This week saw the release of The Panama Papers, leaked legal documents obtained by an anonymous hacker that link several high-profile individuals (including presidents, prime ministers and other officials) to aggressive tax avoidance of a massive scale. Of particular interest: the fact that David Cameron’s late father is named within these documents as having run a shell company used to hide his wealth and avoid having to pay tax on it in the UK.
Ian Cameron set up a company in Panama, Blairmore Holdings, which was used to avoid paying tax in the UK for some 30 years. One year before his son became Prime Minister, this company was “moved” to Dublin. The Prime Minister’s instinctive response to being linked to this scandal was to release a statement which said his family’s tax arrangements were “a private matter”. Of course, nobody accepted this because, obviously, it isn’t a private matter. It’s very public. A day later Cameron Jr insisted that he had “no shares, no offshore trusts, no offshore funds, nothing like that. And, so that, I think, is a very clear description”. Only, it isn’t. It isn’t clear at all. It’s at best very, very defensive. His office is, as of today, still issuing statements, of increasingly cryptic and creative wording, that read along the same lines. The latest statement insists that neither Cameron, his family, his wife or wife’s family (also implicated) will benefit from any financial arrangements linked to overseas companies in the future. The heavy implication here is that they have been benefitting until now.
So what does this all mean? Well essentially it means that for 30 years David Cameron’s father did not contribute fairly to the running of this country. His tax arrangements mean he didn’t pay his fair share for decades. Moving the company to the much more acceptable (but no less tax-dodging) location in Ireland a year before Cameron’s election as PM can only be seen as damage limitation. It means that Cameron’s father has made sure the Prime Minister is directly linked to this scandal by using his company to dodge tax for such a long time. Where did the money come from to pay Cameron’s Eton fees? What of the money Cameron inherited when his father passed away? All wealth made, or at least maintained, through immoral tax dodging.
This also means that, by not contributing their fair share, people like Ian Cameron are complicit in bringing about the financial hardship our country is currently in. The UK is undergoing a devastating period of austerity that is crushing local communities. Libraries are closing, hospitals too. Disabled people are seeing brutal cuts to the support they get. Our NHS is on its knees thanks to government underfunding and the imposition of a new and dangerously irresponsible junior doctor contract. Cost cutting means more people than ever are using food banks, working people with jobs that pay too little because wages are being crushed. Public services are under attack from our own government and the country’s manufacturing heart is being torn out and sold on to private interests. One wonders if all this would be necessary at all if the rich, those able to afford to hide their wealth abroad like this, had just paid their way all along.
And still people are calling for Cameron to tighten these tax loopholes and fix our tax laws once and for all, putting a stop to this kind of abuse. It may not be illegal, but that’s because the laws on this are written by the very people exploiting the loopholes to avoid paying their fair share of tax. “We’re all in this together” we are told, but it’s clearer than ever that this is simply not the case. In fact, “one rule for them and another for everyone else” seems a more fitting catchall. Ordinary people can’t afford to fix their tax arrangements in this way. The likes of you and I wouldn’t know where to begin setting up a company to hide our wealth off-shore. We haven’t got enough wealth to do this, even if we knew how! But we’re expected to look the other way when those who can, do.
Communities are directly suffering because of this kind of financial creativity from the likes of Cameron’s father and others in positions of power and influence. We are constantly told that tax avoidance is immoral, even if it isn’t illegal. Cameron has been very vocal on this topic many times. Some may say he was building to a legacy of being the one to be tough on tax avoidance. And now here he is, up to his neck in his own family’s dodgy dealings. Asking Cameron to fix the mess he’s so deeply wrapped up in is like asking the Hatton Garden robbers to redesign and fit the Hatton Garden Safety Deposit Box company’s new alarm system – he simply cannot be trusted!
Austerity has, in my opinion, always been an ideological choice by the Conservatives. But the news that – even if it wasn’t a choice, even if it is absolutely necessary – the architects of austerity are directly responsible, at least in part, for the problems it is meant to be fixing is sickening. By dodging tax using offshore companies – literally hiding their wealth overseas – they have contributed hugely to the financial trouble we find the country in, and it’s the poorest and most-vulnerable in society that are suffering for it. All in this together, my arse. It’s a terrible thing.
It’s a terrible thing also that the person who hacked the systems of Mossack Fonseca is seen, in the eyes of the law, as more of a criminal than the people named in the documents they obtained. Indeed, the people named – despite withholding their contributions to schools, hospitals, public services, etc. for almost fifty years – are not breaking any laws. What kind of twisted reality are we living in when the rich and powerful can get away with hiding their money overseas to avoid being an active citizen? What kind of world then elects these greedy, immoral people into positions of power, allowing them the chance to be the architect to a whole new set of tax laws, unquestionably shot through with even more loopholes that only the richest can afford to exploit?
This story is an ongoing one; there will be more to say about in the weeks to come, I have no doubt. But for now I’ll leave you with a link that shows that George Osborne, when asked earlier about whether he has benefited from the kind of arrangements revealed in the Panama Papers, initially brushed the question off with a stock line about his government’s record on tax evasion. When pressed repeatedly Osborne shut the interview down and walked away. Something to hide, Gideon? Could it be that Osborne’s “long-term economic plan” is actually a plan to hide his own wealth offshore?
I’ll be keeping an eye on this story as it unfolds…