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The Panama Papers and Tax Transparency: The new moral issue?

Monday, April 11, 2016

 

Apart from the assumption that some UK politicians, due to birth, title or earnings, were wealthier than others up until this week, with the Panama papers revelations, no-one actually knew.

It all started with a leak from the law firm Mossack Fonseca that several world leaders and prominent public figures had been or were currently using offshore accounts in Panama. One of them, and the highest casualty so far, was the Icelandic Prime Minister Gunnlaugsson who subsequently resigned; the other where UK politics is concerned was the Prime Minister’s late father, Ian Cameron.

Now this may have not turned into the political snowball it has if David Cameron by his own admission had 'handled this better'. Over a week, No.10 drip-fed information seeking to clarify the PM’s position over whether he had or had benefited from his father’s offshore holdings. Their first attempt, rather naively after six years in office, was to say it was a ‘private matter’ – did they really think the British media would stop there? It was then a series of statements until the PM admitted to ITV news that he had held shares in the offshore business until January 2010. Nothing illegal about that but the question of morality and transparency is now sweeping through Westminster.

In an unprecedented move, the PM has now published his tax returns for the last six years. Adding more fuel to the fire, it showed that his mother had gifted £200,000 when his father died (in addition to the £300,000 directly from his father) this has led to uproar, and a public protest outside No.10, that the Cameron family intentionally looked to circumvent inheritance tax. Again, it’s not illegal, just efficient tax planning according to some.

Whether they’re being pressured by the media or not, it would seem that opposition UK politicians; Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Nicola Sturgeon to name a few are now falling over themselves to publish their tax returns. Those in power are being pressured to say if they hold any offshore accounts, with Chancellor George Osborne being the latest to deny.

The debate is the line between privacy and transparency when you enter public office; and at what point you enter public office. Should it be when you become a MP? When you are in the Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet? Or just for the top job? Are we, the British public, entitled to know financial information relating to private individuals such as their parents, partners, and children, just because their relative decided to enter into politics? Many would say yes.  Due to head a global anti-corruption summit in London next month, the Prime Minister will address the House of Commons later today where further measures are expected to be announced.

 

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