Banking confidentiality is still important

Austria shows the way.

In a world where financial privacy is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain, it’s heartening to hear that Austria is toughing it out alone and refusing to relinquish its constitutionally protected banking confidentiality.

It is now the only EU country to take this stance, after Luxembourg, another historic centre of financial discretion, this week agreed to disclose its foreign residents’ financial details with the governments in their home countries. HNWs who originally chose Luxembourg for its banking confidentiality must be encouraged to hear that, at least for the time being, there is one other European country that does not seem intent on blabbing about its citizens’ private matters in the interests of fighting tax evasion.

When European finance ministers meet this weekend in Dublin, Maria Fekter, Austria’s finance minister, will make the important point that fighting tax evasion is not mutually incompatible with preserving financial confidentiality. She has said today that Austria will "stick to bank secrecy", at the same time as doing everything it can to prevent tax evaders and money launders storing their money there. How long Austria can hold out, however, is uncertain, as she will no doubt come under heavy fire from her European counterparts.

As I wrote last week when the Guardian unveiled its investigation into offshore banking on the British Virgin Islands, not everyone who chooses to place their money in a jurisdiction other than that in which they live or do business is involved in nefarious goings-on. Clients have a right to expect privacy in their financial matters when they are doing nothing wrong.

But this distinction — between criminality and legitimate, private, offshore banking — is increasingly being blurred by the media and governments. Austria’s commitment to retaining banking confidentiality proves its commitment to the latter, rather than constituting an invitation to those who have something to hide.

This piece first appeared in Spear's magazine

City of London. Photograph: Getty Images

Mark Nayler is a senior researcher at Spear's magazine.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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