"We are not attractive to the ethically challenged"

British Virgin Islands executive director protests against tax haven image.

"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

Photograph: Getty Images

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

Flickr/Michael Stern
Show Hide image

I’m a man with bulimia. But too many like me are unable to address their “hidden” condition

A failure to understand that eating disorders can strike anyone, at any time, can make it harder for people to accept they have a problem and start asking for help.

What was it about George Osborne’s last Spending Review that made me physically sick? Fresh cuts to already-sliced government departments? The latest squeeze on vulnerable housing benefit claimants? The sheer jamminess of the Chancellor’s tax credits u-turn?

Actually, it was a handful of salt and vinegar crisps and a couple of tiny triangle sandwiches, courtesy of the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

It’s now customary for journalists to head to the IFS for what we like to call the “real” Budget. This hour – blissfully free from “long-term economic plans”, with nary a “hard-working family” in sight – is when Britain’s sharpest economists help us cut through the spin.

Less known about the IFS, though, is that they also put on a top-notch spread for assembled hacks. And it was this, rather than the Chancellor’s latest manoeuvrings, that had me on my knees last November.

For about eight years now, I’ve been bulimic. Bulimia is often described as a “battle”, but I’m not a big fan of this term. You don’t feel like much of a hero when you follow a detailed briefing on the distributional effects of Universal Credit with a bout of shoving your fingers down your throat in a Senate House toilet to get rid of a cucumber sarnie.

According to the National Institute for Care Excellence (NICE), just under 1 per cent of the UK population has bulimia nervosa. Using some back-of-a-fag-packet maths that the IFS would no doubt slam me for, I reckon this means that there are more than half a million of us out there making shonky excuses to leave meals or brushing our teeth at strange times. But we’re a shrewd lot – time and again, the people I speak to about the problem characterise it as a “hidden” condition.

Mary George from the eating disorders charity BEAT tells me that while anorexia is actually the rarest of all the eating disorders – accounting for around 10 per cent of all diagnoses – it continues to receive the most attention, in part because its visible consequences “are much more obvious”.

“With bulimia, somebody can stay the same weight and those around them are just not aware of the struggle that they’re having unless they start observing certain behavioural patterns,” George says. “It’s difficult to spot – but it is equally as serious.”

While we bulimics very often don’t look that different, then – meaning we can slip under the radar of GPs – George says that we can rather quietly be doing ourselves some real damage. Getting rid of food, unsurprisingly, deprives the body of vital nutrients – and over the long term that runs some big health risks.

“It can impact on the heart, the cardiovascular system, it can lead to loss of bone density, resulting in osteoporosis,” she says. “Bulimia can also lead to long-term dental problems because of purging and the acidity passing through the mouth, an electrolyte imbalance in the body because of the purging, a reduction in testosterone levels in men, and a loss of sexual interest.”

My blood ran cold as George told me about those effects. Yet, in the rare instances it is discussed publicly, bulimia can still be seen as a poor relation to anorexia – even a bit of a comedy eating disorder.

Conservative MP Caroline Nokes – who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on body image – tells me that while understanding of eating disorders more broadly has improved in the last few years, there is still “a great deal of ignorance” about bulimia – and an ongoing perception that it’s only a problem for “middle-class teenage girls”.

“When [former Deputy Prime Minister] John Prescott revealed that he had suffered from bulimia, there was almost sort of a collective question mark hanging in the air,” Nokes says. “People were joking, ‘Well, how can he be bulimic, look at the size of him?’ They were making really cruel, hideous jokes about him.”

It’s important to stress that most of those diagnosed with eating disorders are women – NICE figures show a female to male ratio of around 3:1. But there’s also been a sharp, 63 per cent increase in the number of men being diagnosed with eating disorders in the past five years (not necessarily a bad thing – it could mean more of us are seeking help). And research has shown that men are more likely to get bulimia than any other kind of eating disorder.

So it turns out I’m part of a growing group. Like me, Sam Thomas had bulimia as a young man, and in 2009 decided to set up a charity called Men Get Eating Disorders Too, offering advice and support tailored specifically to men, who he believed were still not provided for. Seven years on, he tells me he’s still trying to challenge the view that eating disorders are confined to just one set of people.

“One of the key messages that we try to get across all the time is that eating disorders have no gender,” he says. “They’re very inclusive in that respect – incorporating not just men and women, but trans people too, who often get forgotten about in these sort of debates. Eating disorders are indiscriminate.”

There are all sorts of reasons somebody can get an eating disorder – a traumatic life event, stress, broader psychiatric problems – and Mary George from BEAT tells me “high achievers” and “perfectionists” are particularly at risk.

Nokes meanwhile points out that men are also increasingly getting a taste of the kind of “impossible-to-obtain” body ideals that women have had to put up with since time immemorial.

Yet despite more pressure on men to worry about the way they look, Nokes says there is still an assumption that we’re not really meant to talk about this stuff.

“There’s a view that if a man reveals something like that he’s fair game to be ridiculed – and that’s just so wrong,” she says. “From visits I’ve made to eating disorder units, what has really struck me is that the men that I have met have had conditions that are every bit as severe as the women in there. And yet they have somehow been expected to be tougher about it.”

But research published a couple of years ago in the British Medical Journal, based on extended interviews with male eating disorder sufferers, makes it clear why those misconceptions can be such a problem.

In it, the authors warn that the “culturally prevalent view that eating disorders largely affect teenage girls” meant many of the people they spoke to “only recognised their behaviours and experiences as possible symptoms of an ED after a protracted delay, mitigating possibilities of early intervention and improved prognosis”.

In other words, a failure to understand that eating disorders can strike anyone, at any time, can actually make it harder for people to accept they have a problem and start asking for help.

The IFS incident was arguably my illness at its most daft – an absurd situation that prompted me to realise that something that had become a weary part of my daily routine was now taking control of my life in a big way.

In many respects, though, I’m one of the lucky ones, tentatively wriggling out of bulimia’s clutches with the help of some open-minded friends who’ve been keeping an eye on me and gently reminding me that it’s alright to sometimes have a donut.

I have no doubt, however, that talking about an eating disorder like mine would have been ten times harder if I had been, say, a working-class teenager, or a City trader whose career depended on never showing weakness, as opposed to a hummus-munching trade journalist in a steady job.

But, as Sam Thomas says, nobody suffering from bulimia – or any other eating disorder – should be left feeling like they’re not entitled to seek help.

“Without stating the bleeding obvious, it’s just important to know this is an issue that other people have experienced, right across the world,” he says. “You’re not the only one. You’re not an alien. You’re not a freak of nature. Get help when you are ready to – talk to somebody you can trust. It may not be that you just pick up the phone and call the GP. But that isolation and secrecy that an eating disorder can often thrive on? You can break that link.”

Matt Foster is deputy editor of Civil Service World and a former assistant news editor at PoliticsHome.