Why Britain is a world leader in financial secrecy

Between $21-32trn of private wealth is kept in tax havens, and Britain is at the very centre of a global financial system that allows the wealthy to avoid tax.

According to the Tax Justice Network, around $21-32 trn of private financial wealth is located in secret tax jurisdictions around the world, where it is either untaxed or lightly taxed. It’s estimated that since the 1970s, this has cost African countries over $1trn, dwarfing the continent’s external debts of $190bn.

Today the Tax Justice Network has published its biannual secrecy index, which ranks countries on indicators like banking secrecy, anti-money laundering regulation, the kinds of company and trust structures permitted and whether their beneficial owners are made public. The three highest ranking countries in terms of financial secrecy are Switzerland, Luxembourg and Hong Kong.

What is noteworthy is how many British island dependencies and overseas territories – where laws must be approved in London and the Queen is the head of state – rank in the top 50 most secret tax jurisdictions. The UK itself comes in as number 21, while the Cayman Islands is in at number 4, Jersey at number 9, Bermuda (14), Guernsey (15), British Virgin Islands (20), Isle of Man (34), Gibraltar (49).

This is all the more interesting when you consider that David Cameron decided to make cracking down on tax avoidance and promoting tax transparency a key issue at G20 this year. In 2011 Nicholas Shaxson, who is a consultant for the Tax Justice Network, wrote the influential book, Treasure Islands, which argued that London is not only the creator of the modern offshore banking system, but is also one of the worst offenders. Lawyers and tax advisers based in the City manage money coming in from the world’s richest and then redirect it to low-cost satellites, from Jersey to Gibraltar.

John Christensen, the director of the Tax Justice Network has written to the Queen, drawing her attention to these findings and arguing that, “the secrecy facilities provided by these jurisdictions stains the good name of Britain in the international arena.”

Clamping down on banking secrecy will make it harder for corrupt world leaders to embezzle public funds, for criminals to launder money and for the world’s wealthiest to avoid taxes – it would however leave a lot of the smart lawyers and tax advisers in the City short of work. Most lawyers would strongly disagree with my conclusion – they are not allowed to help people break the law, and have to carry out special checks on those who are euphemistically referred to as “politically exposed persons”.

But I remember one City lawyer telling me that every year she was flown out to Switzerland by a mystery client, whose identity they didn’t know, to check over her client’s tax affairs. When they arrived in Switzerland, they’d be left in a room with their client’s financial documents. They weren’t allowed to take notes, photocopy documents or remove anything from the room. Operating in these conditions, how can a lawyer possibly be certain that they are not ironing out tax efficiencies for a Middle Eastern despot or a mafia don?

There have been tentative moves towards greater tax transparency – the Liechtenstein Disclosure Facility offers an amnesty of sorts for those who want to come clean on their tax liabilities on their money kept in Liechtenstein, for instance, and Switzerland has made a few concessions on banking secrecy. But these are only tentative moves. As one of the world’s leading financial centres, Britain does have the power to push forward moves towards greater transparency. But this requires real political commitment, and that's still lacking.

Protestors dressed as a businessman do a 'high five' on a protest site named by participants as the 'Isle of Shady Tax Haven' in London on June 14, 2013. Photo:Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman. She is on Twitter as @SEMcBain.

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.