Leading Article: Maybe time to say goodbye

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Irony is said to be the word that describes the mood of modern Britain. Our actors are called ironic, along with our novelists, our artists and our advertisers. In this form, irony suggests wry detachment. The concept is overused, and somewhat unattractive, but we do believe that irony can be properly used to describe Geoffrey Robinson and his offshore trust in Guernsey. It is possible that Mr Robinson's lasting impact on this government will not be his announcements about the Individual Savings Accounts (ISAs) but a clause in a future Finance Bill which becomes known as the Robinson amendment. It will deserve a name because it will be a radical piece of legislation which closes the largest and most popular loophole used by British taxpayers as a means of avoiding tax on their wealth. The irony is that it will have been the disclosure that a Labour Treasury minister allowed his family wealth to be placed outside the reach of the Inland Revenue that finally gave a Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer the pretext for extending the power of the taxman to make avoidance much more difficult.

No one questions the legality of Mr Robinson's decision to keep a substantial part of his fortune offshore. But the truth is that this is more a matter of morality than legality. One of the phrases from the last decade that is certain to be included in future editions of dictionaries of quotations spilled from the mouth of a rich New Yorker named Leona Helmsley. She declared that only little people pay taxes. This is not quite correct. It is truer to say that only rich people and large multinational corporations (Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation is a good example) persistently avoid taxes. It is an expensive business to set up trusts in Guernsey, or the Isle of Man, or the Cayman Islands. Lawyers and accountants in London have become wealthy themselves by exploiting the loopholes in tax law. The point is that no one establishes an offshore trust for any reason other than to take advantage of a privilege denied to the vast majority of taxpayers. The sight of Mr Robinson announcing that, when ISAs are introduced in 1999, the tax-free limit on individual savings will be pounds 50,000 is more loathsome than ironic. It was interesting that the Treasury persisted in using Mr Robinson to announce this tax-free limit on savings only two days after an investigation by this newspaper revealed the existence of the Guernsey Trust. The message was that the Government deny the embarrassment and brazen it out.

This was another case of the Government displaying what has become, in such a short space of time, a sadly familiar bullying tone. Gordon Brown tells us that Mr Robinson is a highly valuable member of his team who sees the workings of the Treasury through the eyes of a successful businessman. Mr Brown adds that Mr Robinson did not need to go into politics, and that he is not taking a ministerial salary. These claims are correct, but they do not address the problem of Mr Robinson. As long as he remains in government, he will be known as the "offshore minister". That might not be a matter of public concern if he was a minister in a department other than the Treasury. But he works in the ministry responsible for collecting taxes. It is extraordinary, and Mr Brown should realise - for he appears not to have done so - that his colleague from the world of business is more of a liability than an asset. The Chancellor should also appreciate - and Mr Brown is too tough an operator, surely, not to have done so already - that nobody, not even the host for the Prime Minister's Tuscan holidays, is indispensable.

There is, however, a potentially profitable alternative to asking for Mr Robinson's resignation, or moving him to a less vulnerable post. Mr Brown wants to launch a drive against tax avoidance, and would like to clamp down on the use of offshore tax havens. Such a move will lead to intense lobbying from accountants, bankers and lawyers. There is one minister in the Government well used to their silky language and well-oiled ways. His name is Geoffrey Robinson. If he were to make a full declaration of his financial affairs - and we mean full - he would be eminently suited to a new job as the loophole-busting Taxcollector-General instead of Paymaster- General. Otherwise, it is time for Mr Robinson to say farewell to the Treasury.

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