Monday, April 4, 2016

Panama Papers: Mossack Fonseca leak prompts call for tax haven crackdown

The PM has been urged to crack down on offshore tax havens, after a huge data leak exposed efforts by international figures to hide assets abroad.

Eleven million documents were leaked from one of the world's most secretive companies, Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.

David Cameron

The firm says it has operated beyond reproach for 40 years and has never been charged with criminal wrong-doing.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell said "real action" on tax evasion was vital.

Although using offshore companies is not illegal, the disclosures have intensified calls for international reform of the way tax havens are able to operate amid claims of large-scale money laundering.
'Private matter'

The UK's tax authority, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), said information it had received on offshore companies was the subject of "intensive investigation".

The documents show 12 current or former heads of state and at least 60 people linked to current or former world leaders in the data.

Among them, the files show Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugson had an undeclared interest linked to his wife's wealth. They also reveal a suspected billion-dollar money laundering ring involving close associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The prime minister's late father Ian was among those named in relation to investments set up by Mossack Fonseca.

But Downing Street would not comment on the tax affairs of Mr Cameron's father, and said the issue of whether the Cameron family still had funds in offshore investments was a "private matter".

The leak also revealed some of the cash from the 1983 Brink's Mat robbery was laundered using a company set up by Mossack Fonseca.

Mr Cameron has been a vocal advocate of reform and legislation to force British companies to disclose who owns and benefits from their activities - which comes into force in June.

The prime minister's spokeswoman insisted the UK was "ahead of the pack" on tax transparency, had made this "front and centre" of the UK's G8 presidency, and had got 90 countries automatically to exchange information.

Mr Cameron faces pressure to secure progress at an international summit on tackling corruption, which he will chair in London in May, and where the use of offshore tax havens to escape scrutiny will be high on the agenda.

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who recently met the Panamanian vice president to discuss the issue, insisted "significant progress" was being made.

"It's always interesting when information like this leaks because it reminds people who are up to no good how fragile and how vulnerable they make themselves by indulging in this kind of activity," he told the BBC.

"This is a key agenda for the prime minister."
'Tax secrecy'

But Labour's Mr McDonnell said not enough had been achieved by the UK.

"[Mr] Cameron promised and has failed to end tax secrecy and crack down on 'morally unacceptable' offshore schemes," he said.

"Real action is now needed."

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron called for an independent investigation, claiming the UK government has "failed to act until forced to by a scandal" over tax havens.

He said: "Rather than waiting until more headlines force action, the government should now commission a full independent investigation into the way the Virgin Islands and others have acted, what the UK government knew, and why they have not used their legislative powers to impose the transparency rules they previously claimed to support."

Gerard Ryle, director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), said the documents covered day-to-day business at Mossack Fonseca over the past 40 years.

"I think the leak will prove to be probably the biggest blow the offshore world has ever taken because of the extent of the documents," he added.

And Jennie Granger, a spokeswoman for HMRC, said the organisation had received "a great deal of information on offshore companies, including in Panama, from a wide range of sources, which is currently the subject of intensive investigation".

She said the ICIJ had been asked to share all its data with HMRC.

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