BY DAVID JESSOP — Imagine this:

You are the Premier of the Cayman Islands or the British Virgin Islands.  You have been trying your hardest to continue to develop your nation’s economy. With British support and encouragement over a long period, the nation’s financial services and tourism sectors have flourished. You and your predecessors have been hugely successful in achieving this and have within all relevant laws attracted investment, offshore funds and many tens of thousands of visitors.

Despite the small size of your country, your economy is performing well, you have a global name to protect, and your innately conservative fellow citizens are pleased that successive governments have largely run the country well. Some in other parties may disagree about the detail, but for the most part your country has an upward trajectory, a high per capita income, full employment and a quality of life unmatched in the rest of the region.

It is early on a Saturday morning and you wake up to hear that the news that the Leader of the Opposition in Britain – the country that, despite continuing differences with ministers and officials there, you feel closest to – has issued a diktat. His remarks, made for domestic political reasons in the run up to a general election, threaten to derail your economy and hand a significant part of its offshore business to nations that have opaque jurisdictions and have not signed up to an internationally agreed approach on those who hold trusts and funds offshore.

This in effect is what happened on February 5, when the Leader of Britain’s Labour Party, Ed Miliband, decided to launch a poorly informed attack on Britain’s overseas territories in the Caribbean and the UKs near-shore crown dependencies.

Miliband’s position on Britain’s Overseas Territories

In a statement, Mr Miliband said that he was serving notice that under a Labour government these small states will have six months to publish publicly accessible central registers of beneficial ownership of offshore funds and trusts if his party wins the UK’s general election on May 7.

If they fail to meet this deadline, he said that he will ‘withdraw the protection they get from international scrutiny, and ask the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to place them on its tax haven blacklist’.

He also said he was setting this out in a letter to heads of government in the Overseas Territories. One week on this has still to be received.

The problem with Ed Miliband’s statement

Apart from a seemingly neo-colonial approach to Caribbean overseas territories, almost all of which have advanced constitutions and are responsible for the management of their own economies and financial services regime, the Labour Party’s leader and his advisers appeared to have little grasp of the nature of what has already been agreed with the OECD.

He seemed also to fail to understand that all of the Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies have been working towards an international standard on transparency; a process that has been slow in making progress because some EU states have been reluctant to conform.

In fact, the Overseas Territories maintain complete records on ultimate beneficial ownership to an international standard set by the OECD. Moreover, the British authorities have the right to seek, through each of the Governments concerned, full details of ownership information, which presently is kept privately by regulated company incorporators that by law must and do provide details when legally requested by the authorities.

Even more surprising was Mr Miliband’s assertion that this is an issue that Britain can act in isolation on when most OECD nations do not have central registers and some nations including the US have more opaque regimes.

What was also particularly galling for Overseas Territories’ leaders is that since December 2014 they have been seeking a meeting with the Labour Party’s leadership to discuss the issue.

Mr Miliband’s remarks reflect a trend in politics in developed countries, while also hiding something far more fundamental that may make many nations increasingly hard to govern in future.

At one level, and beyond short term political opportunism, Mr Miliband’s remarks reflect a belief that the way people vote is now more about perception rather than the facts. The unfortunate consequence is that the reputation of the Overseas Territories is seen as easy game and that the collateral damage does not matter.  This is despite the fact that the offshore business in Britain’s Overseas Territories is legal, legitimate and supports employment and wealth creation in international financial centres like the City of London.

A darker truth

Mr Miliband’s decision to try to blame the overseas territories for Britain’s economic woes also obscures a darker truth. That is that most governments in the western world now recognise that economic globalisation and tax arbitrage mean that pan-global companies and seriously wealthy individuals, in comparison to ordinary citizens, have the ability to legally move their profit, income, tax and domicile, in the process paying little or no tax.

This means that if in future Governments cannot find ways to tax huge corporations in a single sovereign environment at standard corporate tax levels, they will be faced with either a diminishing budget for education, health care and all else that citizens have come to expect, or they will have to increase taxes for ordinary citizens on income, consumption, and property.

This presents a major but largely unspoken political and economic challenge.

As economic globalisation sees wealth increasingly accrue to smaller numbers of individuals, it carries with it the danger that governments and politicians in particular will come to be seen by voters in democracies as antipathetic to their needs. Put another way, cutting public expenditure or increasing taxes suggest that traditional voting patterns will break down and social instability may emerge.

Mr Miliband’s basic message implies that for the Overseas Territories it may be time to begin to question, albeit reluctantly, just how sustainable their long- term relationship with the UK will be.

But it also more broadly indicates that every Government needs to give much greater long term consideration as to how they intend to ensure that they do not see their tax base diminishing.

Ed Miliband threatens British Overseas territories over offshore funds

David Jessop

David Jessop is the Executive Director of the Caribbean Council. In a forty-year career, he has provided high level support and advice to industries, associations, governments and companies on investment, trade policy and political issues in the Caribbean, the UK and continental Europe

Category: BusinessPolitics
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2 comments

  • This kind of rhetoric is not new… It’s been floating around the UK for at least 5 years now.

  • THE HON. ED MILIBAND REPLACES IMAGINATION WITH CHEAP POLITICS: The British government maintains a strategy: First, it is true, that lacking imagination and needing political points, Miliband has sought to bring former colonial outposts, now Overseas Territories – which are regulated better than Britain – into controversy. Second, a less well-known or acknowledged strategy is that since Britain cannot decide whether it is in or how it will associate with Europe, constantly it throws the Overseas Territories to the European wolves; largely Germany and France…(Since no one could mistake Italy or Spain as being either regulated well or regulated at all). But let us read the teas leaves rather than drink the tea in which case, there is the larger point: The current crop of British leaders are near-do-wells, insular ‘island boys’, often suffering bouts of self-righteous dissonance masquerading as decision-making. Fussy and intemperate, they are given to boastful misappropriations of power, even as they preach post-modern liberal sensitivity. How else can someone whose country and party were responsible directly for the near destruction of the global economy through regulatory failure and outright corruption, now demonise small micro-states in which, because of one-sided rules they forced upon us, one needs nearly one’s tongue-print to open a bank account?
    uk_londonAdditionally, think on this: so lacking in imagination are these UK politicos, that amongst the Overseas Territories there are four of the “world’s largest” or “most used”…that is: Cayman is the world’s largest Funds centre (about $2 trillion); Bermuda is the world’s largest insurance centre, (about $2-3 trillion); BVI is the world’s most used, most significant company centre (they saved the global economy from 2007-2011) and Turks and Caicos has the world’s largest numbers of Hybrid Re-Insurance Companies and the largest percentage of Villa-Hotels as part of its gross room count, responsible for 54.7% of GDP; world highest smart phone penetration and enjoyed the highest growth rate in the world for 5 years from 2004-2009. The trouble is – and regrettably this is not gainsaid – these ‘territories” achieved these milestones not because of, but in spite of UK intransigence, obstruction and disdain. These “island boys” running Britain lack global perspectives, and fail to see that rather than going down the road to European gridlock and bureaucratic malaise, Britain with its 1000s years of institutional memory could have partnered with these “Four Horsemen of Prosperity” (Cayman, Bermuda, TCI & BVI), giving Britain a prominence it has not enjoyed since the Americans ordered them out of the Suez; reminding them that their power in the world was now a little above Belgium. Take BVI, 60% of all companies investing in China for the last 16 years have been BVI companies. Why else would BVI’s premier have a deeper, more substantive relationship with China’s leaders than most European nations? If Miliband was worthy to lead Britain he would have been a man with a larger spirit, who saw the world in such a manner, that he could see how the Overseas Territories would give a thoughtful imaginative British government “pre-text advantages” in the Global Financial System; permitting Britain to leverage its institutional history for the mutual benefit of all rather than their now Prufrockean ineffectualism.
    Last is the hypocrisy: in the last 50 years, thieves, dictators and slaughter-merchants from all over the world, walked into British banks and deposited trucks of filthy lucre. (My beloved Maggie Thatcher even budgeted money to bribe Saudi officials for the sake of arms sales). The Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown HIMSELF forced “light touch” regulations on the City of London that lead to the destruction of Northern Rock, RBS and the bankruptcy of Iceland. Moreover – and this is the coup d’ grace – either we have constitutions in these territories or not: If we do then Miliband’s statements are the ‘ne plus ultra’ of irresponsibility. If our constitutions permit Miliband’s dictatorial flourish, then they are not worth the paper they are written on and we live not in territories but on plantations.

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