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Labour urges probe into 'frankly repulsive' offshore tax haven allegations

Published 04/04/2016

The Mossack Fonseca law firm in Panama City, which said to have had more than 11 million documents leaked on the financial dealings of the rich and famous (AP)
The Mossack Fonseca law firm in Panama City, which said to have had more than 11 million documents leaked on the financial dealings of the rich and famous (AP)
Vladimir Putin's spokesman denied allegations involving close associates and a money laundering ring

David Cameron has come under intense pressure to crack down on offshore tax havens after a massive data leak exposed the scale of efforts by the rich and powerful to hide assets.

The Prime Minister's late father was reported to be among figures - including six peers, three ex-Tory MPs and political party donors - named in relation to investments set up by Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.

Downing Street said it was a "private matter" whether the Cameron family still had funds in offshore investments and insisted the PM was in the vanguard of efforts to increase the transparency of tax arrangements.

More than 11 million documents were passed to German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung and shared by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) to 107 media organisations including The Guardian and BBC's Panorama.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell said the revelations were "repulsive" and demanded an investigation by HM Revenue and Customs.

The ICIJ named Conservative peer Baroness Sharples and former Tory minister Michael Mates as being included within the leaked documents.

The ICIJ raised Baroness Sharples' involvement with the Bahamas-based company Nunswell Investments Limited to make investments, although noted she did not deal with Mossack Fonseca directly when managing her company.

A law firm handling the affairs of Baroness Sharples told the ICIJ the company was registered in the UK in 2000 and now pays taxes to the British Government.

It added that the House of Lords "has been notified of Baroness Sharples' oversight in registering her interest as a director of Nunswell Investments Limited" and that she receives "no remuneration ... nor any income or capital from that company".

Mr Mates is said to have been linked with offshore companies used for real estate development in the Bahamas.

The former minister told the ICIJ he was asked by a friend to become chairman of Haylandale Limited, with his advice sought on issues including how to deal with the government of Antigua.

According to the ICIJ, Mr Mates said he had not and would not receive any remuneration "unless and until the development took place, nor were the shares of any value", as the company "never had any real value".

There is nothing illegal about using offshore companies but the disclosures have intensified calls for international reform of the way tax havens are able to operate and claims of large-scale money laundering.

Mr Cameron, who will chair an international anti-corruption summit in May, has been a vocal advocate of reform and legislation forcing British companies to disclose who owns and benefits from their activities comes into force in June.

Despite several years of pressure however, few UK Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories - said to make up a large part of the tax havens referred to in the papers - have taken concrete action to open up the books.

Asked if Mr Cameron was prepared to legislate if there was continued inaction, the PM's official spokeswoman said: "He rules nothing out. The work with them continues."

HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has approached the ICIJ for access to the data and said it would "act on it swiftly and appropriately" if there was any wrongdoing.

But the shadow chancellor said not enough had been achieved and claimed HMRC was being forced to "operate with their hands tied behind their backs" because of staffing cuts.

"The revelations in the Panama Papers are extremely serious and frankly repulsive. HMRC should treat this with the utmost priority and urgently launch an investigation," Mr McDonnell said.

Among the disclosures are:

:: A suspected two billion dollar (£1.4 billion) money laundering ring run by a Russian bank and said to involve close associates of President Vladimir Putin. T he Kremlin denied the president was connected to any wrongdoing and claimed he was the target of a smear operation

:: Mossack Fonseca set up a company suspected of being used to launder money from the 1983 Brink's-Mat bullion heist. A spokesman for the law firm told the ICIJ any allegations the firm helped shield the proceeds of the Brink's-Mat robbery "are entirely false"

:: Icelandic prime minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson reportedly had an undeclared interest in his country's bailed-out banks and is now facing calls for his resignation

:: In China the families of at least eight current and former members of the supreme ruling politburo had been found to have hidden wealth offshore, according to The Guardian

:: Some 23 individuals who had had sanctions imposed on them for supporting the regimes in North Korea, Zimbabwe, Russia, Iran and Syria were said to have been revealed to have been clients of Mossack Fonseca

Ian Cameron's use of the firm to help shield investments from UK tax as he built up a significant legacy, part of which was inherited by the Prime Minister, had been previously disclosed but further adds to the pressure on the PM.

There is no suggestion that this avoidance arrangement or others exposed by the leak were anything but entirely legal or that Mr Cameron's family did not pay the UK tax due on any repatriated assets.

Mossack Fonseca said it had operated "beyond reproach" for 40 years and had never been charged with criminal wrong-doing.

Further details about links between the Panama Papers and Westminster figures were reported by the Guardian.

A firm founded by Tory donor Tony Buckingham "urgently" moved its corporate registration from one tax haven to another, according to the leaked documents.

Mossack Fonseca was ordered to transfer the company registration from the Bahamas to Mauritius after Heritage was faced with a large tax bill in Uganda over the sale of an oil field, the Guardian reported.

A spokesman for Heritage Oil told the newspaper it was not able to respond in detail because it touches on issues still before the courts.

"Although only a subsidiary issue in Heritage Oil's ongoing litigation with the Ugandan government, it is a fact that the process of re-domiciling one of Heritage Oil's subsidiaries from the from Bahamas to Mauritius had begun long before the completion of the transaction that ultimately gave rise to the tax dispute with the Ugandan government. The process of re-domiciling was commenced for a variety of reasons."

The company said all the oil and gas licences owned by Heritage were held outside the UK and all its operations were carried out overseas. The firm also pays national insurance and other taxes.

JCB chairman and Conservative donor Lord Bamford closed down a company registered in the British Virgin Islands just months before he joined the House of Lords, according to the documents.

The Mossack Fonseca papers seen by the Guardian reveal that Lord Bamford had been the sole shareholder in a British Virgin Islands company called Casper Ltd since 1994. The company was dissolved in 2012 and the industrialist was granted a peerage in 2013.

A spokesman for Bamford said: "Casper Limited was dissolved in 2012 having been an inactive company for its entire existence. It never owned any assets, held a bank account, formed part of any corporate structure or ever engaged in any activity whatsoever."

Tory peer Lord Flight's asset management business Guinness Flight included a trust in Guernsey which used Mossack Fonseca companies to manage investments, the paper reported.

Lord Flight said: "I ceased to be a director of the Guernsey Trust Company in 1998 upon its acquisition by the Investec Group. Also, I have had no involvement with the Guernsey Trust Company for 18 years and know nothing of its business during this period.

"Guinness Flight Trustees was not involved in advising either individuals or companies on reducing their UK tax liabilities and, to the best of my belief, had no involvement in harbouring the proceeds of crime, facilitating tax evasion, sanctions evasion, money laundering or bribery and corruption.

"Disciplines were in place to check against such involvements."

Flight said he had continued as a director of Investec Asset Management, but was not involved in the trust company.

Former Banbury MP Sir Tony Baldry, who stood down in 2015, chaired a British Virgin Islands company called Westminster Oil, which appears in the Mossack Fonseca papers and had a subsidiary called Westminster Caspian.

"The BVI jurisdiction was chosen because the shareholders and directors came from a number of different countries, including the United Kingdom, the United States and Kazakhstan," Sir Tony told the Guardian.

"Given that the project was based in Kazakhstan, and given that the directors and shareholders came from the United States, the United Kingdom and Kazakhstan, whatever jurisdiction was chosen to register the company would inevitably have been 'offshore' to a number of the shareholders and directors."

Cobra beer founder and crossbench peer Lord Bilimoria appears as one of more than 100 shareholders in a Virgin Islands company called Mulberry Holdings Asset Limited.

He said that Mulberry was a dormant company formed "for my ex-shareholders in Cobra, many of whom are not resident in the UK".

Lord Bilimoria told the newspaper: "I am taxed in the UK on all my global income and all of my interests are declared to the relevant authorities."

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