Accountants and lawyers ‘must report’ aggressive tax avoidance schemes

New European Union law will affect UK financial services, as EU adds more countries to its tax blacklist.

Accountants, bankers and lawyers will face penalties if they fail to report aggressive tax avoidance schemes that help companies or individuals move money to offshore havens, under a new European Union law.

The rules, agreed by EU finance ministers on Tuesday, will affect the UK financial services industry despite Brexit, because they enter into force six months before the likely end of a transition period, during which the government must obey all EU law.

The finance ministers also added the Bahamas to the bloc’s tax blacklist, months after the British overseas territory was caught up in the Paradise Papers leak of offshore secrets.

Two other British overseas territories, Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands, were put onto a “greylist” of jurisdictions that have promised to reform their tax policies to meet EU standards.

As a result of Tuesday’s agreement on tax transparency, accountants, bankers and lawyers will be obliged to report to national authorities “potentially aggressive tax planning schemes with a cross-border element”, or risk a penalty.

Firms will be obliged to report corporate or personal income transfers to low-tax or no-tax jurisdictions, or places with weak controls on money laundering. National authorities will share information about these schemes through a central database.

Penalties “should be proportionate and have a dissuasive effect”, but national governments are free to decide on fines or administrative sanctions when the directive is transposed into national law.

The new rules were agreed by finance ministers from all 28 EU states including the UK. A senior civil servant went in place of the British chancellor, Philip Hammond, who was giving his spring statement in London.

The reporting requirements come into force from July 2020 – six months before the end of a mooted Brexit transition period. Under the terms of a draft transition deal, the UK would be expected to follow EU law.

The government is likely to face pressure to stick to EU tax rules after Brexit if it wants a close trading relationship with the bloc.

Valdis Dombrovskis, a European commission vice-president, said the agreement would result in greater tax revenue for member states. He added: “The European Union will of course use its political influence to push for a similar agreement on an international level.”

Tax campaigners welcomed the moves for greater transparency but called on Brussels to do more to clamp down on tax avoidance inside the EU.

Oxfam’s tax policy adviser, Johan Langerock, said: “The commission rightly named and shamed several EU member states last week for their aggressive tax policies – but now action must follow those words to stamp out tax avoidance in the EU. Governments should tackle tax havens within the EU with the same urgency they are pressuring other countries to adopt tax reforms.”

After the latest changes to the EU’s tax blacklist, the list of “non-cooperative jurisdictions” now stands at nine, while 62 fall onto the greylist.

The Bahamas, St Kitts and Nevis, and the US Virgin Islands were added to the blacklist on Tuesday, as they were deemed to have not responded to EU concerns. Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, the British Virgin Islands and Dominica were added to the greylist.

The EU published its first official blacklist last year but postponed judgment on Caribbean islands that had been hit by Hurricane Irma.

Blacklisted countries could face restrictions on European development and investment funds but the EU has yet to agree sanctions.