LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s overseas territories will not sign up to an international convention aimed at tackling tax evasion ahead of the G8 summit in Northern Ireland next week, the premier of Bermuda said on Wednesday.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has invited the mainly Caribbean territories to London ahead of hosting the annual gathering of the G8 group of leading economies, at which he has put tax avoidance and evasion high on the agenda.
Though they share Britain’s monarch as head of state, the UK government’s writ doesn’t run in the self-governing territories, so Cameron must rely on persuasion to secure an agreement.
A deal could give Cameron a coup against tax campaigners who question Britain’s commitment to the issue, given the prominent role played by UK territories in facilitating tax evasion, avoidance and the hiding of stolen assets.
Bermudan Premier Craig Cannonier said the territories were ready to agree that wider sharing of information with international tax authorities was required but Cameron’s aim of having them all commit to signing the convention was unlikely to be achieved.
“My understanding is that we are not here to sign something, but simply to agree that everyone needs to get on par,” he told Reuters in a telephone interview on Wednesday.
He said the territories had held conference calls ahead of their meeting with UK ministers in London this week and none had expressed a willingness to commit to signing the convention when they gather with Cameron at Downing Street on Saturday.
However, a spokesman for the Cayman Islands Government said it had agreed on Friday to commit to the Convention.
A UK government spokeswoman declined to confirm Cannonier’s comment that Cameron had hoped to achieve agreement from the Territories this week on adopting the Convention.
A spokesman for Cameron added that the Prime Minister expected to continue to see progress on transparency “in the context of the G8”.
Cannonier said Bermuda already met most of the standards in the Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters, including having a register of beneficial owners of companies that other tax authorities can check.
However, he said the convention, drafted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a body of mainly rich nations, had potentially damaging elements for Bermuda.
“There’s some clauses in there that we need to look at, that may need to be adjusted, and ... our finance ministry is going over it with a fine-tooth comb,” he said.
In May, the territories, which also include the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands, agreed to share taxpayer information with the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, but the convention will include many more countries and more information.
Bermuda has been accused of facilitating tax avoidance by large companies.
Multinationals typically park intellectual property (IP) in letter-box companies on the island. These then charge fat fees for the use of the IP to affiliates in countries where the groups have big sales, thereby channeling profits to the island, which charges no corporate income taxes.
Cannonier said it was unfair to blame Bermuda for this since it was “only one link in the chain” but added the country could tighten rules so that Bermuda-registered subsidiaries needed to have more economic substance on the island to enjoy its tax benefits.
Additional reporting by William James; Editing by Will Waterman