Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Challenging times for Christians in Jersey

There is something rotten in the higher strands of the Christian community in Jersey. Last Autumn this blogger commented about the behaviour of the Dean of Jersey. Before posting the blog I discussed our concerns with Mr Keys who, instead of engaging in discussion, lost his temper, swore and put the phone down. He subsequently called back, apologised and, in the spirit of reconciliation, agreed to meet me next I came to Jersey.

Mr Keys did not keep his word. When we organised a public meeting in Jersey this March, I took care to invite Mr Keys. Like most of the other members of the island's government we invited, Mr Keys was conspicuous by his absence. Moral leadership? I think not.

Meanwhile on the Catholic side of Jersey's Christian community, my friends talk of deep divisions, ostracism, and a refusal to address tax justice concerns. This despite the clear messages issued by the Vatican in advance of last year's UN conference on Finance for Development in Doha.

The latest episode to catch the eyes of tax justice campaigners in Jersey is an article by Iain MacFirbhisigh - a church deacon - in the Jersey Evening Post. Written in the context of Christian Aid Week, the article reflects the constant propaganda and humbug which the cheerleaders of tax havens chose to frame their arguments:

Christian Aid week is fast approaching. This is yet another opportunity for us as a community to exercise Christian Stewardship. It may be very special this year because many of us are being challenged by the alliance of Christian Aid with the Tax Justice Network. It may be that the initial reaction to withdraw from this work is justified - why should we support an organisation that appears critical of our society?

Let's place this in context. TJN and its affiliated members campaign against the harm caused by tax havens. Christian Aid has estimated that tax evasion by multinational companies using tax havens costs developing countries a massive US$160 billion a year. This is a massive sum. The G-20 leaders recognise the importance of this matter.

We do not campaign against Jersey's society, indeed a significant minority in Jersey aligns with us on this issue. Iain MacFirbhisigh - and Mr Robert Keys, plus all the other opinion formers in Jersey - have had ample opportunity to discuss our concerns: but they refuse to even meet us, let alone counter our detailed analysis with well reasoned papers of their own. Instead, they threaten to withdraw funding from organisations working on tax justice issues and impugn our motives for trying to tackle the problems raised by tax havens.

But Iain steps in deeper:

Well there are two things. Firstly, an opportunity has presented itself for the situation in this Island to be examined critically and many of those who have incorrectly expressed disapproval of our activities are now realising that far from being a community of "tax dodgers" we are in fact a community of offshore financial experts who seek to be a part of the solution rather than the problem.

Much of our activity is geared towards greater equity and transparency and nowhere is this more recognised and appreciated than in many of the third world countries who are in most want.

Where do we begin to dissect this nonsense? Presumably the reference to critical examination refers to the OECD list published last month. We have already commented on the shortcomings of this listing process, but let's be clear: the OECD did not say that the jurisdictions listed on the "white" list were in the OK, just that they were ahead of the game in signing up to (largely ineffective) tax information exchange agreements.

In what ways are offshore financial experts part of the solution to tax evasion and avoidance by multinational companies which use tax havens to shift their profits out of the countries where the profits originate? We just don't get it. Step forth Iain MacFirbhisigh and explain in writing what you mean by this sentence. Answer this. Exactly how does the existence of an offshore financial centre in Saint Helier benefit public interest in developed and developing countries: what value is being created in these centres and by what mechanisms does any value created by offshore centres get distributed to poor people in either developing or developed countries.

And now we come to the issue of transparency. We recently blogged about the meaningless claims from tax havens about their transparency. Let's put it this way: would Mr MacFirbhisigh please give us the name, address and telephone number of the Registrar of Trusts in Saint Helier? Just that, nothing else. Anyone who knows anything about the tax evasion industry knows that trusts are a principal building block of offshore tax evasion structures. Until such time as details of trusts (settlors, beneficiaries, trustees, deeds of settlement, the whole shebang) are available for information exchange purposes, all talk of being transparent is mere hot air. (Clue: for those not familiar with British tax havens, there is no Registrar of Trusts in Jersey, nor in London come to that. Trusts are the ultimate weapon in the secrecy arsenal).

These are turbulent times. The probity and competence of the business community has been challenged by the financial crisis. Political elites are also being challenged on the probity of their actions. Church leaders have a legitimate part to play in this discourse, but we hope they are not simply being shills for an industry that has played a major part in fomenting chaos and inequality. Iain MacFirbhisigh should accept our challenge and answer the questions we have put to him. We will be happy to publish his reply.

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