"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.

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MPs Seema Malhotra and Stephen Kinnock lay out a 6-point plan for Brexit:

Time for Theresa May to lay out her priorities and explain exactly what “Brexit means Brexit” really means.

Angela Merkel has called on Theresa May to “take her time” and “take a moment to identify Britain’s interests” before invoking Article 50. We know that is code for the “clock is ticking” and also that we hardly have any idea what the Prime Minister means by “Brexit means Brexit.”

We have no time to lose to seek to safeguard what is best in from our membership of the European Union. We also need to face some uncomfortable truths.

Yes, as remain campaigners we were incredibly disappointed by the result. However we also recognise the need to move forward with the strongest possible team to negotiate the best deal for Britain and maintain positive relationships with our nearest neighbours and allies. 
 
The first step will be to define what is meant by 'the best possible deal'. This needs to be a settlement that balances the economic imperative of access to the single market and access to skills with the political imperative to respond to the level of public opinion to reduce immigration from the EU. A significant proportion of people who voted Leave on 23 June did so due to concerns about immigration. We must now acknowledge the need to review and reform. 

We know that the single market is founded upon the so-called "four freedoms", namely the free movement of goods, capital, services and people & labour. As things stand, membership of the single market is on an all-or-nothing basis. 

We believe a focus for negotiations should be reforms to how the how the single market works. This should address how the movement of people and labour across the EU can exist alongside options for greater controls on immigration for EU states. 

We believe that there is an appetite for such reforms amongst a number of EU governments, and that it is essential for keeping public confidence in how well the EU is working.

So what should Britain’s priorities be? There are six vital principles that the three Cabinet Brexit Ministers should support now:

1. The UK should remain in the single market, to the greatest possible extent.

This is essential for our future prosperity as a country. A large proportion of the £17 billion of foreign direct investment that comes into the UK every year is linked to our tariff-free access to a market of 500 million consumers. 

Rather than seeking to strike a "package deal" across all four freedoms, we should instead sequence our approach, starting with an EU-wide review of the freedom of movement of people and labour. This review should explore whether the current system provides the right balance between consistency and flexibility for member states. Indeed, for the UK this should also address the issue of better registration of EU nationals in line with other nations and enforcement of existing rules. 

If we can secure a new EU-wide system for the movement of people and labour, we should then seek to retain full access to the free movement of goods, capital and services. This is not just in our interests, but in the interests of the EU. For other nation states to play hardball with Britain after we have grappled first with the complexity of the immigration debate would be to ignore rather than act early to address an issue that could eventually lead to the end of the EU as we know it.

2. In order to retain access to the single market we believe that it will be necessary to make a contribution to the EU budget.

Norway, not an EU member but with a high degree of access to the single market, makes approximately the same per capita contribution to the EU budget as the UK currently does. We must be realistic in our approach to this issue, and we insist that those who campaigned for Leave must now level with the British people. They must accept that if the British government wishes to retain access to the single market then it must make a contribution to the EU budget.

3. The UK should establish an immigration policy which is seen as fair, demonstrates that we remain a country that is open for business, and at the same time preventing unscrupulous firms from undercutting British workers by importing cheap foreign labour.  

We also need urgent confirmation that EU nationals who were settled here before the referendum as a minimum are guaranteed the right to remain, and that the same reassurance is urgently sought for Britons living in mainland Europe. The status of foreign students from the EU at our universities must be also be clarified and a strong message sent that they are welcomed and valued. 

4. The UK should protect its financial services industry, including passporting rights, vital to our national prosperity, while ensuring that the high standards of transparency and accountability agreed at an EU level are adhered to, alongside tough new rules against tax evasion and avoidance. In addition, our relationship with the European Investment Bank should continue. Industry should have the confidence that it is business as usual.

5. The UK should continue to shadow the EU’s employment legislation. People were promised that workers’ rights would be protected in a post-Brexit Britain. We need to make sure that we do not have weaker employment legislation than the rest of Europe.

6. The UK should continue to shadow the EU’s environmental legislation.

As with workers’ rights, we were promised that this too would be protected post-Brexit.  We must make sure we do not have weaker legislation on protecting the environment and combatting climate change. We must not become the weak link in Europe.

Finally, it is vital that the voice of Parliament and is heard, loud and clear. In a letter to the Prime Minister we called for new joint structures – a Special Parliamentary Committee - involving both Houses to be set up by October alongside the establishment of the new Brexit unit. There must be a clear role for opposition parties. It will be equally important to ensure that both Remain and Leave voices are represented and with clearly agreed advisory and scrutiny roles for parliament. Representation should be in the public domain, as with Select Committees.

However, it is also clear there will be a need for confidentiality, particularly when sensitive negotiating positions are being examined by the committee. 

We call for the establishment of a special vehicle – a Conference or National Convention to facilitate broader engagement of Parliament with MEPs, business organisations, the TUC, universities, elected Mayors, local government and devolved administrations. 

The UK’s exit from the EU has dominated the political and economic landscape since 23 June, and it will continue to do so for many years to come. It is essential that we enter into these negotiations with a clear plan. There can be no cutting of corners, and no half-baked proposals masquerading as "good old British pragmatism". 

The stakes are far too high for that.