Cameron under fire for family's tax avoidance

Ian Cameron ran investment funds in Panama and Geneva aimed at avoiding UK tax.

The Guardian reports that David Cameron's father made his family fortune through a network of offshore funds in countries like Panama and Geneva, which "explicitly boasted of their ability to remain outside of UK tax jurisdiction".

Ed Howker and Shiv Malik write:

The structure employed by Cameron senior is now commonplace among modern hedge funds, which argue that offshore status can help attract international investors. UK residents would ordinarily have to pay tax on any profits they repatriated, and there is nothing to suggest the Camerons did not.

Nevertheless, the dramatic growth of such offshore financial activity has raised concerns that national tax authorities are struggling to pin down the world's super-rich.

The news has sparked mixed reaction. The tax campaigner Richard Murphy points out that it leaves the prime minister open to charges of hypocrisy. Despite inheriting £300,000 from his father after his death, Cameron is seemingly against the sorts of practices which were used to earn that money, saying about a general anti-avoidance rule that:

One of the things that we are going to be looking at this year is whether there should be a general anti-avoidance power that HMRC can use, particularly with very wealthy individuals and with the bigger companies, to make sure they pay their fair share.

On the other hand, many have agreed with the sentiment expressed by Sally Bercow, who wrote:

Not liking Guardian front page on Cameron family fortune. At all. Raking around his dead father's affairs - not on. And Dave is not his dad. Feel a bit sick having read it actually. Am clearly going soft. I say attack Dave, not his late father...

Downing Street is sticking to the latter line, telling the Guardian that it did not want to comment on what was a private matter for the Cameron family.

The problem the Camerons have is that, as the debate over whether or not George Osborne pays the 50p tax demonstrated, wealth is as much a political issue as income. And while the latter can be safely divided between personal income, knowledge of which may be in the public interest, and family income, which isn't, the former is harder to draw a line through.

Accusations that the prime minister is "out of touch" are fundamentally rooted in his family history and the privilege that it bequeaths him. If examining that history is out of bounds, then the debate is forced to focus more heavily on wealth than income – which can distort the debate.

David Cameron leaves Number 10. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.