Cameron treads water in ′Offshore Leaks′ | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 11.04.2013
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Cameron treads water in 'Offshore Leaks'

For the UK, many of the tax havens named in "Offshore Leaks" are sovereign territory. Will the only country capable of changing those laws actually do so, or will it wait for the trouble to blow over?

"How can [British Prime Minister] David Cameron keep a straight face calling for the G8 to make big business pay tax when we let the BVI use British law and British protection to suck in billions in dirty money?" asked Matthew Oakeshott, a Liberal Democrat politician and investment manager, shortly after the "Offshore Leaks" report was released.

In document after document in the report, the British Virgin Islands are named as an offshore tax haven.

Beyond those islands, however, are other British Overseas Territories: the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, the Turks and Caicos Islands. In the past they, too, have been labeled global tax havens.

And then there are the British islands closer to home that also share that label: the Channel Islands, including Jersey and Guernsey, and the Isle of Man.

All of which means that the British may continue an incremental approach to the tax haven debate somewhat different to that of their European neighbors.

On Wednesday (10.4.2013), French president François Hollande announced the creation of a special prosecutor position to hunt down cases of tax fraud, vowing to get rid of tax havens "in Europe and the world." Luxembourg almost simultaneously announced that it would give in to EU and American pressure and start providing details of its foreign clients' accounts to those clients' home governments. German politicians have proposed numerous means of punishing tax evaders and the companies that help them hide money from the taxman.

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On the Cayman Islands there are no taxes on profits, capital gains or income taxes

So where does Britain stand in the effort to squeeze tax havens and the people using them, when so many of the parties involved have been revealed to be UK residents?

A question of timing

"Generally the pattern, when it comes to Britain's tax havens - when something nasty has popped up - has been for the government to put its head down and hope it all blows over," said Nicholas Shaxson, author of "Treasure Islands: Uncovering the Damage of Offshore Banking and Tax Havens."

As a global financial hub, the square-mile City of London is peppered with institutions, according to Shaxson, that do quite well quietly shifting funds to or from places like the British Virgin Islands.

But in the wake of the leak of 2.5 million once-secret documents, the timing might be right for change that would be felt around the world. "There's been nothing close to this," Shaxson said about the reams of information made public. "This is unprecedented."

But for Robert Palmer, a researcher and spokesman at Global Witness, an international NGO based in London, it isn't necessarily a good thing to have to "rely on a very clever set of journalists."

An ornate facade of a branch of the National Westminster Bank in St Helier on Jersey, one of the British Channel Islands. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Banks on the Channel Islands benefit from the islands' status as crown dependencies

"In actual fact, the UK has the final say over what happens in [all] these places," he told DW. "It has responsibility for what goes on on these islands."

Beyond tax monies lost in the UK, Palmer views tax evasion via British offshore territories as hitting developing countries particularly hard.

Sea change?

British Prime Minister David Cameron has told domestic audiences that he plans to push heads of state at a G8 meeting in June to "shine a light" on secretive companies.

On Tuesday, the UK government agreed with Germany, France, Italy and Spain to develop and pilot an automatic information exchange. Britain's government sees the agreement as a step in creating a new standard in the international exchange of tax information.

"This is an important further step in the fight against tax evasion," said David Gauke, Exchequer secretary to the Treasury.

Gauke also added, "This builds on the agreements we have reached with the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey, and the discussions currently underway with the Overseas Territories."

But "Treasure Islands" author Shaxson doesn't foresee any sweeping moment when overseas tax havens will be wiped out.

"In the near term we will see a lot of rhetoric," Shaxson said. "But we will eventually see a sea change... in the global zeitgeist. There is not a magic bullet. We will see incremental change and I think this process has a long, long way to go."

Still, Shaxson adds, "There has been an awakening in the British public about these kinds of issues."

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