Dr James Hannam is a tax accountant, a Tunbridge Wells Borough councillor, and author of God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (2009).
When the Panama Papers were splashed a few weeks ago with breathless excitement by the Guardian and the BBC, it looked as though we might get to enjoy some juicy scandals. But now, after a few weeks of gestation, the leaked documents are, from a UK point of view, a damp squib. Admittedly, the name of David Cameron’s father was unfairly dragged through the mud. However, it eventually dawned on people that neither he, nor his son, had done anything remotely untoward. Other than the Cameron non-story, the 11.5 million files in the Panama Papers don’t appear to tell us much about the tax affairs of UK residents. The spectacle of Labour Party member, Jolyon Maugham QC, touring the TV studios posing as a disinterested tax expert has provoked mirth among tax professionals, although even his sterling efforts haven’t revealed anything very scandalous.
In any case, when it comes to tax evasion, the Government has been on the case for some time. From June, all UK companies will have to publicly register their owners, while an international treaty to share information on offshore bank accounts has been agreed by over 130 countries. A string of new offences is included in this year’s Finance Bill against enabling and engaging in offshore evasion. All this was in train well before the Panama Papers hit the newsstands. Last week’s declaration of a new corporate crime of allowing employees to facilitate tax evasion was a re-announcement of a measure already going ahead. Admittedly, no one will be convicted for any of these new crimes. They are intended to ensure that financial institutions stop turning a blind eye to possible cases of tax evasion. The banks themselves will enforce the new rules through enhanced compliance procedures.
With all this activity, it is worth asking how serious the problem of evasion is. Wealthy British people do indeed have billions stashed offshore, and not all of them come clean with the taxman. But, perhaps surprisingly, the vast majority of them do. For example, when HMRC obtained account details from the notorious Geneva branch of HSBC in 2011, they found information on about 7,000 British-held accounts holding in the region of £13 billion. Yet, it turned out that over 80 per cent of these didn’t owe a penny extra in UK tax.
From those that did, HMRC recovered £135 million of back taxes, interest and penalties. A significant haul, to be sure, but only enough to pay our dues to the European Union for three days. In only one case did HMRC and the Crown Prosecution Service adjudge that the evidence of criminality was sufficiently strong for a prosecution. No doubt, the Panama Papers will reveal some more tax evaders, although the scale of wrongdoing is likely to be more modest than the trillion pounds suggested by Dan Jarvis in the New Statesman. Nonetheless, we must be close to the point at which the myriad of new regulations and offences introduced by George Osborne end up costing innocent taxpayers more than the Exchequer recovers from the miscreants.
Turning to legal tax avoidance and planning, the Government is implementing a series of international agreements to restrict the tax deductions that companies can enjoy for cross-border financing and has introduced a general anti-abuse rule. Perhaps more importantly, the courts have stopped finding that tax avoidance schemes work, even when the scheme follows the letter of the law.
In this new era of transparency, the Government should now start to dismantle the tax barriers that distort international commerce. Just as Nigel Lawson removed exchange controls, George Osborne should abolish the nineteenth century throwback called withholding tax. This is a tax that countries levy on money paid abroad. For example, the UK charges a tax of 20 per cent on payments of interest to many non-resident recipients even though the recipients will also pay tax on the money in their own country. That’s double taxation and completely unfair.
Unfortunately, sorting it out gives rise to all sorts of administrative problems. So, if you want to set up a fund that caters for international clients, you can’t do it in the UK because of the withholding tax. That’s why Ian Cameron set up his trust abroad and why so many European funds, holding €3.5 trillion in 2015, are actually situated in Luxembourg, which doesn’t withhold tax. The vast majority of money held in countries like Switzerland, Luxembourg and elsewhere is kept there specifically so that it is taxed once, but no more often than that. Abolishing withholding tax would see some of that money returning in the UK. And much of the business of law firms like the Panama Paper’s Mossack Fonseca would dry up.