The Panama Papers: One year on

Christian Aid campaigner, Luke Harman explores the progress we’ve made, one year on from the Panama Papers expose and why campaigners were outside the foreign office posing as the Foreign Secretary earlier this week.

Who remembers the Panama Papers?

The Panama papers totalled 11.5 million documents which were leaked last year, revealing the sheer scale of a rotten tax system.

A tax system that enables the rich and powerful to avoid paying what they owe, which in turn, means countries are unable to provide the essential services to support their citizens. And it’s the poorest and most vulnerable who suffer worst.

Twenty-year-old Lillian Moijueh, is an Ebola survivor. She contracted Ebola from her mother who sadly passed away. Ebola strained Sierra Leone’s already pressured health care system, increasing the death rate and risk of exposure for expectant mothers. In Sierra Leone taxes from multinational companies could help improve the healthcare system and save lives. Photo credit: Christian Aid/Aurelie D’Unienville

When these papers were leaked a year ago, they sparked public outrage, exposing the enormity of tax evasion and fraud and highlighting the role of tax havens — including the UK’s tax havens — in creating the secrecy that enables tax dodging to flourish.

So, where are we now?

The UK had already taken some positive steps before the Panama papers were leaked. Following a Christian Aid campaign in 2013 the UK government agreed to publish a list of who owns which companies in the UK. This register makes it harder for people to use secret company ownership to dodge taxes or hide corruption, but only in the UK.

A silent but powerful protest whilst governors of the overseas territories met UK officials in 2014. Photo credit: Christian Aid/Matthew Gonazalez-Noda

Campaigners called on the UK to extend these registers to its overseas territories, places like the British Virgin Islands, which has 15 companies for every 1 person living there.

So far only one of them has pledged to adopt real transparency — tiny Montserrat, with a population of around 5,000.

One year on

To mark the anniversary of the Panama papers, Christian Aid and Oxfam supporters gathered outside the Foreign Office with a simple message: to ask Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, to ensure that the UK’s Overseas Territories apply the same standards of transparency as we have in the UK and adopt public registers of beneficial ownership.

Campaigners outside the Foreign Office calling on Boris Johnson to tackle secrecy in the UK’s tax havens. Photo credit: Christian Aid/Joseph Cabon

At a time when the UK Government is thinking about Britain’s role in the world, the UK must continue to lead on transparency and anti-corruption issues. As a first step, it should ensure that all the Overseas Territories have the same level of transparency as the UK, and within the lifetime of this Parliament.

Is this possible?

A piece of legislation known as the ‘Criminal Finance Bill’ is currently being debated within the UK Parliament. Christian Aid’s government relations team (backed by the calls of thousands of Christian Aid supporters) have been working alongside supportive MPs and Lords from all major UK political parties to ensure this bill includes an amendment that would ensure public registers of beneficial ownership are adopted in the overseas territories.

The next stage in the House of Lords is on 25th April. We’re all hopeful that peers will vote in favour of the amendment. If they do, the Commons will need to vote on it and then it could be passed into law. We’re not there yet, but we’re making progress — pressure for transparency on the UK Government and Overseas Territories is rising.

This week’s stunt outside the Foreign Office is a reminder to politicians that we’re still watching them. And that we won’t relent until we have a tax system that enables all God’s people to flourish, and that leaves tax dodgers with nowhere to hide.