The real people hurt by the Panama papers' tax schemes aren't those shiny celebrities you'll see in the paper

When a powerful person steals public money, there is a direct and potentially deadly impact on a vastly greater number of powerless people

Toby Quantrill
Monday 04 April 2016 16:27

The last time the financial affairs of the ultra-rich and powerful got splashed across the world’s media was just over a year ago, when the journalists behind the ‘Panama Papers’ exposed the people hiding billions in HSBC Swiss bank accounts.

Attention understandably focused on the shiny famous and infamous people who were being shamed, just as is happening again with the Panama Papers.

There is, however, another, far larger but almost invisible group of people involved in the Panama Papers story - and all other tales of corruption, tax evasion, tax avoidance and money laundering.

They are the millions of mums, brothers, daughters, teachers, nurses, postmen – the ‘ordinary’ people – whose lives are more difficult, and often more dangerous, because money is being siphoned away from the services they rely on, to line the pockets of some of the world’s wealthiest people.

If ‘corruption’ seems a rather abstract problem, not something that damages and destroys real human lives, then take a look at the Philippines’ brilliant new exhibition of jewels owned by Imelda Marcos, a former first lady.

Each exquisite item is accompanied by a description of its value and of what that money could pay for in public services. One particularly lovely ruby, diamond and pearl number is said to be worth the same as the cost of four years of university tuition for 2,000 students. Another glittering piece is said to be equivalent in value to tuberculosis treatment for 12,052 people.

In short, when a powerful person steals public money, there is a direct and potentially deadly impact on a vastly greater number of powerless people, who are too easily forgotten amid the spectacle of the latest leak.

Unlike Imelda Marcos and her ilk, hundreds of millions of people living in poverty struggle simply to survive or get their children through primary school. They are too powerless, financially and politically, effectively to challenge those that steal from them.

Most headlines about so-called PanamaLeaks will feature on money lost to the US, UK and other rich countries. However, when Christian Aid and the Financial Transparency Coalition investigated just how much money from poor countries may have been hidden in HSBC’s Swiss branch, we found that some poor countries were more exposed than rich ones, relative to the size of their economies.

Once analysed, it would be surprising if a similar pattern were not found in the data emerging from the Panama Papers.

Of course, simply having secret activity in tax havens does not make one’s actions automatically illegal. But, as tax barrister Jolyon Maugham has pointed out, it doesn’t look good and it does raise legitimate questions as to what exactly you are up to. 

Christian Aid, Global Witness and many others have called on the UK government to make sure that UK tax havens finally reveal who really sits behind the companies they host. Indeed, David Cameron has himself called on the Overseas Territories to follow the UK’s lead and set up public registers of real owners of companies, but so far with little effect.

With the UK hosting a global anti-corruption summit in May, the Prime Minister needs to act fast if he is going to be able to stand in front of the world’s media with any credibility.

Toby Quantrill is the Principal Adviser on Economic Justice at Christian Aid

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