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It's not just David Cameron - or George Osborne - who has faced questions about their tax affairs

The Panama Papers leak has revealed how David Cameron’s father had been a director of a Caribbean-based offshore fund.  But when you look beyond the Panama Papers, which other Cabinet ministers have faced questions about the complex business of paying tax?

Adam Lusher
Wednesday 06 April 2016 19:36 BST
George Osborne checks food items during a visit to the Ocado Customer Fulfilment Centre in Hatfield, 6 April 2016
George Osborne checks food items during a visit to the Ocado Customer Fulfilment Centre in Hatfield, 6 April 2016 (Reuters)

It was another time, a more innocent age. In 2003 George Osborne, then just a backbench MP, appeared on the BBC’s Daily Politics programme, and offered some chirpy advice to the first caller, Bill. “There are some pretty clever financial products that enable you to, in effect, pass on the value of your home to your son or daughter and then get personal care paid for by the state," said the future Chancellor, adding, with a half-grin: “I probably shouldn’t be advocating this on television.”

How times change. Now, when asked on television about whether he might benefit now or in the future from one sort of clever financial product – offshore funds – an older, seemingly more wary Mr Osborne restricts himself to saying: “Well, we have made clear the arrangements we have. They are all declared in the register [of members’ interests].”

Then, despite being asked the same question twice, he moves swiftly on to more interesting topics, to how “this Conservative Government has done more than any previous government to tackle tax evasion, to tackle tax avoidance".

Already the Panama Papers leak has shed an unwelcome light on how David Cameron’s father had been director of a Caribbean-based offshore fund and, according to Channel 4 News, held shares in another fund based on Jersey.

But when you look beyond the Panama Papers, it emerges that the Prime Minister is not the only Cabinet member to have had questions asked about their attitudes, or the attitudes of those close to them, towards the complex business of paying tax.

Take, for example, that cheery 2003 TV pundit. In February this year, it was reported that the Osborne & Little Group Ltd, the parent company for the Osborne family’s upmarket wallpaper business, had – entirely legally – not paid corporation tax for seven years. This despite The Sunday Times reporting that the interior design group, co-founded by the Chancellor’s father Sir Peter Osborne, the 17th baronet of Ballentaylor and Ballylemon, had made profits in the year to March 2015 of £722,200 on revenues of £34m. The Osborne & Little Group Ltd had, according to The Sunday Times, paid out dividends worth £335,000 to shareholders, including the Chancellor, on 30 May 2014.

However, a spokesman for Osborne & Little told The Independent there was a simple and legitimate explanation: “Corporation tax has not been paid since 2008 because losses since then have arisen. Under UK tax legislation, losses incurred in prior years are offset against profits of later years.”

And a spokesman for Mr Osborne said: “All of the Chancellor’s interests are declared properly and in accordance with the rules.”

Closer still to Mr Cameron than the Chancellor, but in some senses further offshore, is the Prime Minister’s stepfather-in-law. Viscount Astor, who is married to Samantha Cameron’s mother Annabel, has a home in Scotland owned by a company registered in the British Virgin Islands.

The 19,000-acre Tarbert Estate, on the Hebridean island of Jura, was bought by the Astor family in the 1921, but in 1979 it came into the ownership of a Bahamas-registered company called Ginge Manor Estates, passing to its British Virgin Islands-based parent company Altar Properties Ltd in November 2014.

Ginge Manor is also the name of Viscount Astor’s Oxfordshire home, where one David Cameron married his wife Samantha in June 1996.

Mr Cameron likes visiting Jura too. “I fish and try to catch the odd sea trout or mackerel," he told BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs in 2005. "I love swimming in the sea off Scotland. The peace and quiet is fantastic."

Fortunately for everyone’s peace and quiet, the estate’s offshore arrangements are entirely legal. Viscount Astor told The Independent the reason for the use of the offshore companies was historical. “When my grandparents bought the estate, as they were both born in America, they used American money for the purchase," he said. "There has been no tax advantage as they, my father and myself were or are resident in the UK and pay full taxes on all assets. There is no tax advantage and nothing is hidden.”

Viscount Astor did once reflect on why he hadn’t insisted on a name change for Ginge Manor, the distinctively titled Bahamas company. “Perhaps I should have,” he said in 2013. “But [about] 40 years ago I did not expect to have a stepson-in-law as PM."

At least the PM can be confident that, as yet another walk-out by striking junior doctors collides with the Panama Papers affair, his Health Secretary has stuck rigorously to the tax law. Jeremy Hunt, named last year as the richest Cabinet minister, is after all a man who knows the wisest way to handle money.

In 2012 it was reported he had – entirely legally – avoided a £100,000 HM Revenue & Customs bill through a deal concluded days before a tax rate rise. In April 2010 Mr Hunt and his business partner Mike Elms allegedly transferred ownership of the office building of their educational company Hotcourses into their own names. Both men were then paid a dividend by Hotcourses in the form of half its office building each, before the property was leased back to the company.

Accountants told The Daily Telegraph that the deal meant a legal reduction in Mr Hunt’s potential tax bill of more than £100,000, because it was completed just days before an announced 10 per cent rise in the tax on dividends.

The Health Secretary, however, ceased to be operationally involved in Hotcourses once he became a minister, and Mr Elms told the Telegraph that Mr Hunt had no control over the timing of the dividend payment.

“All appropriate taxes were paid,” he said. “Mr Hunt has no responsibility for any financial decisions including the nature, amount and timing of dividend payments to shareholders.”

Hotcourses was not alone. Hundreds of other companies also brought forward their dividend payments before the April 2010 tax rise.

Mr Hunt can at least consider himself more fortunate than the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond who, in 2010, was one of the subjects of what he called a “malicious” documentary about the tax affairs of the wealthy.

Mr Hammond, said last year to be worth £10m, started paying himself a dividend rather than a salary from his property company Castlemead when he joined the Shadow Cabinet in 2007.

He transferred Castlemead shares into his wife Susan’s name before Labour introduced the 50p tax rate in 2010 – but, Mr Hammond later explained, this was because at that time he was expecting to enter Government. He therefore wanted to abide by the code of conduct stating that ministers must “scrupulously avoid” any potential conflict between their government role and their private financial interests.

The transfer was, he said, “done on advice and was cleared by both the Permanent Secretary and the Cabinet Secretary, following proper procedure.” National Insurance contributions are not deducted from dividends, but Mr Hammond insisted that being paid in them, rather than receiving a salary, would provide at best only a “marginal” 1 per cent gain for a higher-rate taxpayer.

The MP told his local newspaper: “At all times I have paid all taxes for which I have been liable, and any suggestion that in reaching these arrangements my motivation was to avoid tax is without foundation.”

It seems that whatever the Panama Papers may reveal about David Cameron’s father, in his Cabinet the days of chattily recommending “clever financial products” are over. Aren’t they?

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