The second slide, then, basically identifies three key developments that have changed our attitudes towards offshore compliance. First is the revolution in non-tolerance of non-compliance and the fact that politicians are now very much aware that the days of tax havens are coming to an end. Second, there is a move away from international cooperation between tax authorities towards international coordination, and later I'll come back to that and say a few words about it. The third aspect is that some pressures have come from the financial sector upon our tax systems, not just as part of the banking crisis but also from the way banks use aggressive tax planning techniques.
Those are the issues that are addressed.
If you go to slide 3, which addresses the question of why it is at this point in time that we have this upsurge of interest, you can see some of the factors there. They can be grouped into three categories.
First, there's the process of globalization. Put another way, globalization has become a reality, and it's something we have to learn to live with. It brings a lot of benefits to our citizens and to our corporations.
I think the second factor is the recent scandals. I see, in fact, that you have been discussing the UBS scandal in the United States and the Liechtenstein scandal. I don't know how many of you have visited Liechtenstein; it's a very small place, but that scandal has had a major impact on 41 countries around the world.
The third thing is obviously the financial crisis, which has meant that governments need more money and need to show their citizens that the tax burden is being fairly shared.
When you put these factors together, what we have seen over the last three years is that we are really coming to the end of the era of bank secrecy as a shield for tax evaders. All countries have some form of bank secrecy, but today very few of these countries in fact use their bank secrecy to protect tax evaders. I think that is a very important development. Clearly the G-20, working with the OECD, has led this particular initiative. Quite frankly, without the G-20 support I don't think we would have seen the type of progress that we've had since 2009.
The next slide, slide 5, shows you a graph with the number of tax information exchange agreements and double taxation agreements that meet the OECD standard that have been signed between the different G-20 meetings. We're now up to almost 600. I've worked in this business for 30 years, so I know how long it takes to sign an agreement. It is just remarkable that we have 600 agreements signed since January 2009.
The standards—this is the next slide, slide 6—are very simple. Basically, they boil down to saying that we must cooperate with each other to counter offshore non-compliances. The standard we have, in fact, in our dialogue with tax havens is what we call the exchange of information standard on exchange on request. What that means is that insofar as, say, Canada asks Barbados or asks the United States for information that is foreseeably relevant to the Canadian tax authority so that they can fairly apply their taxes, then the U.S. or Barbados should make a response. Of course, this also implies that the requested country has access to information that is reliable and that is easily accessed by the requested authority.
The other thing that's important is that there are provisions in place in these agreements to protect the confidentiality of taxpayer information. That is something we've always worked on as a key to seeing these agreements move forward.
We are particularly pleased that today the standards have been universally adopted by the United Nations, by the G-20, and by all countries around the world.
Let us go to the next slide, slide 7.
It's one thing to have agreements, but what we want is change on the ground. That's why we have created this global forum on tax transparency. It brings together 96 countries now. What the forum has done is put in place a peer review mechanism to ensure that these agreements are translated into action. It's a pretty rigorous mechanism. We've already managed to do 18 reviews. Of those 18 reviews, there are in fact six countries that basically failed, including Barbados and Panama, just to name two of them.
This is what we've been doing at the bilateral level, but we also recognize that in an age characterized by global taxpayers and global multinationals, you need to move away from the bilateral to the multilateral dimension, so we've been working on developing a multilateral convention for administrative assistance in tax matters. You can see on slide 8, in fact, the stages that we've gone through. I think the important thing about this is that it is the gold standard. This is what every tax lawyer or tax administrator dreams about: a convention that's multilateral, not bilateral, and that provides for assistance in the assessment of tax and in the collection of tax, for all taxes, whatever the tax is: VAT, GST, income taxes, or corporate taxes.
Currently 21 countries, including Canada, have signed this convention. It will be opened up to non-OECD countries in just a few weeks' time, and we look forward to having all the G-20 countries, and perhaps some developing countries, actually join us in this convention. It's a very powerful instrument.
I'll give you an example of how it can be relevant for Canada. Let's say that the revenue agency in Canada decides that you want to audit a multinational enterprise that involves activities in Japan, France, and the United States. This convention provides the legal framework to carry out those joint audits, so it's a very powerful tool.
Let us turn to the next slide, slide 9.
I've talked up until now mainly about tax havens, but there's a lot of other work that the OECD is doing to improve tax compliance. On this slide, you'll see some of those activities, primarily carried out by our forum on tax administration. You have a commissioner who has a very active role in that forum. When these 43 commissioners meet, what they're trying to do is change the environment within which tax systems operate. They influence the environment.
I'll just pick up two of the points that are referred to here. One is the issue of banks and the way banks have a lot of opportunities to engage in aggressive tax planning. Just a few months back we issued a draft code of conduct for banks that sets out the way we as tax authorities think they should behave in terms of their tax compliance. The other point I would pick up on is the last bullet point on corporate governance. We think the time has now come to put good tax compliance onto the corporate governance agenda.
Let me finish with perhaps five concluding comments.
The OECD doesn't tell countries what to do, but let me say that it makes some suggestions that Canada may wish to consider. First, currently you have fewer than half a dozen tax information exchange agreements. For a country the size of Canada, a country with a very open economy, you need to have more. I think you need to invest in extending your agreement network. You need to actually also speed up the process of signing and ratifying these agreements. If they're not ratified, then nothing happens on the ground. I think that should be one of your priorities.
The second thing is that you need to invest in your tax administration so they can actually take advantage of this more open and more transparent environment. Believe me, the yields on that investment are very significant. May I give you some figures?
The United Kingdom is investing £4 million in their revenue service; they expect a yield of £7 billion. The United States estimates that it could collect a minimum of $100 billion from better enforcement. Spain has just upgraded its approach to offshore compliance, and this year has collected €10 billion. In other words, there's money out there that you could collect.
However, this is not just a question of more revenue. It's also a question of showing to Canadian taxpayers—honest taxpayers—that the burden of tax is being fairly shared.
The third thing that I think needs to be done--and this doesn't apply just to Canada, but right through the OECD--is that we need to re-educate auditors. We need to tell them that if they come up against a Swiss case or a Luxembourg case or a Panama case today, and if Canada has an agreement with these countries, they can now ask for information, which is something they could not do in the past. That applies also to the agreement you have with Barbados.
Fourth, I think it's important that Canada, working with the OECD forum on tax administration, needs to put good tax compliance at the centre of the good corporate governance agenda.
The last point I would make is that I do think it's important not to look at this in a box, but to see that the fight against tax evasion has to be matched with the fight against money laundering, corruption, and bribery, because all of these activities thrive in a climate of non-transparency, weak regulations, and poor cooperation.
I'd be very happy to answer any questions.
Mr. Alain Deneault (Researcher, Chaire de recherche du Canada en mondialisation, citoyenneté et démocratie, Université du Québec à Montréal):
I am Alain Deneault, sociology researcher at the Université du Quebec at Montreal, and author of the book entitled Offshore: Paradis fiscaux et souveraineté criminelle, published in France by La Fabrique and in Quebec by Écosociété. This book will soon be published in the United States by The New Press and it will be entitled Offshore: Tax Havens and the Rule of Global Crime.
I thank the Standing Committee on Finance for allowing social sciences thinkers in the humanities to speak on tax-related issues. As you know, fiscal matters affect crucial public service funding issues and the state's very capacity to guarantee the reliability of its institutions. Thus, it is a good idea not to limit reflection on this matter to certain disciplines, nor to observe things exclusively from the perspectives of law and accounting.
Tax evasion and, more generally, tax leakage, cause social and political problems on a grand scale. In 2005, the Quebec Minister of Finance estimated that tax evasion-related potential losses to the public purse amounted to more than 5% of the gross domestic product. And to this must be added the unrecorded fiscal avoidance losses and losses due to aggressive tax practices. In the case of tax avoidance, we are referring to legal tactics such as transfer pricing, and in the case of aggressive practices, tax avoidance strategies that lie on the very edge between legality and illegality.
Also contributing to this hemorrhage are dumping phenomena that are difficult to quantify, such as tax reductions granted by northern regimes to wealthy stakeholders, under the pretext that we have to compete directly with tax havens, or the part of the debt service we must allocate to reimbursing loans from financial institutions that are not taxed enough, or not taxed at all.
Switzerland, for instance, is a country that is symbolic of complacent regimes that have historically facilitated various tax avoidance measures. Several authors have substantiated this. Switzerland has even in the popular imagination become a symbol of suspect manoeuvres or obscure money transfers. However, focusing on the Swiss Confederation or some of its banking institutions, as has been done in the past, can be encouraging if we indeed focus on dismantling that symbol. However, the issue of tax havens goes beyond the matter of Switzerland alone.
This does raise certain fears. José Gayoso, member of the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Benefit of Citizens, in France, feared that the case of Switzerland was being used to simply condemn that country, to the benefit of competing tax havens. Mr. Gayoso received considerable support from no less a source than retired Geneva Justice Bernard Bertossa, who is usually very critical of his own jurisdiction, but states in his book La justice, les affaires, la corruption, that: “It is an undeniable fact that there is as much, if not more, dirty money in the City of London as is to be found in the banks of Zurich, Geneva or Lugano.”
Switzerland must not become the tree that prevents us from seeing the forest. The United States, China and the United Kingdom, among other countries of the G20, freely criticize Switzerland but spare their comments with regard to Delaware, Macao, London and a host of other countries that constitute, in the Caribbean or elsewhere, the most controversial tax havens on the planet. Canada does not seem to be an exception among the members of the G20. Within Canada itself, Halifax plays the role of offshore centre in close contact with Bermuda and the City of London, with insurance companies and venture capital firms, a sector that was in the forefront of the 2008 economic crisis, and benefits from major tax advantages. The Conseil de développement économique de la Nouvelle-Écosse [Nova Scotia economic development council], directed by a board of directors from the private sector, the Nova Scotia Business Inc., also gives tax exemptions to offshore companies that hire local accountants rather than accountants from their own jurisdiction.
On the international scene, Canada appears to be the ally of Caribbean tax havens that have yet in the past been targeted internationally by the OECD, the FATF or the IMF, for instance. Our country, Canada, sits within the bodies of the World Bank next to an array of Caribbean tax havens: Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Kitts-Nevis, St. Lucia, as well as St. Vincent and the Grenadines. One of these countries is under surveillance by the Geopolitical Drug Observatory, and many international criminologists consider several of these countries as clearing houses for drugs coming from Columbia.
Often, Canadians, or parties related to Canada historically, were the ones who created the business sectors in these Caribbean tax havens, if not themselves draft financially advantageous measures for the banks that have their branches there. You will recall for instance that in the 1960s, Sir Stafford Sands was at one at the same time responsible for finances in the Bahamas and also a member of the Royal Bank of Canada board of directors.
Moreover, Canada continues to have a privileged relationship with Barbados. The binding double taxation avoidance agreement has proven to be a permanent tax amnesty for stakeholders who practise tax avoidance tactics such as transfer pricing.
Canada in fact is continuously adding to the fields of activity that benefit from this tax haven's jurisdictional clemency, as the field of insurance was added in 2010. And let's not even mention the free trade agreements Canada is signing with Panama and Columbia.
It is not unusual for offshore companies that offer tax avoidance services in Canada to resort to tax havens such as Luxembourg.
In conclusion, it is clear that the Canadian Parliament must highlight the losses that derive from the Swiss bank accounts of Canadian taxpayers in banks such as HSBC or UBS, which cases may involve tax evasion and money laundering.
It would be a mistake however to isolate these cases as though they were unique phenomena. In order to set out the problem in a serious manner, the whole issue of tax evasion must be considered in light of the international deployment of an array of complacent legislation. It must be dealt with against the backdrop of the complacency of northern states that often legalize what amounts to wrongdoing when seen in the context of the principles of equity and justice that must be at the heart of taxation generally.
Tax evasion must be studied at the same time as various tax avoidance measures, even though they may be considered legal.
Ms. Brigitte Alepin (Chartered Accountant, Agora, Services de fiscalité Inc., As an Individual):
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for the confidence and respect you are showing me today.
Since several of you do not know me, I will try to introduce myself as briefly as possible. I am a chartered accountant; I have a masters in taxation from the University of Sherbrooke and a masters in public administration from Harvard. I have written several influential works on various topics related to tax policy, including tax havens. I am responsible for the tax column in the prestigious CA Magazine. I am the author of a best seller, Ces riches qui ne paient pas d'impôts. My next book will be in bookstores on February 17, 2011, and is entitled La crise fiscale qui vient.
On January 5, 2010, Jean-Pierre Blackburn, who was then Minister of National Revenue, stated that Canadians had in 2009 invested a total of $146 billion in tax havens. This is a considerable increase compared to the $88 billion invested in 2003. In light of the growing popularity of tax havens and the difficulty of tracking the taxpayers involved in this sort of fraud, it is important to ask ourselves whether the measures taken by Canada domestically, and jointly with other countries, are sufficiently effective to counter this tendency.
Domestically, Stephen Harper's government seems ambivalent about tax havens. On the one hand, Jim Flaherty, Minister of Finance, stated in the 2007 budget that his government was going to crack down on those who avoid paying corporate income tax by intensifying the fight against the use of offshore tax havens. On the other hand, in the 2010-2011 budget, he made things easier for Canadian taxpayers who want to get around the taxation of profits from the sale of shares of Canadian corporations.
When a resident of a country with whom Canada has not signed a tax treaty sells the shares of a Canadian company, section 116 of the Income Tax Act provides that the Canadian purchaser must retain 25% of the proceeds of the sale to non-residents and remit it to the Canadian government as tax withheld at source.
The federal 2010-2011 budget eliminates this obligation for most industrial sectors. Thus, it makes it easy for Canadian taxpayers to legally avoid Canadian income tax on the sale of Canadian shares by having them held by an intermediary residing in a tax haven.
Internationally, agreements concluded by Canada with other G20 countries, which were explained by the Canada Revenue Agency before this committee at the December 13 hearing, and by Mr. Owens previously, have in fact diminished the level of protection afforded tax fraud and tax evasion in tax havens. However, the problem will probably remain, and to go further additional measures must be considered.
In the context of my presentation, I want to submit two such additional measures, and highlight two problems that remain and must be dealt with.
Under the current information exchange system, countries that wish to receive information from another country must make a request and provide the name of a taxpayer, an address, a time frame, and the name of the bank where the taxpayer is a client. This information seems easy to obtain, but in reality it is quite difficult for tax authorities to line up Canadian taxpayers with the names and addresses that they use in tax havens. The reason for that is quite simple: an individual who is setting up a tax evasion scheme in a tax haven will not often use his own name. He will, rather, use front companies and fake offices that provide an address.
Ms. Lucie Bergevin, Director General of the Canada Revenue Agency International and Large Business Directorate, who testified before this committee on December 13, 2010, referred to the difficulty I am also drawing to your attention. She justified the lengthy process to verify information received from informers in Liechtenstein or in Switzerland by explaining, and I quote: “The information we get is also not complete. Often we don't have the social insurance number or the address, and so we need to match this with our system, and that can take a long time.”
To get around these problems, rather than banking on an exchange of information at the request of tax authorities in the countries concerned, as is the case currently, countries should consider the possibility of an automatic information exchange that could be done in various ways.
For example, once a taxpayer opens an account with a financial institution in a tax haven, the financial institution should automatically alert the authorities in the country of origin, or risk heavy monetary penalties. Or G20 countries could make sure that a file listing all properties and bank accounts of all companies, trusts or foundations, be set up in tax havens and be accessible to tax and legal authorities.
I would like to draw your attention to a second problem. Right now, the G20 proposals are focusing mainly on individuals, even though multinationals in tax havens are more of a concern. To tackle the problem of multinationals, Canada, in cooperation with the other countries, could consider two types of solutions.
First, we can reform the tax rules applicable to multinationals and establish a centralized tax system or a single worldwide tax burden. A centralized tax system for multinationals would be fairer, simpler and more effective, and would almost instantly eliminate the unfair competition of tax havens. However, realistically, for political reasons, this solution seems difficult to apply in the short term, and it would not eliminate the problem of banking and legal havens.
So, reporting, or the communication of information by country, seems to be the most effective solution. It involves asking all multinationals to present the following information, country by country: their activities in that country, the amount of their assets, the number of employees, the relationships between related persons, their before-tax profits and the amount of their taxes paid in that country.
The generally accepted accounting principles are a very powerful tool in that regard because they can be used to establish identical rules for all international businesses.
Furthermore, on June 5, 2010, in Busan, the members of the G20 finance meeting stated: "We expressed the importance we place in achieving a single set of high quality, global accounting standards and urged the International Accounting Standards Board and the Financial Accounting Standards Board to redouble their efforts to that end."
To conclude, I'll say that the information exchange system is a major effort to define and, in fact, resolve the problems. But it is important to check how this system will be implemented, in practice, and especially to provide for heavy sanctions on organizations that do not meet their commitments.
I would be happy to answer your questions.
Mr. Jeffrey Owens:
The OECD project started back in 1998. At that time, I think we had perhaps an oversimplistic approach to the issue of tax havens. It was very much a “name and shame”: you identified a tax haven using the definition I've just described, and then you put it on a list, and then you whacked in sanctions as defensive measures.
It was an aggressive approach. We were actually surprised that the tax havens responded to that approach by saying, “Before we get down to sanctions, let's start talking. Let's see whether we can have an agreement, because if we can have an agreement that we all buy into, then the agreement is much more likely to stick than just hitting us with sanctions.”
Between 1998 and 2000, we worked on that. We got a set of standards. In 2002, we had an agreement between the OECD countries and the tax havens on a model information exchange agreement. It wasn't easy getting places like the Caymans, Barbados, and OECD countries like Switzerland and Luxembourg to sign on to that, but we have it, and that agreement now forms the basis for these 600 tax information exchange agreements around the world.
I think the key turning point occurred in April 2009 at the London G-20 summit. At that point all of the G-20 leaders, including the Canadian leader, basically sent a very strong message to the offshore world: “Your time is up. We are no longer prepared to tolerate tax havens.”
To me it was surprising that it took so long to get there. I think there are many reasons explaining why that was the case, but at that London summit it was very clear that the political message had gone out that it was not acceptable.
At that point you saw the changes. You saw countries like Switzerland and Luxembourg saying they would come on board and sign the standards. You saw countries like Panama and Barbados saying they would come there as well.
This was because at the same time as the G-20 made that statement, the OECD issued its list—we don't call it a list, but that's what it is—that basically identified three categories of jurisdictions. There are those that have committed to the standard and have these 12 agreements, and so have partially implemented them. People call that the white list. I don't like that, because having 12 agreements doesn't mean you've done everything you need to do. The second part of the list was those that have committed to the standards but have not substantially implemented them. The third part was those jurisdictions that neither endorsed nor implemented the standards at all.
That list, because it was made with a “name and shame” approach, was very effective, because then you can saw the way countries began to move forward. What we've seen from April 2009 right though the Toronto G-20 summit and then to the last G-20 summit in Seoul is a massive increase in the number of these agreements.
Our focus now is on making sure that these operate in practice. I think one of the speakers said a moment ago that you have to be able to provide the name, the address, and the name of the bank before you can ask for information. That's not correct. All you have to do is provide sufficient information to enable the requested state to be able to go to the banking community and get that information. For example, if you have an e-bank number, that in itself is enough to do this.
These are some of the key timelines for this project. It's going to be ongoing, because as long as we have taxes, we'll have people who want to evade taxes. As long as you have people who want to evade taxes, you'll have offshore standards that would facilitate doing so.