Analysis: Miliband tactics an election ploy

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  • Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party in the UK

    Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party in the UK

The facts would suggest that UK Opposition leader Ed Miliband’s threat to “blacklist” Bermuda appears to be designed more to win votes in the General Election in May than as a serious policy proposal.

Among the multiple ironies surrounding his proposal is that Bermuda and Britain share the same rating on tax transparency from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — the very body that Mr Miliband would ask to blacklist the Island.

The ratings are available to all on the OECD’s website and they show that Bermuda — like the United States and Germany, as well as the UK — has been found to be “largely compliant” with international standards of tax transparency after a thorough assessment, including peer reviews.

Bermuda’s high rating owes much to its network of tax information exchange agreements (TIEAs) with some 39 jurisdictions, including the UK. This already allows the UK Government to request and obtain information relevant to taxation matters on its own citizens with interests in Bermuda.

And Bermuda really is able to help — the authorities on the Island have been collecting information on beneficial ownership for more than 70 years — unlike the UK, for example.

Bermuda has in fact gone farther than that in relations with the UK, having agreed to automatic exchange of tax-related information. The reality behind the grandly titled UK FATCA Intergovernmental Model 2 Agreement is that “all Bermuda’s financial institutions must identify all UK residents with interests in Bermuda and automatically report them to Her Majesty’s Treasury on an annual basis”.

Another irony is the issue of who else the UK would have to blacklist under Mr Miliband, if Labour’s policy was applied fairly, meaning it demanded the same standards of other countries as it would of its own territories.

The US and Canada, for example, have no public register of beneficial interests, along with most leading economies in the world.

In choosing to create its own public register of beneficial ownership, Britain has effectively chosen to go it alone.

The move goes a step farther than what the leaders of the world’s most powerful economies agreed in the G8’s set of principles on beneficial ownership transparency in June 2013.

These stated that ownership information should be maintained by companies and made available to law enforcement and other competent authorities when requested. The same applies to trust information.

Shortly after that meeting, the UK began the process to establish a central register of such information — the information that authorities in Bermuda have been collecting for more than seven decades. The UK’s encouragement of its overseas territories to do the same thing and make it public predictably met with resistance. Losing business is seen as an inevitable consequence of adopting a measure that goes far beyond international standards for transparency.

Then there is a question mark over what Mr Miliband’s policy would actually gain. The largest-scale tax avoidance is undertaken by corporate giants such as Microsoft, Pfizer and Google, who use subsidiaries in low-tax jurisdictions, such as Bermuda, to trim their tax bills in the countries where they do most business, such as Britain. The major beneficial owners of such publicly listed companies are registered shareholders and are not difficult to find. If the Treasury believes it should be receiving more tax from them, it can change its own tax rules to make it so.

Britain’s own track record in transparency suggests that it should not be pointing the finger at others. This a country in which “bearer shares” allow people to completely hide their beneficial ownership in companies. The UK is planning to ban bearer shares in a new law expected to be passed in this spring.

The words of politicians often do not convey the reality of how the system works. This was nicely illustrated in a 2009 paper by Jason Sharman, a political scientist at Australia’s Griffith University. Working with a small budget, he set out to find where he could open secret bank accounts and anonymous shell companies.

In Bermuda, he was asked for personal ID information, including a notarised copy of his birth certificate. In Britain, as The Economist reported, “in 45 minutes on the internet he formed a company without providing identification, was issued with bearer shares (which have been almost universally outlawed because they confer completely anonymous ownership) as well as nominee directors and a secretary. All was achieved at a cost of $753”.

It seems that Britain itself has some catching up to do before it points the finger at others.

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Published Feb 9, 2015 at 8:00 am (Updated Feb 9, 2015 at 8:30 am)

Analysis: Miliband tactics an election ploy

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