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Brown targets Switzerland in global tax haven crackdown
Tough controls on offshore regimes as avoidance costs taxpayers billions
A worldwide crackdown on tax havens, from Switzerland to the Cayman Islands, will be spearheaded by Gordon Brown as the world’s richest nations use the global economic downturn to close loopholes that are costing them hundreds of billions in lost revenues.
As he embarks on a mini-tour of EU capitals in advance of the G20 summit in London in April, the prime minister announced yesterday that he was negotiating with fellow world leaders the terms of a tough regulatory system on tax and banking that will cover every country.
Speaking at his monthly press conference in Downing Street, Brown said: “We want the whole of the world to take action. That will mean action against regulatory and tax havens in parts of the world which have escaped the regulatory attention they need. The changes we make will have to apply to all jurisdictions around the world.”
The global crackdown envisaged by Brown follows the Guardian’s special series, the Tax Gap, which highlighted the ways a range of Britain’s biggest companies have employed secretive tax arrangements to reduce their liability. HM Revenue & Customs estimates that the size of the tax gap, which has seen companies shift ownership of brands to offshore tax havens, could be anything between £3.7bn and £13bn.
The prime minister, who will meet the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, today in Rome before a mini-summit of the four EU leaders in the G20 in Berlin on Sunday, declined to be drawn on the specifics of his plan. But the Guardian understands that he is taking a particular interest in Switzerland, while Barack Obama singled out the Cayman Islands during the US presidential election campaign.
The other members of the G7 – plus the 13 other slightly less affluent members who make up the G20 – lose similar amounts. This means that the world’s main industrialised countries could be losing in excess of £100bn in tax revenues a year.
The prime minister believes that significant progress will be made at the G20 summit, which he will chair, because world leaders have recognised that the downturn provides a strong opportunity to crack down on tax havens.
“I am more confident now, having talked to world leaders, that we are in a position to take further action on this matter,” he said yesterday.
Brown’s plan will have three key elements:
• Clamping down on individuals who avoid tax. It is in this area that he is focusing his attention on Switzerland.
One senior British figure said that a lengthy EU campaign to rein in savers who attempt to avoid tax had eventually identified a trail leading to Switzerland. The source said: “If you take the EU we had this long campaign to stop tax avoidance on savings. Basically you had Germans putting their money into Luxembourg or Austria to prevent them being taxed in Germany. So the EU decided to clamp down on it. But actually people went to Switzerland and to Lichtenstein. So unless you can start dealing with the tax havens themselves then there’s always a route which people can take. So we are trying to get international agreement.”
• Focusing on corporations that use tax havens. Barack Obama made clear during the US election campaign that the Cayman Islands is used by US corporations to avoid tax.
Obama memorably said: “There’s a building in the Cayman Islands that houses supposedly 12,000 US-based corporations. That’s either the biggest building in the world or the biggest tax scam in the world, and we know which one it is.”
But Britain and other leading countries are expected to proceed cautiously in any attempt to restrict the financial manoevring of corporations.
Sources say it is important that everyone pays their fair share of tax but no country will want to damage the economic competitiveness of major companies.
• Tightening the regulation of markets. Britain believes that billions of pounds in transactions take place between banks, such as credit default swaps, with no reporting mechanism, let alone regulation.