Thursday, August 5, 2010
A new report by the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP) has highlighted a "worrying lack of basic measures to protect taxpayers from abuse" when governments exchange tax data under Tax and Information Exchange Agreements (TIEAs).
STEP notes that there are already well over 300 tax information exchange agreements (TIEAs) in place between countries and the number is growing rapidly. The report warns of the increasing risk that, as the TIEA network grows, countries with poor human rights records and weak data security will gain access to detailed personal financial data on individuals.
The report concludes that a lack of strong data protection provisions in OECD standard TIEAs could leave law abiding taxpayers and their families vulnerable to issues such as threats from criminal gangs who have gained access to tax data.
David Harvey, STEP Chief Executive, said: “Most TIEAs so far have been agreed between major economies, such as the UK, and other well run countries. There is now strong political pressure to expand the list of countries accessing tax data via TIEAs, bringing in countries where it is harder to be confident that personal tax data will be secure. It is very worrying, therefore, that so far there are no clear plans to ensure minimum standards are in place to protect the public.
Harvey added: "It seems extraordinary, for example, that the current OECD review process for TIEAs only looks at a country’s performance in providing tax data. There is no check whatsoever to ensure countries receiving data on taxpayers’ financial affairs protect that data and respect personal confidentiality.”
As an example of how things might go wrong when detailed personal information is shared with other governments, the report highlights a recent court case in the UK where the Zimbabwean authorities seized USD300m of assets after they became aware that the UK was making anti-money laundering checks on a large - but legitimate - transaction for someone based in Zimbabwe.
STEP has proposed a set of minimum standards that countries must meet before getting access to tax data from other countries, including minimum standards of good governance, basic data protection measures and a right of redress for taxpayers if things go wrong. STEP also recommends that:
While the report notes that relatively few TIEAs have been signed with countries with poor governance records, practitioners and savers have expressed concern that "political expediency could change the current largely tacit policy of sharing information only with trusted partners."
States the report: "As the pressure to widen the OECD framework grows it is likely that large, powerful economies with poor governance records will begin to demand access to current tax information sharing arrangements. In the absence of explicit protections, real politik on the part of the major democracies may result in them getting such access."