The ‘extraordinary’ loophole that saw Russia threaten to brand UK as tax haven
Russia has come close to blacklisting the UK as a tax haven as concerns grow over Scotland’s booming offshore business.
The Kremlin’s Finance Ministry had announced that it would officially equate Britain with traditional “fiscal paradises” like Panama, the British Virgin Islands and the Caymans.
Such a humiliating move would have meant any Russian resident who sets up a UK company – such as highly controversial Scottish limited partnerships or SLPs – would face punitive tax rates.
However, this week Russian tax authorities gave Britain – as well as Switzerland and Austria – a last minute reprieve, excluding them from the final black list.
Even the preliminary inclusion on the list underlined the reputational damage being done to the UK by de-facto offshore companies.
“Removing the UK, Switzerland and Austria from the black list was a serious concession to the business community,”, Alexander Zakharov of Paragon Advice Group, a consultancy, told Russian media. “Because those countries were popular places for Russian owners to registered their offshores.”
It is not clear how many SLPs and other types of Scottish companies have been used as “phantom firms” by Russian and other eastern European investors.
Scotland, in particular, is widely advertised as a tax haven in Russian-language media with SLPs in particular referred to as “Scottish zero-per-cent offshore tax companies”.Recent adverts for Scottish and English firms in Ukraine, for example, have also offered to recruit nominal directors, front people from the Seychelles and other jurisdictions so the the real Russian or Ukrainian owners do not appear on documents.
Such firms were last summer named in a major independent investigation in to how $1bn was looted from banks in another former Soviet republic, Moldova.
Ever since Labour MSP Jackie Baillie has been calling for action on SLPs.
She said: “We need to act quickly to close these loop holes. It is extraordinary that Scotland is being described as a tax haven for these shady companies to set up here.
“We need to tighten the regulatory regime and the police need to investigate. It will be damaging for Scotland’s image in the world if we are seen as a tax haven for gangsters.”
SLPs, unlike their English equivalent, do not require financial reports to be filed. If they are formally owned by “members” in traditional tax havens and do no business in the UK, they really are tax free.
Such businesses have existed since before World War One but their number has more than doubled since 2009 as company formation businesses realised they could have a market, as tax avoidance instruments, in eastern Europe.
The Scottish Law Commission – and its sister organisation south of the border – has been calling for reform of partnership law, which is reserved, since 2003. Successive UK governments have failed to act.
Last week Scottish Justice Secretary Michael Matheson signalled that he wanted to see change.
He said: “I am very open to looking at whether there is a need to improve the legislation and, if necessary, to make representations to UK ministers.”
Scottish Greens spokesman Andy Wightman said: “The fact that the law in this area is reserved does nothing to prevent a vigorous effort to clean one of Scotland’s dirty little secrets.”
The European Union has ruffled feathers in the UK territories recently by blacklisting some as tax havens, including Bermuda.
Russia’s decision not to blacklist Switzerland came after the Swiss agreed to share information about Russians with bank accounts in the country. Russia lost some $60bn to capital flight in 2015.
President Vladimir Putin has been championing a process dubbed “de-offshore-isation” but analysts say his success in repatriating missing money has been patchy.