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.

New Statesman
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.

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.

Tags:Tax