Sealing the loopholes: Proposed disclosure rules under the common reporting standards
As is now well-known, Kenya has signed on to the multi-lateral framework for the sharing of financial information that enables tax authorities detect those seeking to use international borders to avoid paying tax. The Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters established the Common Reporting Standards (CRS) that were approved by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in July 2014, and which have made it possible for tax authorities of participating countries to access financial information of their tax residents.
While it has been a great international success story, CRS’s full potential is still being undermined by tax-payers who, with assistance of their advisers, are still able to hide their assets and income under various cross-border devices, taking advantage of gaps within CRS to avoid detection. For example, CRS is limited to financial institutions that are located in participating jurisdictions. It is therefore easy to avoid its ambit by restricting one’s dealings to financial institutions located in nonparticipating countries which are not required to report any financial information in regards to a reportable person – a boon to aggressive tax planners hatching tax avoidance schemes.
The Model Rules
In line with their continuing programme of improving mutual disclosure requirements which are uniform but sensitive to local needs, on 9th March 2018, the OECD published the Model Mandatory Disclosure Rules for Common Reporting Standard Avoidance Arrangements and Opaque Offshore Structures (the Model Rules) which specifically target all categories (compendiously referred to as intermediaries) tax advisers. The OECD recognises detecting and deterring offshore tax avoidance schemes “is key both for the integrity of the CRS and for making sure that taxpayers that can afford to pay advisors and to put in place complex offshore structures do not get a free ride.”
As with other rules by the OECD on collection and access of relevant financial information for tax purposes, the Model Rules were developed so as to give a shared model for countries on the contents and structure of their own local regulatory framework in respect to professional service providers such as accountants, tax and financial advisors, banks, lawyers “to inform tax authorities of any schemes they put in place for their clients to avoid reporting under the OECD/G20 Common Reporting Standard (CRS) or prevent the identification of the beneficial owners of entities or trusts.”
The Model Rules are targeted at CRS Avoidance Arrangements or Opaque Offshore Structures. The former is ‘...any arrangement where it is reasonable to conclude that it has been designed to circumvent, or has been marketed as or has the effect of circumventing CRS legislation...” while the latter “…a passive offshore vehicle that is held through an opaque structure” and passive vehicle defined as “legal person or legal arrangement that does not carry on a substantive economic activity supported by adequate staff, equipment, assets and premises in the jurisdiction where it is established or is tax resident.” Whilst not exactly crystal clear from the various examples provided, it is possible to get a sense of what activities and/or structures the Model Rules have in mind. CRS avoidance relates to efforts to exploit gaps within the relevant legislative or administrative framework to avoid disclosure of the information required under CRS.
An opaque structure may also be described as the application of the well known commercial purpose test of an entity to CRS. The idea here is to isolate genuine financial arrangements serving an identifiable commercial purpose from those designed for concealing income and assets and thus avoid disclosure under the CRS regime.
Inquiry is directed at whether the structure has the effect of not allowing the accurate identification of the beneficial owners and specifically identifies well recognised tax planning techniques that can be used to achieve this outcome, such as the use of nominee shareholders, indirect control arrangements or arrangements that provide a person with access to assets held by, or income derived from, the offshore vehicle without being identified as the beneficial owner.
The Model Rules define “intermediaries” as those persons responsible for the design or marketing of CRS Avoidance Arrangements and Opaque Offshore Structures “promoters” as well as those persons that provide assistance or advice with respect to the design, marketing, implementation or organisation of that Arrangement or Structure “service providers”.
The knowledge and actions of an intermediary include those of their employees acting in the course of their employment, as well as contractors working for an employer, and the disclosure obligation and the penalties for a failure to disclose are imposed on that employer.
To be subject to the obligations imposed by the Model Rules, intermediaries must have a connection – “sufficient nexus” – with the reporting jurisdiction which extends to intermediaries operating through a branch located in that jurisdiction as well as one who is resident in, managed or controlled, incorporated or established under the laws of that jurisdiction.
An intermediary is required to file disclosure in respect of a CRS Avoidance Arrangements or Opaque Offshore Structures at the time the Arrangement is first made available for implementation, or whenever an Intermediary provides services in respect of the Arrangement or Structure. This ensures that the tax administration is provided with early warning about potential compliance risks or the need for policy changes as well as ensuring that it has current information on the actual users of the scheme at the time it is implemented.
There may be certain instances where the user of a CRS Avoidance Arrangement or Opaque Offshore Structure may have disclosure obligations under the Model Rules. More specifically, in instances where the intermediary is not subject to disclosure obligations as well as those cases where the intermediary is unable to comply with its disclosure obligations under the Model Rules either because it has no nexus with that jurisdiction or because it is relying on an exemption from disclosure such as professional secrecy.
The information required to be disclosed includes the details of the Arrangements or Structures, as well as the clients and actual users of those Arrangements or Structures, and any other intermediaries involved in the supply of the Arrangements or Structures. The requirements under the Model Rules are designed to capture the information that is likely to be most relevant from a risk-assessment perspective and to make it relatively straight forward for a tax administration to determine the jurisdictions with which such information should be exchanged.
The Model Rules do not require an attorney, solicitor or other recognised legal representative to disclose any information that is protected by legal professional privilege or equivalent professional secrecy obligations but only in respect to the scope of such protected information.
All relevant non-privileged Arrangements or Structures that are within the legal representative’s knowledge, possession or control should still be provided. While understandable and correct for legal professional privilege is now accepted as a component of the fundamental right to privacy, this might limit the Model Rules’ efficacy as more and more reliance is placed on practitioners in respect to whom such privilege attaches i.e. lawyers. Efforts by accountants to have legal professional privilege extended to them while giving legal advice, have thus far failed.
Striking a Balance
The information requirements of the model rules seek to strike a balance between the compliance burden on intermediaries to a minimum and still capturing the information that is likely to be most relevant. The requirement to separately identify the jurisdictions where the scheme has been made available for implementation and to specify the tax details of all the intermediaries, clients and reportable taxpayers in connection with that arrangement is intended to make it relatively straightforward for a tax administration to determine the jurisdictions for whom the disclosed information will be relevant for information exchange purposes.
The rules have put in place punitive measures for non-disclosure in the form of penalties. However the same are not cast in stone but are to be determined by each jurisdiction depending on its unique circumstances. However it is expressly stipulated that such penalties are to be set at a level that encourages compliance and maximises their deterrent effect.
The Model Rules are a continuation of concerted international efforts to tighten the noose around tax cheats or dodgers seeking to exploit international borders. As Arthur Vanderbilt remarked “taxes are the lifeblood of government and no taxpayer should be permitted to escape the payment of his just share of the burden of contributing thereto.” While the problem of crossborder tax avoidance affects most countries, the less developed countries are, by a significant factor, the most affected and disproportionately so. It will therefore come as no surprise if Kenya adopts the Model Rules as part of its CRS regime.
Even as the Government moves to implement CRS, a national debate on our entire tax system may well be warranted. It is a recurring question on which no answers are available and, as far as we can tell, has never fully engaged us as citizens despite the constant complaint that we are being overtaxed. It may well be possible that our tax system is inhibiting economic activity and thus, ironically, undermining rather than boosting revenue collection.