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Offshore Financial Centres

Volume 514: debated on Wednesday 21 July 2010

As international organisations and major Governments seek to understand the cause of the global financial crisis, small international financial centres have repeatedly endured political attacks and misguided criticisms—from pejorative sniping about their being tax havens and offshore centres for avaricious bankers, to allegations that they provide secrecy jurisdictions for shady figures in the international business community. Those criticisms suggest that they are partly to blame for the shortcomings in the financial markets. The debate about the role of small IFCs has, to date, been remarkably one-sided, which is unfortunate as it demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding about their function and the benefits that they provide to the wider global economy.

Before the United Kingdom and our global partners look to develop further rigorous international standards on financial regulation, it is critical that politicians and policy makers should formulate and implement policy in an informed, consistent and balanced manner and vital that we should now take a dispassionate view of the offshore IFCs and look sensibly at the significant benefits that they can offer, both to our nation and the broader global financial system.

The UK has an almost unique position in the debate about IFCs. We have a constitutional relationship, through our Crown dependencies and overseas territories, with half of the top 30 offshore financial centres. With the Chinese Government successfully lobbying the G20 last month for both Macao and Hong Kong to be excluded from any OECD grey list on matters of tax transparency, it looks increasingly likely that the standards and regulations currently being formulated may be imposed in some jurisdictions yet overlooked in others. Not only is that incompatible with the need to find a global response to the formation of new financial regulation, but it risks undermining the UK’s financial sector and the wider British economy, which is a major recipient of investment capital raised through small IFCs.

Some small international financial centres, such as Jersey and Guernsey, are used by the global financial community for various reasons, including political stability and a favourable economic outlook; familiar legal systems, often based on English common law; a very high quality of service providers; the ability to meet important investor requirements, such as a legal infrastructure to sell shares; a lack of foreign exchange controls that remove restrictions on the payment of interest of dividends; tax neutrality—not to be confused with tax evasion—which enables investors from multiple jurisdictions to ensure they do not meet multiple layers of taxation as funds pass through the global financial system; and legal neutrality, which ensures that no nationality is given special treatment.

For those reasons there has been a mutually beneficial relationship between the City of London, in my constituency, and many Crown dependencies and overseas territories. That is demonstrated not only by the massive capital flows between the two, aiding market liquidity and investment in the UK, but by the legal and constitutional similarities and the transfer of skilled professionals.

To give some idea of the scale of the capital flows, I should say that UK banks had net financing from Guernsey alone—one of the 30 top centres—of $74.1 billion at the end of June 2009. Unfortunately, because the public debate is largely myopic in respect of IFCs, these benefits are often overlooked or conveniently ignored, in part as a result of small IFCs’ relatively low profile and partly because of a lack of seats on intergovernmental bodies that design global financial regulation.

There now needs to be a much greater understanding of the role and proven benefits provided by small international financial centres as part of the City of London’s transaction chain. I therefore seek to dispel some of the popular myths that surround such centres. The first myth is that IFCs have a negative impact on growth in the global economy. In reality, many of the smallest IFCs are able to provide a stable, well regulated and neutral jurisdiction through which to facilitate international and cross-border business. Investment channelled into small IFCs will in turn provide much-needed liquidity, further investment opportunities, genuine competitiveness and access to capital markets for businesses and investors in both the major developed world and, increasingly, in countries with vast emerging markets.

The recent Treasury review of this area, undertaken by Michael Foot—not that one, Mr Caton—concluded:

“The Crown Dependencies make a significant contribution to the liquidity of the UK market. Together they provided net financing to UK banks of $332.5 billion in the second quarter of 2009.”

Those funds are largely accounted for by the up-streaming of deposits collected by UK banks to their UK head offices, including the nationalised or part-nationalised Lloyds Banking Group and Royal Bank of Scotland, as well as Barclays, HSBC, Santander and a number of building societies.

In addition to aiding capital flows, a report by the university of Michigan’s Professor James Hines on the relation between IFCs and the world economy reveals that expanding investment opportunities through offshore centres leads to increased domestic investment and employment, creating jobs both at the financial centre and in the domestic economies.

Small IFCs play an important role in helping to allocate capital efficiently. To this end, they act as important financial intermediaries, matching the capital provided by savers in one country with the investment needs of borrowers in another. Although that has, understandably, led to concerns about “round tripping”, in which capital is recycled through an offshore centre to give it the appearance of foreign investment and attract a more favourable tax regime, the experience of China and India throws those concerns into doubt, because both of those countries have removed tax breaks for foreign investment during the past decade and both have seen internal and inward investment continue to soar. As a major net recipient of capital flows from small IFCs, our firms in the City might suffer if they found it more difficult to access capital via the international markets.

A second myth is that small IFCs played a part in causing the global financial crisis over the past three years. Although it is convenient to blame offshore centres for causing the crisis, even those who work in the financial markets do not accept that small IFCs were a major cause. Last year, the Treasury Committee found that Guernsey did not contribute at all to global financial contagion. Indeed, it could be argued that the liquidity provided by the small IFCs was significantly positive for the UK during the crisis.

The third myth is that IFCs engage in harmful tax practices. The Foot review suggested that the potential for tax leakage from so-called full tax jurisdictions, such as the UK, towards low-tax or zero-tax regimes, is relatively limited. Although the TUC has argued that the tax gap created in UK Government tax receipts as a result of offshore centres is some £25 billion, the Deloitte report commissioned by the Treasury at the time of the Foot report showed that only £2 billion is potentially lost in tax leakage per annum. Foot also concluded that the real figure might even be lower than that.

Concerns about the UK’s tax base being stripped by unfair competition have also been overstated. It is clear that the debate about tax competition needs to be properly redefined and any further policy initiatives need to protect the important principle of tax sovereignty, as well as adequately recognising the impact of tax regimes on the productive sector. The OECD has clearly warned about the detrimental effects of high corporate tax on productivity. In that regard, I welcome the moves to reduce corporation tax and peg capital gains tax. The recent attacks on the zero-10 tax regimes reveal a worrying trend, in which the sovereignty of independent states to set their own tax rates is undermined and high-tax countries seek to export their high tax rates around the world.

Economic models vary country by country. The adoption of a tax regime premised on the principles of lower tax burdens, efficient government and dynamic private sector activity is legitimate and some degree of tax competition should therefore be recognised as positive. Regardless of that, small IFCs have shown a willingness to engage with the concerns raised by their tax regime—for example, Guernsey and Jersey are voluntarily undertaking a corporate tax review to act within the spirit of the EU tax code.

A fourth myth suggests that small IFCs have a negative impact on transparency, regulation and information exchange. With the G20 placing tax transparency at the top of its agenda, understandably, small IFCs are actively participating in the expansion of the Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information. Indeed, an International Monetary Fund review of Jersey’s regulatory standards in September last year concluded that it was in the top division of financial centres, and gave it the highest ranking ever achieved by a financial centre in respect of compliance with IMF recommendations.

My hon. Friend makes an important point about tax transparency, and he also mentions capital flows. Does he accept that offshore centres such as the British Virgin Islands, which are on the OECD’s white list and peer review group, have set the trend in many ways on transparency? The Government should recognise that, and that such centres help rather than hinder the UK’s economy.

I agree, and that is greatly to the credit of the British Virgin Islands and other overseas dependencies, as well as some of the Crown dependencies to which I have referred. They have played an important role and led the way in the transparency agenda.

One of the great myths to have grown up is that small offshore centres do not benefit developing countries. Small IFCs have been accused of supporting capital flight out of developing countries, but the Commonwealth secretariat is publishing a new report this month to illustrate the importance of the role played by IFCs in helping developing countries, by enabling them to rent financial expertise from other countries while they develop their own financial centres. Crucially, they also offer investors greater protection of their property rights against domestic political uncertainty.

It is no exaggeration to say that without smaller offshore financial centres many developing countries would not secure key funding for project finance, which makes a substantial improvement to the lives of some of the most vulnerable global citizens. Furthermore, the financial action task force gives many IFCs a positive assessment in meeting its 49 rigorous recommendations on anti-money laundering and terrorism finance. Centres such as the Channel Islands perform better in fighting financial crime compared even with bigger countries such as France, Italy, the US or—dare I say it?— the United Kingdom.

Finally, the UK’s Crown dependencies are often accused of being fiscally unsustainable. Again, nothing could be further from the truth. The debate within the UK Government has, naturally, been framed by events surrounding the collapse of Iceland’s banking system. When the Icelandic banks imploded in September 2008, it quickly became apparent that the contagion would spread to British savers and ultimately to British taxpayers. Furthermore, the role of the Isle of Man as a core financial intermediary between British savers and Icelandic borrowers illustrated the UK’s exposure to offshore centres.

However, the subsequent Treasury review went some way towards allaying the two main concerns. In particular, the worries over the fiscal sustainability of UK Crown dependencies proved to be massively overstated. Throughout the years, IFCs such as Gibraltar, the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey, have amassed large budget surpluses while actively diversifying their tax base, as Foot recommended. Indeed, the Foot report commented on the fact that none of Britain’s Crown dependencies has taken on significant levels of borrowing.

It is important that the G20 summit in Korea later this year is made aware of the beneficial role that small IFCs play in the global economy. Above all, we must stand up to misinformed or narrow views of the valuable contributions that small IFCs can offer to the world economy in terms of liquidity, efficiency, investment and economic growth. Let us make no mistake: ensuring that the voices of small IFCs are heard in Korea is very much in our national interest. If we look at the example of Jersey and its positive effect on the wider UK economy, we see that the island provides a conduit through which mobile capital from around the world can be aggregated and invested, primarily here in London.

My hon. Friend’s speech is very welcome. People from overseas territories and Crown dependencies will thank him for raising these important matters. Does he agree that one issue that is always ignored, and which is linked to what he is saying, is that we, unlike other countries with overseas territories and dependencies, do not allow the Governments or people of those territories any say in this place? They have no way of being represented or of speaking up for themselves. They depend on Members of Parliament to raise issues. Does he also believe that, as with other countries with overseas territories and dependencies, there should be some way for those people to be able to speak and to raise their concerns here, in the Parliament that makes laws on their behalf?

I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend’s view. This debate is an example of the way in which we are to do that. If he is suggesting that we have a constituency, similar to the French system, that takes in Gibraltar, Jersey and Guernsey, I am sure that he would be only too happy to be a Member. Most people in Gibraltar already believe that my hon. Friend is the Member who looks after their interests. He makes a serious point, and the tremendous contribution that our Crown dependencies and overseas territories make to this country should not be understated. I hope that this debate plays a small part in addressing some of the myths that have arisen.

I want to speak about Jersey, which is a significant provider of administrative and legal services to international businesses that are active in the City of London and help to make it a more attractive place to do business. For example, Vallar plc successfully raised more than £700 million in an initial public offering in London earlier this month, and used a Jersey structure. That showed the respect that investors, professional advisers and companies have for Jersey as a jurisdiction. It also provides banking services to a large number of UK expatriates who are unable to access the UK banking system because they do not have a UK address.

The Crown dependencies also provide an important platform from which to learn about and access the British economy. For example, the Isle of Man acts as the No. 1 jurisdiction for the incorporation of Indian businesses listed in London, and has been identified by a Chinese Government economic unit as an important link in China’s “going out” strategy in relation to Chinese businesses setting up in the EU.

The Isle of Man plays an important and symbiotic role in London’s shipping and insurance markets, inter alia by having such a successful white list ship registry, as well as its fast-growing aircraft registry. Similarly, with satellite, space and film business, the Isle of Man brings into a British sphere of influence important strategic global businesses that might otherwise be drawn to a competitor such as Singapore, Hong Kong or the US. The Crown dependencies are keen to continue acting on this hub-and-spoke basis with the UK and adding value to Britain’s international offering in a proper and transparent way.

Small IFCs desire fair recognition for their high regulatory and supervisory standards and therefore wish to make policy makers from all G20 member countries aware of their true operation, as well as allowing them an effective voice at the table. In that regard, it would be helpful if the Minister gave an indication of what measures the Government can take to ensure that the G20 process is more inclusive, and that policy prescriptions that aim to restore financial stability strike the right balance between the onshore and offshore financial communities and recognise the mutual interests that exist between the two. It would also be helpful to have an update on progress in meeting the Foot recommendations and information on the progress being made through EU and OECD efforts to assist the overseas territories in meeting their own international requirements.

In conclusion, too few people who now seek to impose rigorous regulation on offshore jurisdictions truly understand how those jurisdictions operate. They fail to understand their positive rankings of compliance with major regulatory standards or their beneficial role in promoting investment and growth in the widest elements of the global economy.

It is inevitable that Governments will attempt to prevent further financial crises from occurring—and so they should—and I fear that that will result in the development of global standards that may have an unintended impact on all jurisdictions. It is critical that politicians and policy makers should not depart from the need to formulate and implement policy in an informed, consistent and balanced way. When it comes to our naked self-interest, it would be foolish at this juncture if the UK ignored the proven benefits provided by small international financial centres as part of the City of London’s world-class operations.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field) on securing the debate and talking very clearly about the challenges and benefits that arise from offshore financial centres. He is right to highlight the UK’s particular interest in this area. Crown dependencies and offshore territories that have a link with the UK form half the top 30 offshore financial centres, so we have an interest.

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the important link in retail financial services with the Crown dependencies. A number of hon. Members will have had correspondence from constituents or former constituents about the impact of the Icelandic banking crisis on them, because they had deposits in the Isle of Man with Kaupthing Singer & Friedlander (Isle of Man) or in Guernsey with Landsbanki Guernsey. We have an interest on that level because those places are used as centres for banking by expatriates and a number of people who want to place their money offshore.

It is also right to identify the significant links between these offshore financial centres and the City of London. My hon. Friend highlighted their importance as a mechanism for providing funding for the UK financial services sector: people place their money on deposit in offshore financial centres and then deals flow through to London. I was struck by the fact that in quarter 2 of 2009, as mentioned in the Foot review, $332 billion of funding was provided to the City of London from those centres. That shows their importance.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) is no longer in his place, as I am about to refer to the British Virgin Islands, which he mentioned in an intervention, saying that the BVI are on the OECD white list. We welcome the fact that offshore financial centres are keen to take steps to appear on that list and we would encourage more to do so.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) asked about representation in this place for Crown dependencies and overseas territories. Under the present Government, the imperial days of the Treasury are long gone. It is very much for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Justice to take responsibility in that regard, and I am sure that since the election my hon. Friend has not been slow in making his views known to Ministers in those Departments, either.

The financial crisis highlighted the need to protect our public finances. The Government have taken steps to deal with the fiscal deficit that we inherited, and we will follow that up with the comprehensive spending review in the autumn. However, that increased vigilance must run through everything that the Government do, and part of that involves pressing for high international standards that protect against the risks posed by jurisdictions that fail effectively to impose prudential regulation, tax transparency, anti-money laundering measures and standards on countering the financing of terrorism. At last year’s G20 summit in London, leaders called on all jurisdictions to adhere to international standards in those areas. They called on the appropriate international bodies to strengthen peer review to assess jurisdictions’ compliance with the standards and to consider possible counter-measures for those that fail to comply. It is important that the international standards are applied without discrimination, allowing all jurisdictions that meet them to compete freely in international markets.

Michael Foot was asked by the previous Government to conduct an independent review of British offshore financial centres, and he reported his conclusions last October. The aim of the review was to deal with concerns about the risks caused by the financial crisis to the Crown dependencies and overseas territories and, by association, to the UK. The report provided a health check of the economic sustainability and viability of the financial services sectors in the Crown dependencies and overseas territories. The message from the report was clear: offshore financial centres must meet international standards if they want to maintain active and trusted financial sectors. The challenge for offshore financial centres was to take greater responsibility for their economic future, demonstrating that they are capable of responding to financial stability risks, while strengthening their long-term commitment to meeting globally recognised standards—issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster.

Michael Foot’s report set out a series of steps that jurisdictions must take to ensure that they are inside the scope of international regulation and that they secure their long-term sustainability. To demonstrate their performance against international standards, British offshore financial centres were invited periodically to publish the details of their progress, setting out the international standards that they have met, covering tax transparency, prudential regulation and preventing financial crime, and the standards that they have not met, with details of how they intend to meet them in the future and how soon they expect to do so. We are talking about the setting out of clear benchmarks about what the territories should do and how far they are going in achieving those standards. That sends a clear signal that both we and the wider global community are interested in what they are doing. The more transparency there is about how much progress the territories are making towards those goals, the greater the acceptance will be of their activities in the wider global community.

I am also keen to ensure that the point is made robustly about capital flows. We have had a credit crunch quite recently and we may be facing another one with all the sovereign default concerns in Europe. The free movement and liquidity provided by IFCs is key. That case needs to be made robustly at a time when others are dismissive of offshore financial centres.

Indeed. My hon. Friend makes an important point. Adherence to the standards makes the case that offshore financial centres should be part of the global network of financial centres and that they are valued. It is also important to ensure that when people talk about offshore financial centres, the debate is proportionate and evidence based. That is the best basis for debate in the UK, EU and G20. My hon. Friend made important points in that respect in his remarks.

The Foot review recommended that Crown dependencies and overseas territories should have to meet key international standards on tax information exchange, financial regulation, countering the financing of terrorism and anti-money laundering. The review strongly recommended that British Crown dependencies and overseas territories need to diversify their tax bases in a way that helps to secure their long-term economic sustainability. My hon. Friend made the argument that a number of territories had already done that and had withstood the financial crisis.

My hon. Friend the Minister talks about long-term stability. Does he agree that any attempt to undermine the ability of Crown dependencies and overseas territories to be self-sufficient and to look after their own affairs would in the end rebound on the British Government, with the possibility that we would have to finance some of those territories, so it is vital that policies from here, from Brussels or from anywhere else do not undermine the ability of our territories to be self-sufficient for the long term?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, but what he refers to must be done within the context of adhering to the highest possible international standards. We need to ensure that that international framework exists and that the territories comply with it; otherwise they are open to attack by other nations. Yes, it is important that the territories are economically sustainable and are not dependent on the UK, but at the same time they must meet those international standards, and a number of territories have made quite significant progress towards that goal.

With regard to the sustainability of overseas territories, they were encouraged to improve the management of their public finances to ensure that they were well equipped to withstand unexpected economic and financial shocks without external fiscal assistance. We need to recognise the progress that has been made to comply with the standards. I understand that 28 jurisdictions—almost exclusively tax havens and offshore financial centres—have moved into the category of jurisdictions that have substantially implemented international standards on tax transparency. That shows that overseas territories are taking the measures seriously, and we encourage them to continue to do so. Over the next three years, 100 jurisdictions will be peer reviewed, which will be an important part of the process to give confidence in how the standards are being implemented.

I recognise the importance of the role that offshore financial centres can play. They are an important contributor to the City of London. They provide services to UK citizens, whether at home or abroad. However, it is vital that they comply with the highest international standards on tax transparency and dealing with terrorism financing and money laundering. Adhering to those standards would be the best safeguard for their future prosperity.

Sitting suspended.