Tax return done? Nah, I've offshored myself

Never mind trying to minimise your tax liability - it's surprisingly easy just to take yourself completely offshore and pay no tax at all, says Willard Foxton.

As I'm self-employed, I realised with some horror the other day that my tax return was due soon. In journalism, every year at this time of year, there's a frantic scrabble between friends seeking advice from one another - should you go on schedule D? Should you VAT register? Where did I put that carrier bag of moth-eaten and crumpled receipts? Can I claim back that strip bar we were "undercover" in?

In previous years, I've often come in for mockery from my mates, because I don't even claim VAT back. I don't have a service company, like 90 per cent of freelancers and many politicians. I just declare my full income, and then pay tax on it. Why? Well... I think that's the moral thing to do. Unpopular view, I realise. Maybe it makes me an idiot. However, I don't feel like a company, or an entrepreneur taking a risk, in need of tax breaks. I'm not going to get on my high horse about it - it's my decision. That said, at global champagne and lobster fest Davos, David Cameron said sensible tax planning is OK - which of course poses the question, where do you draw the line?

I've always though, if I was going to do the tax-dodging thing, I wouldn't do it in a mealy-mouthed, Ken-Livingstone-style, by setting up a company and filtering all my expenses through it. I'd go the full-bore Amazon/Starbucks/Google route of just trying to avoid tax completely. Given the choice between writing a column, and filing my tax return, I decided to see if I could easily offshore myself, using just the internet, with no specialist advice.

I expected it to be quite hard. That I'd need sixteen highly paid unscrupulous lawyers and a copy of Tolley's tax guide in front of me. Actually, it wasn't hard, at all.

First off, I had to choose my tax haven. Now, all the classics - Cayman Islands, Channel Islands, Luxembourg, Monaco, all seemed a bit passé, full of the kind of permatanned Eurotrash in white chinos who might try to bum cigarettes from me while I was relaxing on my yacht. I decided on the Marshall Islands, a Pacific archipelago which my grandfather visited with the British Pacific Fleet in 1945, which he described in his diaries as a "festering hole, stinking of excrement... heat unbearable".

I then googled the phrase "Marshall Islands Tax Haven", and on the first page of results, came across the Hong Kong-based company that the Marshall Islands have outsourced their company registration to. They have a 24-hour company registration hotline, which I of course called. I explained to the nice lady I spoke to that I wanted to set up a company in the Islands, with the aim of minimizing my tax exposure and making it hard for anyone to find out about my finances.

She explained to me I could have that within 24 hours. In addition to a zero tax jurisdiction, I was also getting a complete waiver on my corporate liability, no corporate filing obligations, total secrecy for my shareholders, and a complete waiver on any need to file accounting returns or prepare accounts for audit. For a small extra fee, they also offered to set me up a bank account in my choice of Hong Kong, Singapore or Shanghai (with debit cards, so I could spend in the UK, of course).

The total cost of the full package was about £900 - about one-thirteenth of what I'm due to fork over to HMRC by 31 January. Of course, as an added benefit, I'd never have to pay tax ever again. As their website states "in this modern age with the high quality of services available, offshore is now a relatively simple and affordable procedure for almost anyone. Once having moved all or part of your business offshore, the savings made by the low-tax or tax-free status opens up a whole new world of investment and business opportunities".

Unfortunately, when I mentioned to the lady that I'd like to write up the experience for a newspaper, she hung up the phone on me, so I guess I'll have to submit that tax return after all.

But in case you think "well, this is all very well, but I doubt it would really work", the company I spoke to really does hold the rights to administer corporate registrations for the Marshall Islands, and if HMRC wanted to find out about my tax affairs, it would have to investigate my affairs, find my Hong Kong bank account (numbered of course, not named), then issue proceedings in both China and the Marshall Islands. It's probable the game isn't worth the candle for HMRC if you're a lowly TV producer, rather than say, someone as rich as Mitt Romney. If the Marshall Islands don't take your fancy, there are plenty of firms offering to offshore you to Panama, Belize, the Caymans or Cyprus, who are using Google Adwords to show up to those googling "Marshall Islands Tax Haven".

I spoke with a tax expert about whether the structure I'd been offered would be legal. He said, in no uncertain terms "what you're suggesting would be a crime. Admittedly, a crime that's relatively easy to commit and relatively hard to investigate." He did also concede that with a little tweaking, it could be made kosher, but that it would be unlikely to be worthwhile legally for people with incomes under £150,000 a year. Still, that salary wouldn't exactly put me in the ranks of the super-rich; I probably wouldn't be troubling Abramovich to buy Chelsea. Maybe something like Folkestone Invicta FC . . .

Still, what the experiment showed me was that in the online age, international tax dodging doesn't have to be (and probably isn't) the preserve of multi-national mega corporations. In the connected, globalised world of the internet, it's very easy to find a tax haven, and the companies and consultancies who offer to move you (or your business) to one are easily available. It's probably something governments should be looking into stopping before it becomes more common.

Willard Foxton is a freelance journalist, who tweets @WillardFoxton

The Marshall Islands - solution to all your not-wanting-to-pay-any-tax problems. Photograph: Getty Images

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

Photo: Getty
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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

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