The secret deals and hidden assets of the world’s most powerful politicians and billionaires have been revealed in the biggest leak of financial offshore data in history.
More than 100 billionaires, 30 world leaders and 300 public officials’ undercover dealings have been exposed in a joint investigation by BBC Panorama with the Guardian and other media outlets around the world – dubbed the Pandora Papers.
Almost 12 million leaked files reveal some figures are accused of money laundering, corruption and international tax avoidance.
But the most striking revelation from the papers is just how many world leaders and wealthy individuals have been legally acquiring offshore companies in order to secretly buy property in the UK – some 95,000 offshore firms, in fact.
All exposed deals point to just how grave the government’s lack of oversight of offshore property owners is – and therefore how vast the potential for money laundering is.
Despite repeated pledges to introduce a register of offshore property owners, the UK government still has not done so.
It highlights the UK government’s failure to introduce a register of offshore property owners despite repeated promises to do so, amid concerns some property buyers could be hiding money-laundering activities.
Among those with their offshore financial dealings exposed is ex-UK prime minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie, who saved £312,000 in property taxes when they bought a £6.5m office in Marylebone by acquiring a British Virgin Islands offshore company.
But a spokesperson on behalf of Tony and Cherie Blair denied any wrongdoing and said: “The Blairs bought the premises mentioned for the legal business and Foundation of Cherie Blair in a normal way through reputable estate agents. The transactions are all registered publicly. The vendor was an offshore company. The Blairs had nothing whatever to do with the original company nor those behind it.”
“For the record, the Blairs pay full tax on all their earnings. And have never used offshore schemes either to hide transactions or avoid tax.”
Current prime minister Boris Johnson will now face tricky questions at the Conservative party conference after the files also revealed the ins and outs of major Tory party donors’ dealings.
But potentially far more awkward for lawmakers, the documents also reveal that the Queen’s Crown Estate – the monarch’s property empire that falls under the Treasury’s wing to manage – appears to have bought a £67m London property from Azerbaijan’s multimillionaire ruling family the Aliyevs, which has been accused of corruption multiple times.
Further afield, Russian President Vladimir Putin is revealed to have secret assets in Monaco, and Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis – who is facing a national election later this week – failed to declare an offshore investment company that he leveraged to buy two villas for £12m in the south of France.
Meanwhile, the King of Jordan has been on a secret spending spree of £70m, amassing a property empire in the UK and US through offshore companies.
Leaked documents reveal Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein has bought 15 opulent homes in locations like London, Ascot and Malibu, in the 22 years he has been in power.
A gap in the system
In 2018, the UK government published draft legislation that would rule that the ultimate owners of UK properties must be declared. But it is yet to be presented to MPs.
According to a 2019 parliamentary report, the current UK system acts as a magnet for people “such as money launderers, who may wish to use property to conceal illicit funds.”
Because police are unable to see who actually owns properties, their criminal investigations often fall at the first hurdle and are “hindered”, the report said.
It comes after the government recently upped the risk of money laundering through property in the UK from “medium” to “high”.