The Pandora Papers Leak: What You Really Need To Know And How It Affects You

·4-min read
Photo credit: Francesco Carta fotografo - Getty Images
Photo credit: Francesco Carta fotografo - Getty Images

You might have seen a fair amount in the news lately about the Pandora Papers, a leak of nearly 12 million documents uncovering hidden wealth, tax avoidance and even money laundering by some of the world's most influential people.

But what really lies behind all the detail, jargon and scandal - and how does the whole thing affect you?

Who's behind it all?

More than 600 journalists in 117 countries have been going through files from 14 sources for months (that's a lot to look through).

The data was obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in Washington DC, which has been working with over 140 media organisations on the project. It's the ICIJ's biggest ever global investigation.

In the UK, BBC Panorama and the Guardian have led the investigation.

So, what's actually been uncovered?

The Pandora Papers leak includes more than 6.4 million documents, almost three million pictures, more than a million emails and nearly half a million spreadsheets (phew).

Some of the most prominent stories so far include a Tory donor, who was involved in one of Europe's biggest corruption scandals involving a Swedish telecoms company, and the King of Jordan's £70 million spending spree on houses in the UK and US through secretly-owned companies.

The main bombshells are concerned with the matter of offshore wealth. Some of the world's most powerful people - including more than 330 politicians - have been revealed to use secret, offshore companies to hide their money and assets.

Photo credit: We Are - Getty Images
Photo credit: We Are - Getty Images

What does 'offshore' actually mean?

When companies are set up in a complex way across borders, it can result in the hidden ownership of money and assets.

For example, someone might have a property in the UK, but own it via a chain of companies based in other countries, or 'offshore'.

Offshore countries are typically where it's easy to set up a company, there are laws that make it difficult to identify the owners and - crucially - there's low or no corporation tax.

It's why the same destinations are often called tax havens, or secrecy jurisdictions. Some of the most well-known include the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands, Switzerland and Singapore.

Um, it sounds kind of... illegal. Is it?

Basically, no. Loopholes in the law allow people to avoid paying some taxes by moving their money around like this, but it's often seen as unethical.

All you need to do is set up a 'shell company' in a tax haven, and ask a specialist firm to run the company on your behalf.

There are some legitimate reasons why people may want to keep their money elsewhere - to prevent against criminal attacks or guard against unstable governments, for example.

Though keeping offshore assets may not be illegal, it's the ideal way to hide dodgy dealings.

There have been repeated calls for politicians to make it harder for wealthy individuals to hide assets and avoid tax, but it hasn't come to much so far - many argue that's because the politicians themselves benefit from the system.

It's hard to say with certainty, but estimates say between $5.6 trillion and $32 trillion (according to the ICIJ) is kept offshore.


Photo credit: SEAN GLADWELL - Getty Images
Photo credit: SEAN GLADWELL - Getty Images

What's the UK doing about it?

The UK has been criticised for allowing property to be owned by anonymous, overseas companies and has published draft legislation that would insist the owners of UK properties are declared - but it's still waiting to be presented to MPs.

The government recently raised the risk of money laundering through property from 'medium' to 'high'.

It says it's cracking down on money laundering with tougher laws and enforcement, and that it will introduce a register of offshore companies owning UK property when parliamentary time allows.

Real talk: how does all this affect me?

Offshore investments have a knock-on effect, as the process encourages tax competition between countries, in the same way that sourcing ever-cheaper manual labour brings down wages everywhere.

The system also bypasses legislation in such a way that it threatens the stability of world economies and fair marketplaces, increasing the risk of unregulated financial markets and increasing the likelihood of bubbles and recessions.

On a day-to-day level, when rich individuals or companies dodge paying taxes in the countries where they do business, they deprive the government of resources needed for vital public services, from schools to hospitals.

The answer is for government to cut back on services, or collect higher taxes from everyone else.

Ultimately, tax avoidance results in big corporations and the super-rich getting richer, while everyone else pays the price.

The Pandora Papers may go some way towards exposing this injustice, and forcing companies and individuals to be accountable for the where they keep their assets and the tax they pay.

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