DAVID CAMERON has missed his big chance to stamp out secrecy in UK tax havens, Christian Aid said on Friday, at the end of an anti-corruption conference in London.
While the UK has created a public register of the true owners of each British company, inspiring other nations from the Netherlands to Afghanistan to do the same, Mr Cameron has not forced the UK's overseas territories to follow his lead.
"Today was David Cameron’s best chance to stop the UK’s network of tax havens profiting from secrecy, but he has failed to take the action he urged on others,” said Toby Quantrill, principal economic justice adviser at Christian Aid.
Alvin Mosioma, executive director of Tax Justice Network Africa, agreed: "Flowery political statements by rich countries’ leaders’ must translate to concrete action, with them cleaning the corruption swamps in their own backyards."
Christian Aid said that Mr Cameron should be praised, however, for hosting the summit and pushing tax evasion up the global agenda.
Earlier, the Prime Minister had announced in The Guardian new measures which he said would help tackle corruption at home. He promised to create a new offence for corporations and their executives of failing to prevent fraud or money-laundering within their firms.
While these measures are "potentially useful", Mr Cameron's failure to insist on public registers of ownership for UK tax havens meant he had missed his opportunity to make the biggest difference, a Christian Aid spokeswoman added.
"Some of these measures he has announced today are potentially useful, but there is a hell of a lot of spin," she said.
Before the summit began, Church leaders urged the Government in an open letter to use the conference to ensure that the billions funnelled out of poorer countries through tax havens do not stunt development.
Corruption and tax evasion deprive the developing world of the funds it needs to provide public services and grow its economy, the signatories write. “We believe this is a moral outrage.”
Among the signatories were the Primate of Brazil, the Most Revd Francisco de Assis da Silva, and the Dean of St Paul’s, the Very Revd Dr David Ison, as well as prominent church leaders from Zambia, Colombia, Argentina, and the Caribbean, and Jewish and Muslim representatives.
The UK’s overseas territories, deeply enmeshed in the offshore-tax industry, are “among the main enablers of corruption”, the letter said.
Its authors congratulated the Prime Minister on making the fight against corruption a priority, but say that much more needs to be done. “It is disappointing that more progress has not been made around the world on public registers of beneficial ownership since the G8 that you led in 2013.”
Registers of the owners of all assets and companies in UK overseas territories must be made open to the public, it said, to show that “the UK is serious about tackling corruption around the world for the benefit of the world’s poorest people.”
So far, however, only smaller tax havens such as Anguilla, Montserrat, Gibraltar, and the Isle of Man have agreed to a new scheme to release ownership information automatically. The British Virgin Islands, a significant tax haven, are resisting calls to embrace greater transparency.
Dr Ison said on Tuesday that the letter struck a positive tone in “picking up on huge injustices and blocks to eradicating poverty that corruption represents”.
Before haranguing the rest of the world, the UK should get its own house in order, he said. “Seeking to address corruption is a huge task, but we need to lead the way in our own society . . . so we are not trying to lecture the world when we engage in practices that are unjust and discriminatory against the poor.”
Archbishop da Silva on Thursday said that "easy money" from tax havens was hugely damaging because there was enough money stashed offshore to "overcome poverty and economic injustice" in the developing world.
In Brazil, where the President, Dilma Rousseff, is battling to avoid impeachment on corruption charges, there was a deeply embedded culture of corruption within politics, he said.
"In this case, President Dilma is being politically overthrown from power because she went against the interests of the Congress, composed mostly of senators and parliamentarians that are against strengthening actions to combat corruption," Archbishop da Silva said.
His Church had publicly called for transparency in public life and was "critical of the permissive attitude of the elite towards the systemic corruption in our country", he added.
He went on: "Every human being has the seed of corruption inside of him or her; each of us has the decision to make."
Preparations for yesterday's summit in London were overshadowed by a gaffe by David Cameron. Speaking at Buckingham Palace to the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury about the summit, he was heard on a microphone saying that some of the countries due to attend the meeting, specifically Nigeria and Afghanistan, were “fantastically corrupt”.
Archbishop Welby was then heard saying that he believed that Nigeria’s new President, Muhammadu Buhari, was “actually not corrupt. . . He’s trying very hard on this one.”
A spokesman for President Buhari said: “This is embarrassing to us, to say the least, given the good work that the President is doing. The Prime Minister must be looking at an old snapshot of Nigeria.”
Afghanistan is ranked by Transparency International as the world’s second most corrupt nation; Nigeria is in 32nd place.
Arriving in London on Wednesday, President Buhari said that he did not want an apology from Mr Cameron but the return of assets stashed by corrupt Nigerians overseas. “What would I do with an apology? I need something tangible.”
On Friday, Archbishop Welby welcomed President Buhari to Lambeth Palace. During their discussion, the Archbishop said: "Nigeria is a country with more promise, more opportunity, more potential, than anywhere else that I know in many continents, not just in Africa.”
Robert Palmer, a campaigner from the group Global Witness, said: “Both Nigeria and Afghanistan have long been blighted by corruption; but their leaders have shown signs that they want to clean up their act. They are not helped by the secrecy sold by UK tax havens, or the army of lawyers and bankers from places like London, willing to handle stolen money or look the other way.”
On Monday, 300 economists, in an open letter, asked the world leaders who were attending the summit to end offshore secrecy.
“The existence of tax havens does not add to overall global wealth or well-being; they serve no useful economic purpose,” the economists wrote. As the Panama Papers leaks revealed, secret tax havens “fuel corruption” and hampered countries from collecting their fair share of taxes; poorer nations lost out the most.
An 18-month research project by the Tax Justice Network suggests that £8 trillion has been siphoned out of emerging economies such as Russia, China, Nigeria, Brazil, and Indonesia, and been hidden offshore.