At the G8, Switzerland is the elephant in the room

"The era of bank secrecy is over." Maybe.

Another day, another plea. This time the European Union official in charge of tax policy, Commissioner Algirdas Semeta, has tried to persuade Switzerland to agree to surrender bank data as part of a drive to combat tax evasion.

Semeta’s request echoes several others that Switzerland has received in the past year to sign up for bank data transparency deals.

Countries particularly within the EU are continuously facing a push to sign up for bank data sharing agreements to assist a clamp down on tax debtors, and allow countries to conduct wide-ranging joint multiparty tax investigations. Globally, more than 50 countries have, so far, agreed to automatically exchange tax information.

Prime Minister David Cameron got ten overseas territories and dependencies to sign up for the international protocol on tax disclosure over the weekend – after much ado – and hailed the "landmark" Lough Erne agreement yesterday at the G8 Summit to rewrite global rules to stamp out tax evasion.

Europe’s big five – UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain – started piloting the multilateral tax information exchange in April 2013, based on a Model Intergovernmental Agreement to improve international tax compliance and implement FATCA developed between these countries and the US. Austria is expected to join soon as well.

However, the elephant in the room is Switzerland – and its non-commitment to any of these agreements. It is also clear that the support of several other countries is dependent on deals Switzerland strikes.

For instance, Luxembourg’s Prime Minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, said the country would prefer there to first be negotiations with Switzerland, and Luxembourg will decide on its actions accordingly.

Being a $2trn offshore tax haven, Switzerland has a long tradition of bank secrecy that has made it the world's biggest offshore centre.

There is of course a thin line between privacy and secrecy. It’s not wrong to have offshore accounts. Switzerland is, perhaps, taking its sweet time only because it’s protective about its banks and clients.

However, Swiss Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said, at the G8 summit on Monday, the Swiss government would probably "only be able to start formal talks with the EU" in the autumn, and would push for global standards on data exchange at the OECD.

Widmer-Schlumpf added that for Switzerland, it is important to engage itself "for a level playing field, not just within the EU but beyond the EU".

The "beyond EU" part is absolutely crucial for Switzerland too.

It’s no secret that Switzerland is under tremendous pressure from the US for bank data as well, what with its oldest private bank, Wegelin& Co pleading guilty to charges of helping wealthy Americans evade taxes through secret accounts earlier in the year, and paying $58 m in fines to US authorities.

Back in 2009, Swiss banking giant UBS was fined $780m and forced to deliver names of more than 4,000 clients to avoid indictment.

On last count, 14 Swiss banks were in US investigators' sights for aiding Americans evade taxes.UBS and Credit Suisse were even named in a wide-spread investigation by The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) into offshore tax evasion.

Not that Switzerland is not paying heed. The Swiss government agreed to create a legal basis to enable its banks to settle investigations by US authorities, which could require lenders to pay up to billions of dollars in fines.

But as of yesterday morning, the lower house of parliament stalled the "Lex USA" bid, refusing to address a bill that allows banks to sidestep strict Swiss secrecy laws, even though the upper house of parliament had voted in favour of it, posing another roadblock in the settlement of the long running US-Swiss tax dispute.

Switzerland is clearly the joker in the pack and its movements can either make way for a complete data transparency code among countries, or block it. And it’s moving cautiously.

Semeta said at the G8 meeting on Monday, "It is widely accepted worldwide today that the era of bank secrecy is over." Most will believe it when Switzerland accepts it.

Photograph: Getty Images

Meghna Mukerjee is a reporter at Retail Banker International

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.