At a time of rising costs and more austerity, the Pandora Papers reveal how the rich keep getting richer - by stealing from the rest of us, writes Terina Hine
The Pandora’s box of tax dodgers and unscrupulous offshore companies has been opened, revealing a vast network of shady deals and financial abuse. The Pandora Papers uncover unsavoury characters and their financial arrangements, and among the list of deviants is our own former Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
That global billionaires, major Tory donors and shifty politicians find themselves exposed in the leaked papers is just the latest in a series of revelations that should, at the very least, shame government into action. But as governments and politicians are themselves so closely entangled in the web of deceit, will any action be taken?
This latest data leak comes just as the government has cut Universal Credit for the poorest, hiked National Insurance which will hit everyone but the rich, and follows the 2016 Panama Papers and the 2017 Paradise Papers which revealed how the rich routinely hide assets and pay little or no tax.
We all know that tax loopholes are there for the finding by those who can afford to look, and that the line between immorality and legality navigated by the super-rich is fine indeed. So in many ways, this disclosure is not new. Names and projects may change but the principle - one rule for them and another for the rest of us - remains the same.
Yet the scale and scope of these revelations are different: the Panama Papers came from the files of a single offshore provider; the Pandora Papers reveal how immense the network of lawyers, middlemen, and fixers is, and how extensive the secret deals are - exposing former Prime Minister Tony Blair, the King of Jordan, the presidents of Ukraine and Ecuador and the PM of the Czech Republic alongside Russian ministers, more than 130 billionaires and a range of fugitives and mobsters, from a total of 91 countries across the world.
Tony Blair has always kept rather dubious company, so we should not be surprised that he is listed as a bedfellow with this lineup of con-artists and despots. From the cache of papers, we learn that Blair and his wife Cherie avoided paying hundreds of thousands of pounds in tax.
The couple had amassed a multi-million-pound London property portfolio in the years after leaving Downing Street; had spent over £30m on 38 residential properties before buying the Harcourt Street townhouse - so they clearly had some knowledge and experience under their belts by the time it came to this purchase. Buying the £6.5 million property by purchasing an offshore British Virgin Islands company, rather than the townhouse directly, enabled the Blairs to avoid paying any stamp duty on the property.
No-one is suggesting this was illegal. As the Blairs’ spokesperson pointed out, the transaction was perfectly within the law, but it was grossly hypocritical and clearly immoral. Especially as Tony Blair, back in the good old days of New Labour, was a vocal campaigner for ending such blatant tax loopholes.
In his first speech as Labour leader, Blair promised to remedy the unfair tax system in which “millionaires pay nothing while pensioners pay VAT on fuel”.
During a speech in the West Midlands he said, “For those who can employ the right accountants, the tax system is a haven of scams, perks . . . and profits. We should not make our tax rules a playground for revenue avoiders and tax abusers who pay little or nothing while others pay more than their share.”
So far there has been no comment from Labour about the embarrassing revelations. There has been no comment as to why British taxpayers pay millions for the Blairs’ driver and security while the couple avoid their own tax liabilities. Maybe because tax dodging is not new to the Blairs.
It was as far back as 2012 that the official accounts of Blair’s Windrush Ventures - one of 12 companies controlled by Blair since he left Downing Street in 2007 - had almost £8m of unexplained, tax exempt “expenses”. Blair channelled tens of millions through a complicated maze of companies paying just a fraction in tax. Official accounts show Blair’s company paid only £315,000 tax on an income of more than £12m. By 2015, The Times was reporting that Blair’s tax bill had halved despite £1.2m profits and a turnover of £14m.
If the Blairs’ are paying “full tax on all their earnings” as their spokesperson affirmed, it can only be tax loopholes that keep their accounts above the law.
Blair is no novice when it comes to taxation, either in his personal affairs or in public policy. Earlier this year he was keen to join the debate about who would pay for the Covid crisis, suggesting that Labour should neither support raising corporation tax nor the introduction of a wealth tax - hardly surprising given his vast portfolio - however, he saw tax rises for ordinary people as inevitable.
The millions of leaked documents have revealed the financial secrets of more than 330 politicians and public officials; they have revealed a system that enables the wealthiest to manage, move and hide their riches while the rest of us face ever-growing inequalities. Rather than using their position and authority to help end the offshore system of shells and trusts these hypocritical leaders and ex-leaders have chosen to benefit from it - that the Blairs are included in this dishonourable roll call is unlikely to surprise anyone.
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