Michael Gray: The UK’s tax avoidance scandal is a sorry tale
DID you hear the story about the Queen, tax evasion, a nationalised British bank for the rich and famous, a whistleblower and a £7bn under sale to ‘reward cronies and cheat the taxpayer’?
Sounds like a pretty big deal, right? But last Thursday’s damning testimony from Helen Goodman MP – which linked all those themes – shamefully sunk silently from the news agenda.
Under parliamentary privilege (where statements can be made and reported without legal threats from large corporations) she cited an as yet unpublished Guardian investigation into Coutts & Co bank, which until March was a subsidiary of the Royal Bank of Scotland.
The Coutts recent sell-off followed revelations that the bank was under investigation from German prosecutors for aiding and abetting tax evasion. The new revelations from Goodman included a whistleblower leading The Guardian to a British banking executive at Coutts International head office in Zurich.
In Goodman’s evidence, the executive agreed to deposit money on which tax had potentially been evaded. Under UK law it is illegal for bankers to deal with money they know or suspect to be the proceeds of crime.
Now criminal concerns surrounding UK banks is nothing new. The day after Goodman’s speech British bankers Anthony Conti and Anthony Allen were convicted in a US court of rigging the Libor interest rate.
What is particularly concerning in the Coutts case is the lack of government action and the wider loss of finance from avoidance and evasion that the UK suffers from. Goodman stated that 404 subsidiaries of RBS are registered in tax havens, and that this behaviour has continued unabated despite its ownership by the government.
How do they get away with it? The scale of tax avoidance and evasion is the major cause for the current budget deficit. Over £120bn is cheated from public income, according to the Public and Communications Services Union. The lack of government action – the Tories are bankrolled by the most wealthy beneficiaries of such dodgy deals – is one reason why this scandal stays off the agenda. But the responsibility rests with us all.
How widely understood or challenged are these tax evasion deals? In the realms of journalism I can confess to feeling lost among the variant legal claims and the intentionally incomprehensible maze of funds, trusts, havens and financial acronyms.
It does remind me of two truths. If you want to get away with a gigantic con-job, make sure it sounds boring and wear a suit. Secondly, the last few years have shown if a man has a gun he can rob a bank, but if a man has a bank he can rob the world.
Part of the solution is dedicated, detailed investigation. In Scotland the work of Ian Fraser, author of Shredded: Inside RBS, the Bank that Broke Britain, provides an encyclopaedia of financial crime, evasion and tax havens.
Cases he has covered include the fines Coutts received from the FSA over a failure to check the origins of “politically exposed persons” (dirty money), RBS global banking and markets multi-billion tax avoidance schemes in transatlantic structures, the RBS ‘global restructuring group’s’ “financial terrorism” against small businesses, and most recently the fall out from the HMRC tax evasion scandal.
The length of scandals, verdicts and ongoing legal cases in the shadow banking sector can – due to its volume – only appear in summary. What is worse is the political and legal response.
Key whistleblowers – who often have risked their lives and reputations in coming forward – have faced threats and imprisonment. The big money cartel who finance the Tories have seen their power increase with the recent general election. George Osborne, who previously boasted of ways to avoid paying tax on live TV, owns 15 per cent of furnishings firm Osborne & Little – which has paid no corporation tax for seven years despite six-figure profits.
The big money and tax evasion, of course, remains offshore. The Tax Justice Network’s Financial Secrecy Index for 2015 named the UK’s crown dependencies and oversea territories (Cayman to Bermuda to Jersey to the British Virgin Islands (BVI)) as the worst tax offenders in the world.
The Al Yamamah UK-Saudi arms deal for instance, involved a £6bn payment through Poseidon Trading in the BVI, just one part of a deal described as the most corrupt trade deal in history.
We can feel overwhelmed with the scale of intricate corporate evasion. Or we can support the political movements that seek, little by little, to pull back the wealth of humanity back into the global commons.
The new leadership of the Labour Party joins the Greens in taking these issues seriously. The SNP, by banning the ownership of Scottish lands in tax havens, can itself score a victory for transparency and a just tax system. All tax evaded leaves the people cheated.