Cable to review 'sham' company directors
Business Secretary Vince Cable says officials will examine the abuse of one of the cornerstones of corporate secrecy, nominee directors.
Responding to a Panorama investigation that found some nominee directors were shams and being used to facilitate tax evasion, Mr Cable said he will be reviewing their role.
UK law states that directors are responsible for the companies they run.
And they should know what those companies are doing.
But in secretly-filmed meetings, Panorama undercover reporters were told of nominee directors being provided for UK companies who did not even know to which company they had been appointed.
In a statement Mr Cable said his office would carefully consider the evidence Panorama brought to light and would be reviewing the trade in and the abuse of nominee directors.
"I can assure you that we will investigate fully any specific allegations and ensure that appropriate action is taken."
The programme secretly filmed corporate service providers - firms that specialise in forming new companies - as part of a joint investigation with the Guardian newspaper and the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists .
It identified a number of corporate service providers willing to facilitate tax evasion and turn a blind eye to criminal activity.
Tax evasion costs the UK taxpayer an estimated £4bn a year.
Nominee directors, who can be legitimately appointed to run companies on behalf of others, were found being used as sham directors by the firms investigated by the programme.
One of the companies said the odds of getting caught by the UK tax authorities was roughly equivalent to winning the lottery.
In one instance, an undercover reporter posing as a businessman with £6m in undeclared income sitting in a Swiss bank account is advised to move his money into a complex structure involving an anonymous foundation in the tax haven of Belize, which he would control in secret.
James Turner, of Turner Little in York, which specialises in forming companies, assured the undercover reporter that his company already had 10,000 of these structures up and running, with secrecy guaranteed.
"We've had Inland Revenue investigations on clients that have used companies like this... and they haven't got to the money," Mr Turner said during secret filming.
The complicated structure proposed by Mr Turner also involved the use of nominee directors to help keep the undercover reporter's name off company paperwork.
Mr Turner said his nominees would not be running anything at all.
"They won't even know that they are a director, they just get paid," he said, adding that the directors' signatures could be provided simply by using a stamp.
Jonathan Fisher QC, one of the UK's leading barristers specialising in white collar crime cases, said that what was being proposed would break the law.
"If this proceeded and the company was set up and it was set up in the way in which it is being discussed, then plainly some very serious criminal offences would be committed."
Those potential offences would be helping to cheat the revenue and launder the proceeds of crime.
Mr Turner denied any allegations of criminal misconduct. Turner Little said it takes its statutory and regulatory obligations seriously but said that once an internal investigation has been completed, if appropriate, it will take action.
Panorama also discovered corporate service providers offering to appoint sham directors to UK companies. UK law states that directors are responsible for the companies they run and should know what those companies are doing.
The use of sham directors was supposed to have been stamped out in the late 1990s after a scandal on the Channel Island of Sark.
In what became known as the "Sark Lark" one islander was discovered to be the director of more than 1,300 companies. Between them, the 600 inhabitants of the island held 15,000 directorships. New laws have reduced that to fewer than 50 posts today.
But the Panorama investigation found that the Sark Lark is not dead - rather it has moved and gone global.
One corporate service provider based in Dubai, Atlas Corporate Services, showed a list of its 19 nominee directors to one of Panorama's undercover reporters.
The programme discovered they had held more than 6,000 UK company directorships. The company involved said there is nothing unlawful in Dubai about the use of nominee professional directors.
'Tip of iceberg'
Former Metropolitan Police Det Supt Tristram Hicks, a leading expert on money laundering, said: "What I'm shocked by, and concerned by, is the apparent ease with which you've discovered these people.
"It tells you that maybe it is the tip of the iceberg that you have discovered by scratching the surface and that our regulation regime is not catching enough people."
In a statement, HM Revenue and Customs, which regulates the 2,467 registered trust or company service providers in the UK, said most in the industry have nothing to do with criminal activity.
But it did confirm that it has never prosecuted a single corporate service provider for breaching money laundering regulations. HMRC said tackling tax evasion is a priority.
Panorama's Undercover: How to Dodge Tax is on BBC One, Monday, 26 November at 20:30 GMT and then available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer via the link above.