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Offshore account holders offered tax deal

By Vanessa Houlder and Haig Simonian

Published: March 26 2009 23:32 | Last updated: March 26 2009 23:32

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Thousands of British investors with up to £3bn stashed in secret Liechtenstein bank accounts will be asked to come forward voluntarily under a deal to be negotiated next week that could be the first of many worldwide.

Lawyers said the Liechtenstein plan, discussed behind closed doors with the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, could serve as an international model for other tax havens seeking to avoid an OECD blacklist.

Liechtenstein’s government announced on Thursday it would begin talks with the UK’s Revenue & Customs next Wednesday, stating it wanted to encourage “voluntary disclosure of untaxed assets”. The decision follows agreement by the tiny alpine principality to ease its bank secrecy rules and to encourage foreign account holders to come clean.

Dave Hartnett, permanent secretary for tax at Revenue & Customs, said the intention was “to open up the historic bank accounts”.

The proposed purge of undeclared bank accounts by one of the world’s hitherto most secretive tax havens reflects pressure on Liechtenstein. Germany succeeded last year in uncovering tax evaders after buying stolen customer data from a former Liechtenstein bank employee.

Liechtenstein is trying to break away from the traditional image of tax havens by proposing an imaginative long-term process to tackle undeclared assets that could benefit foreign tax authorities, without excessively penalizing the rich.

Revenue & Customs wants to prise open secret accounts by offering an “offshore disclosure facility”, along the lines of the 2007 partial “amnesty” that raised £400m from holders of undeclared offshore accounts. That would be unlikely to offer immunity from prosecution, but would provide a straightforward mechanism with limited penalties for investors wanting to put their affairs in order.

Liechtenstein banks would be asked to close accounts of customers who did not act on this offer, presenting them with difficulties finding a home for their money.

Negotiations also seek a tax-information exchange agreement, another tool to pursue tax evaders that Liechtenstein has already agreed with the US. Liechtenstein has said it is ready to negotiate bilateral agreements with other countries. It had first-round talks with Germany last week.

Separately, Monaco, the Mediterranean city-state that is home to 25,000 wealthy foreigners, pledged to meet international standards on transparency. That followed lengthy talks with the OECD, which had previous branded it – like Liechtenstein – an “unco-operative tax haven”.

Monaco has agreed to negotiate tax information exchange with all countries that want it. It will expand the scope of an anti-fraud agreement under negotiation with the European Commission to meet OECD standards. Other jurisdictions scrambled to become more transparent to stave off the threat of blacklisting at the G20 summit next week.

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