Note: MP Mel Stride represents a small part of the East Devon area. Mr Parish was an MEP from 1999 to 2007.
THREE out of four Devon MPs would not answer questions about wjhether they have benefited from offshore accounts, the Echo can reveal.
Hugo Swire, Neil Parish and Mel Stride chose not to respond to questions from the Echo about their tax affairs.
It comes after leaked documents showed politicians, footballers and celebrities had benefited from offshore investments designed to avoid UK taxes. Following calls for greater transparency amongst politicians, the Echo asked the MPs if they had ever used offshore accounts and whether they were prepared to publish their tax returns.
But Mr Swire, whose family was listed at 42 in the most recent Sunday Times Rich List, mounted robust defence of MPs’ right to keep their tax affairs private, which the Echo is publishing in full [see Owl’s post below for Swire’s letter].
His family’s business, which owns a stake in Cathay Pacific, has scores of subsidiaries operating from Panama, Bermuda and the British Virgin Isles.
A county councillor has criticised the 56-year-old foreign office minister for failing to answer the questions posed to him and said he should reveal his tax affairs.
Councillor Claire Wright, who represents Ottery St Mary Rural, said: “Hugo needs to be open and transparent about whether he has offshore investments or not.”
Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter, was the only politician in the Echo’s circulation area to respond to all five questions.
He answered “no” to questions one, two and three, meaning he and his family to the best of his knowledge had not benefited from any offshore investments.
Mr Bradshaw said: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant. I have no problem with MPs who, after all, make the laws, being required to publish their tax returns and perhaps the same should apply to our tax-exiled newspaper proprietors too.”
Meanwhile an assistant to Mel Stride, MP for Central Devon, said he was not prepared to make a statement on whether Mr Stride had benefited from offshore accounts at the moment.
The assistant said: “All I can state is he has no offshore trusts.”
The office for Neil Parish, MP for Tiverton and Honiton, did not respond to any of the questions, but came back with the following statement.
Mr Parish said: “This Conservative Government has done more than any other Government to close tax loopholes, a move which I welcome and I voted in favour of these measures.
“All of the items where I have a pecuniary interest have been registered in the Register of Members’ Interest which can be found online.”
Cllr Wright, however, said she believed MPs should be open following the scandal.
She said: “Tax avoidance has been a growing public concern and after the release of the Panama papers, it has reached a point where it is a top story on the news every day.”
“It is beholden on every MP to be open and transparent. They are in a position of public trust if they do have money in off-shore accounts,” Cllr Wright said.
“Hugo is a government minister and as the government make attempts to try and tighten up tax avoidance, the public needs to have confidence in its MPs so we know that they are practicing what they preach.”
Jonathan Isaby, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, however said he thought it would be unfair for MPs to have to publish their tax returns.
He said: “David Cameron made a rod for his own back by moralising about the legal tax arrangements of others in the past and was clearly clumsy in his handling of questions about the Panama papers.
“But it would be unfair to start forcing politicians into publishing their tax returns. MPs already have to declare external sources of income, significant shareholdings and so on in the publicly-available Register of Members’ Financial Interests but enforced publication of full tax returns would be an undue invasion of privacy.
“Our politicians’ energy would be far better spent simplifying our labyrinthine tax code instead of pontificating about the tax arrangements of those abiding by the very laws which they have written.”
The questions put to the four Devon MPs were:
1. Have you used a tax haven, tax incentive or deliberate means of avoiding tax in the past to your knowledge?
2. To the best of your knowledge has anyone in your immediate family?
3. Have you ever benefited from any offshore investments?
4. Are you prepared to publish your tax return?
5. What are your thoughts on the PM and Chancellor’s connections to the tax havens in Panama?
A letter from East Devon MP Hugo Swire in response to The Echo’s Offshore Tax questions