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.

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Even before Brexit, immigrants are shunning the UK

The 49,000 fall in net migration will come at a cost.

Article 50 may not have been triggered yet but immigrants are already shunning the UK. The number of newcomers fell by 23,000 to 596,000 in the year to last September, with a sharp drop in migrants from the EU8 states (such as Poland and the Czech Republic). Some current residents are trying their luck elsewhere: emigration rose by 26,000 to 323,000. Consequently, net migration has fallen by 49,000 to 273,000, far above the government's target of "tens of thousands" but the lowest level since June 2014.

The causes of the UK's reduced attractiveness are not hard to discern. The pound’s depreciation (which makes British wages less competitive), the spectre of Brexit and a rise in hate crimes and xenophobia are likely to be the main deterrents (though numbers from Romania and Bulgaria remain healthy). Ministers have publicly welcomed the figures but many privately acknowledge that they come at a price. The OBR recently forecast that lower migration would cost £6bn a year by 2020-21. As well as reflecting weaker growth, reduced immigration is likely to reinforce it. Migrants pay far more in tax than they claim in benefits, with a net contribution of £7bn a year. An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent.

Earlier this week, David Davis revealed the government's economic anxieties when he told a press conference in Estonia: "In the hospitality sector, hotels and restaurants, in the social care sector, working in agriculture, it will take time. It will be years and years before we get British citizens to do those jobs. Don’t expect just because we’re changing who makes the decision on the policy, the door will suddenly shut - it won’t."

But Theresa May, whose efforts to meet the net migration target as Home Secretary were obstructed by the Treasury, is determined to achieve a lasting reduction in immigration. George Osborne, her erstwhile adversary, recently remarked: "The government has chosen – and I respect this decision – not to make the economy the priority." But in her subsequent interview with the New Statesman, May argued: "It is possible to achieve an outcome which is both a good result for the economy and is a good result for people who want us to control immigration – to be able to set our own rules on the immigration of people coming from the European Union. It is perfectly possible to find an arrangement and a partnership with the EU which does that."

Much depends on how "good" is defined. The British economy is resilient enough to endure a small reduction in immigration but a dramatic fall would severely affect growth. Not since 1997 has "net migration" been in the "tens of thousands". As Davis acknowledged, the UK has since become dependent on high immigration. Both the government and voters may only miss migrants when they're gone.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.