The Panama Papers aftermath: it’s time to abolish the withholding tax.

Originally published on Conservative Home.

When the Panama Papers were splashed back in April 2016 with breathless excitement by the Guardian and the BBC, it looked as though we might get to enjoy some juicy scandals. But now, after a few months of gestation, the leaked documents are, from a UK point of view, a damp squib. Admittedly, the name of David Cameron’s father was unfairly dragged through the mud. However, it eventually dawned on people that neither he, nor his son, had done anything remotely untoward. Other than the Cameron non-story, the 11.5 million files in the Panama Papers don’t appear to tell us much about the tax affairs of UK residents.

In any case, when it comes to tax evasion, the Government has been on the case for some time. From June, all UK companies have to publicly register their owners, while an international treaty to share information on offshore bank accounts has been agreed by over 130 countries. A string of new offences is included in this year’s Finance Bill against enabling and engaging in offshore evasion. All this was in train well before the Panama Papers hit the newsstands. Admittedly, no one will be convicted for any of these new crimes. They are intended to ensure that financial institutions stop turning a blind eye to possible cases of tax evasion. The banks themselves will enforce the new rules through enhanced compliance procedures.

With all this activity, it is worth asking how serious the problem of evasion is. Wealthy British people do indeed have billions stashed offshore, and not all of them come clean with the taxman. But, perhaps surprisingly, the vast majority of them do. For example, when HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) obtained account details from the notorious Geneva branch of HSBC in 2011, they found information on about 7,000 British-held accounts holding in the region of £13 billion. Yet, it turned out that over 80 per cent of these didn’t owe a penny extra in UK tax.

From those that did, HMRC recovered £135 million of back taxes, interest and penalties. A significant haul, to be sure, but only enough to pay our dues to the European Union for a few days. In only one case did HMRC and the Crown Prosecution Service adjudge that the evidence of criminality was sufficiently strong for a prosecution. No doubt, the Panama Papers will reveal some more tax evaders, although the scale of wrongdoing is likely to be more modest than the trillion pounds suggested by Labour MP Dan Jarvis in the New Statesman. Nonetheless, we must be close to the point at which the myriad of new regulations and offences introduced by the former Chancellor, George Osborne, end up costing innocent taxpayers more than the Exchequer recovers from the miscreants.

Turning to legal tax avoidance and planning, the Government is implementing a series of international agreements to restrict the tax deductions that companies can enjoy for cross-border financing and has introduced a general anti-abuse rule. Perhaps more importantly, the courts have stopped finding that tax avoidance schemes work, even when the scheme follows the letter of the law.

In this new era of transparency, the Government should now start to dismantle the tax barriers that distort international commerce. Just as Nigel Lawson removed exchange controls, Philip Hammond should abolish the nineteenth-century throwback called withholding tax. This is a tax that countries levy on money paid abroad. For example, the UK charges a tax of 20 per cent on payments of interest to many non-resident recipients even though the recipients will also pay tax on the money in their own country. That’s double taxation and completely unfair.

Unfortunately, sorting this double taxation out gives rise to all sorts of administrative problems. So, if you want to set up a fund that caters for international clients, you can’t do it in the UK because of the withholding tax. That’s why Ian Cameron set up his trust abroad and why so many European funds, holding €3.5 trillion in 2015, are actually situated in Luxembourg, which doesn’t withhold tax. The vast majority of money held in countries like Switzerland, Luxembourg and elsewhere is kept there specifically so that it is taxed once, but no more often than that. Abolishing withholding tax would see some of that money returning in the UK. And much of the business of law firms like the Panama Paper’s Mossack Fonseca would dry up.

Luddites and the internet

When I was young, Yellow Pages was ubiquitous. Businesses paid a modest fee to appear in the directory (or a less modest one if they wanted a bigger notice). The big yellow books of listings were delivered free to almost every household. The company brought together Balham’s plumbers with its inhabitants’ leaking taps; and summoned minicab drivers wheresoever they were needed at 2am on a Sunday morning. So Yellow Pages made a healthy profit by providing a valuable service. They also produced some outstanding television advertisements. No more. The internet has seen to that. Hibu, as the company is now called, is now effectively owned by its lenders and doesn’t publish directories anymore.

Has the internet destroyed the value in this once profitable company? It has certainly destroyed many viable businesses.  And not just Yellow Pages. It has done the same to bookshops and it is beginning to eat into other retailers as well. So where has the value gone? The answer is that it has moved to you and me. We find it more convenient to do things online. It frees up time and saves us money. But our extra free time isn’t immediately monetised and we might not spend the cash we save. Eventually, we’ll reassign our time and resources to more profitable activities, but that isn’t much comfort if you publish a telephone directory.

It was the same in the late eighteenth century. New machinery like the spinning Jenny and the mule meant that fewer workers were needed to produce the same amount of cotton fabric. People saw the machines as a threat to their livelihoods. And they were right. A few went so far as to try to hold back progress by force. My old friend Jenny Jones, a Green Party member of the House of Lords, described the luddites as fiery and reasonable. You can see her point, even if the Luddites turned out to be on the wrong side of history (although when household appliances made domestic service obsolete, no one seemed so worried).

Productivity is a good word. Businesses and governments strive for it. But basically, it means fewer people doing the same amount of work. An increase in productivity removes money from the pockets of workers and deposits it in the pockets of consumers (as well as companies’ coffers). The service sector used to be immune to this effect (which is why the number of jobs in the manufacturing sector always seems to be shrinking relative to the services sector). No one ever managed to automate salespeople or waiters. But the internet has begun to increase productivity (or destroy jobs, depending on your point of view) in the service sector as well. For instance, I’ve stopped using my firm’s helpline when I have an IT problem. Just logging into a chat room is so much easier while the worker at the other end can manage multiple queries at the same time.

But of course, this is only part of the story. Markets reassign resources, including workers, to where they are needed. We can enjoy our extra free time or work even harder if we want to. We can write blogs, play computer games and read to our children. The hole in GDP left by the loss of telephone directories is filled by App designers and delivery drivers. Companies invent things like iPads that we never knew we wanted or needed. Making things more efficient is ultimately good for all of us. Doing away with Yellow Pages increases the demand for other things. But we should not forget that, even though capitalism’s destruction is creative, the destruction is still real.