokingly incestuous and self-serving, and it exemplifies how "old power" still rules. "The establishment continues to protect itself," he says. "The idea that the aristocracy is somehow in decline, or has been replaced by the nouveau riche, is rubbish."

But it is not just class war against old power. He is equally at odds with new power: "The most horribly confirming moment was when we realised the Dawn Primarolo and Chris Smith [Financial Secretary and Heritage Secretary] weren't going to talk to us

His mission now is to change the law by making a mockery of it. He is asking the public to help track down as many conditionally exempt sites as possible, with a view to publishing the list himself. The campaign includes a Tip off a Toff hotline, his version of the DSS's Beat A Cheat, and an Amnesty for the Aristocracy.

"Dispatches", Thursday 13 November, 9pm, Channel 4.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark production team claims innocence of viewers' ab frenzy
Life and Style
Google marks the 81st anniversary of the Loch Ness Monster's most famous photograph
techIt's the 81st anniversary of THAT iconic photograph
News
Katie Hopkins makes a living out of courting controversy
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £38,000

£16000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to continued expansion, an ...

Ashdown Group: Senior .Net Developer - Kingston Upon Thames, Surrey

£65000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A long-established, tech...

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Software Development Project Manager - Kingston Upon Thames

£55000 - £60000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Experienced Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders