Crackdown on overseas tax evasion
This week in the Commons I spoke in favour of corporate transparency in our Overseas Territories such as Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands. As I wrote in February, tax havens facilitate corruption and serious crime, especially harming the world’s poor.
David Cameron insisted on public registers of beneficial ownership of companies in the UK, so we can see who the ultimate owners are. The EU and other countries are doing the same thing. The Commons agreed without a vote that our Overseas Territories should follow suit by the end of next year.
In my speech I addressed two principal concerns about the step. First, there has been great concern about the economic impact, particularly for instance in the hurricane-stricken British Virgin Islands.
I argued that, while the potential impact could not be a reason to avoid action, there is now a strong responsibility on Parliament to ensure that there is no damage to the economies of the Overseas Territories as a result.
The second major concern was a constitutional one: is it right for the UK Parliament to dictate to the Overseas Territories, which have their own elected representatives, what they should do? This has been done only twice before, to require the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the abolition of capital punishment.
I repeated my argument that if the harm being done is so great that it can no longer be ignored, there is a justification to act, and there clearly is a power to do so.
After all, the issue of money laundering and corruption is not just a domestic matter for the Overseas Territories: it has a massive global impact. This is why the Commons felt it was so important, and justifiable, to act.
I would have preferred a last-minute proposed Government compromise that would only have forced action by the Overseas Territories as a last resort, but regrettably the Speaker did not permit this to be debated.
And, as the Minister conceded, the majority view of MPs was that the Overseas Territories have public registers ahead of these becoming the international standard, not when they do.
Clearly we want to avoid the displacement of ‘dirty money' to other jurisdictions, including in the US. So there must be global measures for transparency. The UK now has the moral high ground to drive such action.