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Is time running out for tax havens?

5 March 08 13:22 GMT
By Ray Furlong
BBC News, Vaduz

The bankers in their grey suits and silk shirts looked a bit bemused.

The annual press conference of LGT, the Liechtenstein bank at the centre of the tax evasion controversy, is usually a dull and dry affair.

But it wasn't this year. The room was packed.

And every question was about the scandal in which German intelligence purchased a data disc stolen from the bank, filled with details of Germans who allegedly tried to evade paying tax back home.

Fourteen other countries, including Britain, are conducting inquiries into their own citizens on the disc for tax evasion.

The head of the LGT, His Serene Highness Prince Max von und zu Liechtenstein, is a member of the principality's ruling family.

Speaking afterwards, when I pressed him on the £100m Britain expects to get back from UK taxpayers who used LGT to evade paying tax, he told me Liechtenstein was being treated unfairly - and that Britain, too, was a keen player on offshore finance markets.

"There is tax competition going on on a global basis. The British have positioned themselves very well in a number of areas - not only in their [dependent] territories, but also in the UK," he said.

The British government says it is keen to clamp down on people using other havens to hide their money.

But other critics also say Britain is being inconsistent, with tax havens such as Bermuda or the Cayman Islands operating from British dependent territories.

"Because of the number of places that the UK allows to operate as tax havens, our role in providing the secrecy spaces that these locations provide, which harbour crime, is greater than Liechtenstein's," says Richard Murphy, a campaigner on tax issues.

"We're the biggest tax haven operator in the world. They've been seen as useful. They've brought money into London, Switzerland and other financial centres, and for that reason, London has tolerated them."

EU tensions

Whatever Britain chooses to do, it will be in conjunction with other European Union countries.

The last time they took action, they produced something called the European Savings Tax Directive, which levies a withholding tax on anonymous bank accounts.

But a senior figure at those negotiations has told me that Gordon Brown, who was chancellor at the time, was instrumental in watering the directive down - something the Treasury denies.

A Treasury spokesman said: "Tax evaders should not be able to hide behind banking secrecy laws.

"We need clear pressure from [the EU council of finance ministers] Ecofin and the Commission on Liechtenstein to provide more information to make sure people are not acting illegally to evade their tax obligations.

"The EU Savings Directive has already led to a big increase in transparency and co-operation across borders to prevent tax evasion.

"The UK supports the Commission's proposals to bring forward the timing of the review into the Savings Directive."

Under pressure

But Vincent Cable, the Liberal Democrats' Treasury spokesman, is also sceptical about the government's record on tax havens. He is tabling a series of parliamentary questions this week on the Liechtenstein investigation.

"We need assurances that if criminal acts have been committed, the necessary action will be taken in terms of prosecution," he says.

"I certainly doubt the enthusiasm of the British authorities. There are difficulties. Paying informers has ethical difficulties.

"It's rumoured, and I've no basis whatever for knowing this, that there are some important figures in British society that have been named. And I sincerely hope that doesn't inhibit the UK government in prosecuting."

Offshore locations around the world are watching closely - and some are sniffing a genuine change of mood.

Robert Kirkby is technical director at Jersey Finance, which promotes the island as an international finance centre.

"In 20 years, I think actual tax havens that advocate secrecy etc will be extremely limited. There will probably be one or two, if any, left," he says.

"As the world becomes more sophisticated, things like transparency actually increase. So I do believe things will evolve rapidly from now, especially with things such as Liechtenstein which only serve to catalyse further action."

That's not a message they're happy with here in Vaduz, Liechtenstein's sleepy capital. Aside from some Japanese tourists ambling through the pedestrian zone, there is hardly anyone around.

Banking makes up 30% of the economy here, and Prince Max is defiant when I ask him whether Liechtenstein will have to back down and abandon banking secrecy.

"Liechtenstein has existed for hundreds of years and weathered many storms," he says. "We will survive this one too."

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