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Driven out
Published 28/03/08

MULTI-MILLIONAIRE entrepreneur Robert Gaines-Cooper has broken his silence over his long-running battle with the British Government in an exclusive interview with the Henley Standard.

The 70-year-old businessman, who owns a stunning Harpsden mansion but lives in the Seychelles, says figures recently quoted in the press claiming he owed more than £100 million in tax are ‘nonsense’ and ‘irresponsible’ —and produced papers proving he only had to pay £637,500.

And the former Reading Blue Coat School pupil slammed the Government’s attitude to businessmen, claiming he was driven out of the country after facing tax bills as high as 98 per cent.

As reported in the Henley Standard, law lords last year ruled Mr. Gaines-Cooper owed more than 15 years of back taxes due to ‘strong business links’ in the UK, despite him calling the Seychelles his home since 1974 and becoming a national last year.

He took with him to the High Court ten witnesses willing to testify he lived in the Seychelles, including former President James Mancham, former First Lady Geva Rene and the Rt. Rev. French Chang-Him, former Archbishop of the Indian Ocean.

Speaking at his home on Mahe this week, where he lives with wife Jane and son James, Mr. Gaines-Cooper hit out at the ‘harassment’ he claims to have received from the Government.

“That the Government would be willing to agree on such a minute fraction of what it claims I owed, proves it never had a case against me,” he said.

“Is it not irresponsible for the powers that be to be harassing people in such a way?”

And his fight with the Government is not over. Two teams of barristers have been instructed to fight Mr. Gaines-Cooper’s status as a non-domicile and non-resident. He said: “In effect, I haven’t been a UK citizen for 30 years and I am ready to go to the European Court in Brussels if need be to prove this.

“I am ready for a fight, and I will not give up. Britain doesn’t like successful businessmen — it does nothing to help companies starting from scratch. I was effectively forced to leave after I was told in some cases I would have to pay 98 per cent tax.”

For more than 20 years he has lived in self-imposed anonymity, free from the unwanted attention wealth can bring. But British multi-millionaire businessman Robert Gaines-Cooper’s peace was shattered late last year when he became the centre of an international press scrum following a landmark legal ruling.

Reports suggested the 70-year-old, who grew up in Emmer Green and owns a stunning mansion in Harpsden, owed an astonishing £100 million to the UK Government in back taxes after law lords ruled he had strong business links to the country — despite calling the Seychelles his home since 1974.

His story aroused interest everywhere as Mr. Gaines-Cooper was dubbed an elusive millionaire with a taste for the high life. Trips to Ascot and membership of a Rolls Royce fan club seemed only to confirm his decadence.

He remained quiet at the time but this week broke his silence, granting the Standard an exclusive interview on location in the stunning tropical islands, deep in the heart of the Indian Ocean.

Former Reading Blue Coat pupil Mr. Gaines-Cooper met me himself at the airport, and it became quickly evident that he is a man determined to right some wrongs.

Firstly, the £100 million. Such a figure simply never existed. The confusion came over the QC involved in the case, who is rumoured not to deal with any case worth less than that sum. As it happens, Mr. Gaines-Cooper was being chased for taxes totalling about £30 million, but eventually agreed a settlement with the Government to repay only £637,500 — just two per cent of the figure originally sought. This clearly irks him.

“It absolutely proves that the Government never had a case against me, if it would be willing to agree on such a minute fraction of what it claims I owed,” he said. “Is it not irresponsible for the powers that be to be harassing people in such a way?”

Problems stem from the British Government’s insistence that Mr. Gaines-Cooper should still be paying taxes, despite being based on Mahe, the Seychelles’ most densely populated island, for over 30 years. Said to have started and invested in more than 100 companies, he now spends most of his time with one of his most successful businesses, the Laryngeal Mask Company.

He had a small business based in Henley called Northfield House Services, which he says the Government used as an ‘umbilical cord’ to get at his other companies. He recently placed it in liquidation.

But his fight with the Government is not over. In the week when it was announced there will be a judicial review into the HM Revenue and Custom commissioner who handled his tax case, Mr. Gaines-Cooper instructed two teams of barristers to take on the Government over his status and a non-domicile and non-resident.

He said: “In effect, I haven’t been a UK citizen for 30 years and I am ready to go to the European Court in Brussels if need be to prove this. I am ready for a fight, and I will not give up.

“This case goes above and beyond me, and involves thousands of businesspeople from around the world. The Government could set a dangerous precedent with wide-reaching implications if it is not properly challenged.

“Britain doesn’t like successful businessmen — it does nothing to support companies starting from scratch. I was effectively forced to leave after I was told in some cases I would be paying 98 per cent tax. My father told me I had no choice but to move away.

“Look at Governments from around the world and you will see where Britain gets it wrong. In Singapore the Government approached us and told us of a tax break which would benefit us. Can you imagine that happening in Britain? Successful businessmen are harassed and persecuted and forced to pay ridiculous taxes.”

Mr. Gaines-Cooper certainly leads a good life in the Seychelles. His sprawling plantation-era mansion, fine cars and unbridled wealth guarantees an extremely comfortable life alongside wife Jane and son James, a former Rupert House School pupil, under the glorious tropical skies. It is not hard to see why he doesn’t want to go back, such is the allure of the islands, despite still retaining a soft spot for Henley. “That part of England is an oasis in a barren desert,” he said.

“It is an astonishingly beautiful little town, with all the ambiance and character that once upon a time you could find across the country. “But I feel for England as I do my old school — fond memories, and great friends, but no huge desire to return.

“I’m not at my Harpsden house enough to make it worth my while, so I am going to let it. I have a wonderful life here, and don’t really miss the UK at all. I got the travelling bug during my time in Cyprus as part of 70 Squadron.

“The Seychois people are among the happiest in the world, and certainly the friendliest. It is a country which supports and understands businessman, and really just highlights all that is wrong back home. I am extremely happy here, and can’t imagine living anywhere else.

“I live here. This is my home, not a holiday residence as was suggested in the courts.”

Although he is certainly regarded as being part of the island’s ‘high society’, Mr. Gaines-Cooper is also well respected.

He became a national in 2007 at the behest of president James Michel, and is currently involved with the building of up to 26 luxury houses, two of which could be used by visiting dignitaries. He dines with former president James Mancham and counts Bishop French as a personal friend. The Laryngeal Mask Company employs some 90 local people, and they seem happy and well looked after.

But perhaps his biggest contribution to the island has been the ongoing support of the National Council for Children. Formed in the early 1970s by Madame Rene, former First Lady of the Seychelles, it helps abused and distressed children and offers them support, counselling and refuge. Mr. Gaines-Cooper said: “Alongside my businesses, it is perhaps the thing I am most proud of.

“It does wonderful work for children who have nowhere else to go, and is run by an incredible team of people. Madame Rene’s drive and passion to help children is inspirational.”

Mr. Gaines-Cooper is currently recovering from heart surgery, carried out in America. It follows a triple-heart bypass in the early 1990s, but surgeons are pleased so far with his progress and he is recuperating with walks along the beaches.

He drops me off at the airport, and my four days in the Seychelles are over. They are astonishingly beautiful islands, and the people are charming and welcoming. Perhaps Mr. Gaines-Cooper would choose to stay here even if he wasn’t ‘forced out’ by the Government. As he succinctly put it to me as I was leaving: “I feel like I am an islander, and I hope it will always be so.”

Published 28/03/08

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