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.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.