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"We are not attractive to the ethically challenged"

British Virgin Islands executive director protests against tax haven image.

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

"We are not attractive to the ethically challenged," protests Elise Donovan, executive director of the British Virgin Islands’ financial centre. Donovan is saying that everything you think you know about the BVI – banking secrecy, half a million companies for under 25,000 residents – is wrong, or at least good.

"People who have strong business acumen know about the BVI. We have to educate the people don’t know the facts. People who know business know that the BVI is a reputable, above-board jurisdiction… There’s a misconception that we are in some sort of illicit activity, when we are part of the wheels of commerce in the global financial world."

Speaking at BVI House in Mayfair, alongside Dr Orlando Smith OBE, premier of the British Virgin Islands, and financial secretary Neil Smith, Donovan seems to chafe at the BVI’s reputation, not enhanced recently by the revelation in The Guardian of high-profile figures who had offshore accounts there.

Mongolia’s former finance minister and François Hollande’s 2012 election campaign co-treasurer were both fingered (not for illegal activity), as were Scot Young (went to jail rather than reveal assets) and Baroness Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza (owns her art there).

Perhaps Donovan has a point. As I wrote in April, when the story broke, no-one made the point that there is nothing nefarious about legitimate offshore banking. I also argued that the investigation constitutes invasion of financial confidentiality on an enormous scale – also a point overlooked by many in their fervent tax-haven bashing. (Tax justice campaigner Richard Murphy was one who celebrated the leak.)

How was this information obtained, I ask Premier Smith (pictured left). Given that the BVI pride themselves on their banking confidentiality, the report must have been extremely embarrassing for the island’s IFC as well as off-putting for potential customers.

"[The information] was acquired illegally," Smith says firmly, "but we’re not exactly sure how. We were shocked, but we were comforted by the fact that it did not originate from our regulatory system, from the IFC or from any structures in the BVI."

Just how the data was obtained remains to be discovered, but I wonder if the premier is worried that the BVI will have sustained a reputational hit as a result of its release. He says that customers – both current and potential - needn’t be worried about the IFC’s commitment to confidentiality, despite the report.

People aren’t going to see it like that though. The BVI is not alone here in feeling that it is misunderstood as a "tax haven", in which billions of illegitimately acquired offshore dollars are stored in obscure bank accounts: all IFCs, it seems – and not just those in idyllic, sun-dosed islands – are being tarred with the same brush. As Smith says, "Any jurisdiction that deals with financial services is called a tax haven. That is just a name people use but it’s not what it’s about."

There is a difference, often overlooked, between confidentiality – in which the BVI IFC maintains "very high standards" – and secrecy, which it does not tolerate, says the premier: ‘Secrecy suggests that someone wants to hide something, confidentiality suggests you simply don’t want to have your information public. You wouldn’t want your bank information public, for example.’

I certainly wouldn’t – although I suspect it would be dull enough to avoid serious scrutiny – but some point to other aspects of the BVI to justify their suspicions that a lot of people there are up to no good. They point to the 500,000 active registered companies on the BVI, for example, so I ask financial secretary Neil Smith what they’re actually used for.

His response, at a slight angle to the question, is clearly motivated by frustration with the IFC’s public image: "The biggest misconception for me is that it is not possible to find out who owns a particular company [in the BVI]. Yes, the public won’t know, but if the UK government want to know who owns a particular BVI company then they need only ask, and that information will be provided." The BVI has 24 Tax Information Exchange Agreements in place with other countries, and signed its most recent with Canada on 21 May.

Smith is also annoyed at the idea that billions of dollars are actually stored in the BVI: "We don’t keep money here. It’s true that the BVI owns a lot of assets, but they’re not in the BVI. They may be in London or Hong Kong, but they’re not actually held here."

Even if they were though – assuming they had not been criminally acquired – that would not automatically make the account holders morally suspect. Of course, that’s never going to be the headline.

Neil Smith pleads for a fair go: "It’d be nice if the BVI is recognised for the quality of its IFC. Just put us on a level playing field, and treat us in an objective manner." Whether, in a world where large governments are bullying smaller governments to name names so they can cream off tax (the decimation of banking secrecy is incidental), the BVI will get fairness remains to be seen.

This article first appeared on Spears