HMRC: no more safe havens

Treasure chestThis week STEP hosted a seminar to update members on HMRC’s latest moves to tackle tax evasion and avoidance.

Entitled, ‘An essential update on HMRC’s activity to tackle tax evasion and avoidance, including information exchange, new powers and its impact on professional advisors,’ the seminar took place at BDO LLP’s office in London. Speakers included John Shuker from the HMRC International & Offshore Evasion Team, and Dawn Register TEP of BDO LLP.

The introduction of the Common Reporting Standard (CRS) this year follows a raft of governmental efforts including the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) and the EU Directive 2003/48/EC (the EU Savings Directive) to improve cross-border tax compliance. The Offshore Evasion Team has focused on clamping down on UK tax evaders, in particular:

• Moving UK gains, income or assets offshore to conceal them from HMRC
• Not declaring taxable income from overseas, or taxable assets kept overseas
• Using complex offshore structures to hide beneficial ownership of assets.

The tax gap for 2014-2015 is estimated to be GBP36 billion, with GBP 5.2 billion attributed to tax evasion.

HMRC launched the campaign ‘No Safe Havens’ in 2013 with the objective of ensuring that there are no jurisdictions where UK taxpayers can hide their income and assets. It also implemented a number of disclosure facilities to give people the incentive to come forward and pay tax voluntarily, before they are detected and sanctioned.

In the last two years, HMRC has vigorously escalated its tax evasion strategy. The Worldwide Disclosure Facility opened last September, in addition to a new requirement for all financial institutions and tax advisers to notify their customers about new automatic exchange of information agreements.

The following further measures are due to be implemented in 2017:

Corporate Criminal Offences of Failure to Prevent Facilitation of Evasion
This will apply to corporations who fail to prevent their agents from criminally facilitating tax evasion (facilitating evasion is already considered a criminal offence). The offences will apply to domestic or overseas corporations whose agents facilitate the evasion of UK taxes, or a domestic corporation which facilitates the evasion of tax overseas.

Tackling Offshore Tax Evasion: A Requirement to Correct
Taxpayers will be obliged to disclose any outstanding UK tax related to offshore investments or assets, or face ‘failure to correct’ penalties. These penalties will be significantly higher than for those who voluntarily put their affairs in order, and will be a minimum of 100%.

STEP’s Technical Committee has submitted responses to a variety of HMRC’s consultation papers relating to tax evasion below:

 

Emily Deane TEP is STEP Technical Counsel

STEP England & Wales Biannual Statement – December 2016

Alex ElphinstonSix months ago we were all stunned at Brexit. Now we are also wondering how a Trump presidency will unfold and what further shocks national electorates may give across Europe, given the various elections ahead.

STEP is monitoring the situation closely and is in discussions with other relevant professional bodies as well as maintaining lines of communication with civil servants and the like to do all we can to ensure our and our clients’ interests are taken into account. We have certainly begun to see decisions being made by the EU Commission where the UK is no longer being consulted as previously – such as negotiations around the Fourth Anti-Money Laundering Directive.

As a professional body, STEP seeks to remain at the forefront and be the gold standard for practitioners dealing in trusts and estates and related private client work. As such we have an enviable reputation for the high-level discussions with government and other departments with which we are involved about a variety of matters, and proposed or actual changes, that may affect our work. This will be all the more important for us as practitioners as the new domicile rules and consequent changes to the tax regime come into play. The UK Practice and Technical Committees will be keeping a close eye on these issues.

A number of members have expressed concern over the delays and poor service being given by HMRC, and the Probate Registry in particular. These continue to be matters the committees and STEP team seek to address. Clearly there is only so much they can do, but please let us know of any improvements or deterioration. Actual case studies can be more powerful than general observations.

Sometimes it may seem as if STEP sends out far more surveys than other organisations. However we work in a world where ways of communicating, delivering training and news are constantly changing. We want to remain as a trusted organisation whose members are equally trusted for their integrity and advice. It is vital that we remain relevant for members in a crowded market. We also want to remain nimble and not create yet more layers of regulation for members. However we can only do that when members engage and flag up matters.

In November, STEP held a worldwide Symposium which looked at a number of issues including views on perceptions about offshore work and centres: a number of England and Wales members participated in a survey which forms the basis of the Offshore Perceptions research report. While this may not directly affect many members in this region, it does impact on STEP as an organisation and so on our region indirectly. We also looked at staffing across the regions and resourcing. We remain lean in terms of staffing, not least as a result of their commitment and dedication for which we are grateful.

One of the main points of discussion was presenting STEP and TEPs to the public. This has been a theme for some time, and a number of plans were unveiled on how STEP will address the issues and raise public awareness. You will be hearing more on this, as plans develop.

The importance of the branch network was recognised, alongside the need to avoid volunteer fatigue by assisting local committees and encouraging new members. If you are not involved in your local branch do consider this: it is a great way to make new friends, develop new business opportunities and build your profile within the industry.

In January, Rita Bhargava TEP takes over as regional chair. I have very much enjoyed my time in the role and wish Rita all the best. I would also like to take one final opportunity to thank the STEP staff for their fantastic support and assistance – not just the committee and myself, but all of us as members.

Finally may I wish you all a Happy Christmas and prosperous New Year.

Alex Elphinston TEP is Chair of STEP’s England and Wales Regional Committee

What next for offshore?

Offshore PerceptionsSTEP has published Offshore Perceptions, a major new piece of research looking at the current state of the offshore world. It paints a picture of a sector adapting rapidly to a new regulatory and institutional environment. It also confirms that measures designed to tackle abuse by a few, are actually having a major impact on costs for the legitimate clients who are the overwhelming majority of users of private client services both offshore and onshore.

The research, sponsored by First Names Group, is based on a survey of over 1,000 respondents, fairly evenly split between the offshore and onshore world, and with a very broad geographical reach.

Over three quarters of the offshore respondents to the survey report that compliance has become a burden to a ‘great’ or ‘large’ extent. Not surprisingly, this rising burden of compliance is driving up costs to the client and the report highlights a shift away from smaller clients and lower value work, both of which are no longer economically viable in the new cost environment.

Another major factor impacting the industry is the move by banks to de-risk their business. Half of all offshore respondents identified this as impacting their business to a ‘great’ or ‘large’ extent. Intriguingly, the de-risking issue was seen as important by even more onshore practitioners, with 60% telling us that it was having a ‘great’ or ‘large’ impact on the offshore worlds.

This mix of rising costs and the major banks withdrawing from many areas as they lower their risk appetite is, not surprisingly, expected to produce yet more consolidation in the offshore world, with most offshore respondents expecting the pace of consolidation to accelerate still further.

This inevitably raises fears about employment prospects, although there is still considerable optimism about business opportunities, not just in Asia and other traditional offshore markets but also, increasingly, from Africa. The survey confirms that family offices are also seen as an important growth area within the overall offshore environment.

Measures to improve transparency and tighten regulation have been one of the key global themes of the past few years, impacting offshore and onshore practitioners alike. The Offshore Perceptions report confirms that industry concerns have proved accurate in predicting that these measures, aimed at tackling abuse by a few, would result in sharply higher costs and less choice for the many.

The report also suggests, however, that the offshore world is busy adapting to the new environment and is far from gloomy. Over three quarters of offshore respondents feel optimistic (to a ‘great’, ‘large’ or ‘moderate’ extent) about the prospects for their jurisdiction and a broadly equivalent number are also optimistic about the prospects of their business sector. Many of the offshore centres have had to adapt to major challenges in the past. Generally they seem well placed to do so again.

George Hodgson is Interim Chief Executive of STEP

Why do people go offshore?

George HodgsonTaking a global view, the period since 2008 has been marked by unprecedented activity aimed at improving tax transparency. First of all we had tax information exchange on request. More recently the move has begun to automatic exchange of tax information. The same period has also seen enormous emphasis internationally on improving the availability of beneficial ownership information.

All this activity focused on improving transparency ought, logically, to have been bad news for the so-called ‘secrecy jurisdictions’. It is perhaps surprising, therefore, that the reality looks somewhat different.

Researchers at the European Parliament have dug out some rather curious statistics from the Bank of International Settlements. Over the period 2008-2015 cross-border deposits have grown on average by 2.81 per cent. Over the same period, cross-border deposits in the rest of the world have grown by 1.24 per cent. In other words, during a period of unprecedented activity regarding building transparency, the share of the offshore centres in the cross-border deposit market has actually gone up.

What does that imply? Some will undoubtedly represent this as clear proof that current transparency measures aren’t working. Indeed the same EU Parliament report that presents the statistics goes on to request ‘a study on the feasibility of a global register of all financial assets held by individuals, companies and all entities such as trusts and foundations’. This just goes to show that Big Brother still has his supporters!

Others might see the continued growth in offshore in an age of transparency as demonstrating that the appeal of offshore in reality has little to do with ‘secrecy’. It is hard to imagine that any client moving funds to one of the major offshore centres does not expect those funds to be reported at some point to their domestic tax authority. It is impossible to believe that any of their advisors do not know that at some point their client’s position is likely to be reported to their domestic tax authority.

The conclusion therefore has to be that most of the funds going offshore are there not for secrecy but for other reasons, for example geographic diversification; strong financial infrastructure; or tax neutrality. But it is clear that regardless of the move to transparency, offshore centres still have strong client appeal.

George Hodgson is Interim Chief Executive of STEP

‘Moving Money’ – the cost of more onerous AML procedures

George Hodgson

George Hodgson

I attended a lively presentation today on the paper Moving Money: International Flows, Taxes, and Money Laundering by Professors Richard Gordon and Andrew P. Morris. They basically argue that the move to more onerous anti-money laundering (AML) procedures and the move to automatic information exchange are both going to significantly increase transaction costs for everyone, legitimate and illegitimate users of the financial system alike. This increase could have significant implications for economic growth, but with little evidence of any real benefit from the new measures in terms of improved tax revenues or reduced illegitimate funds flows. In spite of that, there was a general air of optimism about the outlook for international finance centres (IFC). The professors noted that the best IFCs already have very effective systems and skill sets in these areas. They may well be able to adapt to the new regimes more rapidly and with fewer costs than their on-shore counterparts — who also face huge compliance costs — hence preserving their competitive advantage. Indeed the rising cost of on-shore, rather than off-shore, compliance may well start to become a political issue in the major economies now pushing through such dramatic, and expensive, changes in tax reporting and the AML regulatory environment

We understand that the UK has decided not to adopt the proposed delay to the on-boarding of new entity accounts announced by the US in notice IRS notice 2014-33. Instead UK Financtaxh_2023675cial Institutions will be required to obtain self-certifications from new customers (both entities and individuals) from 1 July 2014. This will maintain consistency between Entity and Individual on-boarding processes, as well as between the due diligence obligations for US and CD/OT reporting purposes.

George Hodgson is STEP’s Deputy Chief Executive.