LONDON - While British Prime Minister David Cameron has admitted that he profited from a Panama shell company, Britons are also discovering to their dismay that many of the offshore companies leaked by the so-called Panama Papers are in British territory.
More than half of the offshore companies implicated in the leak from Panama-based law firm Mossack-Fonseca are registered in British overseas territories – 110,000 in the British Virgin Islands alone.
In a poll carried out immediately before the release of the papers, a majority of British citizens favored action on the tax havens. Seventy-seven percent of British adults agreed that Cameron has a moral responsibility to “ensure that the U.K.’s Overseas Territories are as transparent as possible.”
The poll was conducted by NGO Global Witness, which campaigns to end corruption in the global political and economic system.
Senior Campaigner Rachel Owens says Global Witness is calling for transparency.
“We’re calling for the creation of public registries indicating and disclosing the real owners of all of the companies based in all of the U.K. tax havens,” she said.
Offshore shell companies allow the wealthy to hide illicit gains or avoid paying taxes. But they also deprive the public of vital money, especially hurtful to poorer countries.
“One of our iconic cases showed that in five secret deals done in the Democratic Republic of Congo, $1.4 billion was lost through offshore companies,” Owens said. “And this is double the health and education budget of the DRC.”
Sheltering money in London
London itself has been exposed as a key hub for the global wealthy to park their money – especially in property.
Every month anti-corruption campaigner Roman Borisovitch helps to run a so-called ‘Kleptocracy Coach Tour’ of the British capital – showing off the multi-million dollar mansions owned by, among others, Russian oligarchs and Arab oil billionaires.
Speaking via Skype, he told VOA that London is a key hub in the system.
“Where you have all sorts of enablers – bankers, lawyers, accountants, PR persons, estate agents, you name them. But the whole ‘laundromat’ [money laundering system] is working perfectly well and is equipped with thousands and thousands of people.”
London will host dozens of world leaders in an anti-corruption summit in May. Many campaigners say Britain should start by looking much closer to home.
Opposition Labor Party leaders stopped short of calling for Cameron’s resignation Friday. But they were critical nonetheless.
The BBC reported Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn as saying that the prime minister “misled the public” and had “lost the trust of the British people.”
“Any suspicion that the person who makes the rules is playing by a different set of rules from the rest of us is damaging to our political culture and our democracy,” wrote deputy Labor leader Tom Watson in Newsweek.
After days of skirting the issue, Cameron admitted Thursday on ITV that he and his wife, Samantha, had benefited from shares in an offshore company. The Conservative prime minister said that his family owned shares in the Bahamas-based Blairmore Holdings that were worth about $42,000. He said he sold them in 2010, just months before becoming prime minister.
"I want to be as clear as I can about the past, about the present, about the future because, frankly, I don't have anything to hide," Cameron said.