Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party chairman, Richard Tice, is facing calls to “urgently” address concerns about his family’s links to offshore tax havens, after an investigation by openDemocracy today reveals that two offshore firms own large shareholdings in his family’s business.
The Brexit Party MEP has also been urged to stand down from the European Parliament's Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee, which oversees EU tax policy, until the matter is fully investigated.
Tice, a co-founder of Arron Banks’s Leave.EU, says he has no knowledge of who runs two offshore companies that have held shares for over 25 years in his family business, Sunley Family Limited, and which now own a combined 42% stake. Tice denies any financial interests in the offshore companies.
Politicians and international tax experts have today demanded Tice “urgently clarify” who is behind these companies. John Christensen of the Tax Justice Network said: “Tice and his fellow Brexit travellers have called for ‘taking back control’ yet nothing undermines parliamentary democracy in Britain more than offshore tax havens.”
Molly Scott Cato MEP, who sits with Tice on the European Parliament's Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee, said: "If it turns out that Richard Tice has been dodging taxes then there would be an obvious conflict of interest with his role on the committee that oversees EU tax policy on behalf of European citizens.”
She has called for Tice to stand down from the committee “until we can be sure that he is not taking advantage of the very tax havens that are enabling the rich and powerful to evade their social responsibility to pay tax”.
Richard Tice was a director of Sunley Family Limited for 25 years until 2017, and remains one of the single largest shareholders, alongside several family members. Sunley Family Limited appears to pay £1.2m tax on a profit of £15.7m in the four years to 2017 – an effective tax rate of 7%, according to calculations by openDemocracy.
In Al Jazeera’s 'Head to Head' series, due to be aired in the UK at 9pm tonight, the commentator Ash Sarkar has asked Tice: “Why should we trust you on the direction of this country when a company that you set up, most of its dividends go through tax havens?”
Tice denied this was the case, saying: “I’m a UK taxpayer. I was one of the shareholders, there were about a dozen shareholders in that business. There were UK shareholders and they pay UK tax.” He has also confirmed that his family does not, nor ever has, received dividends from these companies.
Responding to Tice’s statement that he doesn’t know who is behind the Panama and British Virgin Islands-based firms that control a 42% stake in his family business, John Christensen said that company directors should know who they are dealing with “otherwise you could be dealing with money launderers. You have to do due diligence.”
Tice has rejected this claim, telling openDemocracy: “When you’re on the board of companies, that doesn’t mean you know who’s behind the shareholders of the company, and shareholders can change and do change. There’s no legal obligation to know.”
Tice also denies that he has any financial interest in either of the Panama and BVI-based companies that have invested in Sunley Family Limited, or that he has avoided paying UK tax.
Bad Boy of Brexit
Richard Tice is one of the “bad boys of Brexit” in Brexit bankroller Arron Banks’s book of the same name. He was elected as an MEP for the Brexit Party this May, in a vote which saw Nigel Farage’s party claim the largest number of UK seats in the European Parliament.
Wealth long preceded fame. In 1987, members of Tice’s family founded Sunley Family Limited, a property development firm which shares a name with Tice’s maternal grandfather, the businessman Bernard Sunley. In 1992, Tice was appointed as company director alongside several family members.
During the early 1990s, 40% of the company’s shares were transferred to two companies in tax havens – Sunciera Holdings Corporation (registered in Panama) and Shuttlecock Holdings Limited (registered in the British Virgin Islands).
In an email to openDemocracy, Tice said he is “not aware of the ownership of those companies”, and later said on the phone that he had “no right to know” who was behind them.
According to the Panamanian business register, a Swiss law firm specialising in tax planning services, Lenz & Staehelin, incorporated Sunciera Holdings Corporation in 1991. In the early 1990s, the company became a minority shareholder in Sunley Family Limited, but by 1995 its shareholding had expanded to become the single largest.
From 2009, Shuttlecock Holdings Limited in British Virgin Islands is listed as one of the single largest shareholders. As both entities are registered in secrecy jurisdictions, it is not possible to ascertain the identities of the companies’ owners or their financial status.
Over the past four years, Sunley Family Limited has paid its shareholders £5.5 million in dividends – of which at least £2.7 million has ended up in Panama and the British Virgin Islands, and is therefore not eligible for UK tax. Panama levies a 5% tax on dividends and the BVI 0%. Meanwhile the UK tax for dividends over £150,000 is 38%.
For the financial years 2014-2017, the company has paid £1.2 million in UK corporation tax on a profit of £15.7 million – an effective tax rate of 7.6%.
Bringing back control to the UK?
Another subsidiary of the Sunley group, the estate management company Sunley Farms Limited, is 100% owned by Sunciera Holdings Corporation in Panama. According to documents obtained from the Land Registry, the company is the owner of the family estate, Godmersham Park, which was bought by Tice’s uncle John Sunley in 1983.
At present, the estate is used on a commercial basis by the Association of British Dispensing Opticians. Company accounts for the year ending December 2015 show a £5 million loan from parent company Sunciera – suggesting that profit generated in the UK by Sunley companies was transferred to Panama and then reinvested into the UK-registered company through loans. Tice said he knew nothing about this deal, and has no involvement in either company. Such practices are within the law and there is no suggestion that any of the payments are illegal.
In April 2019, Sunciera became a member of the Sunley Property LLP – a property partnership consisting of Tice and several members of his family. Tice is listed at Companies House as a member of Sunley Property LLP, but has denied that he is involved in running it. The recent expansion of Sunciera’s involvement with Sunley Properly LLP points to an increase of this offshore vehicle within company structures controlled by Tice and his relatives, according to experts.
Arrangements of this kind are to come under increased scrutiny as part of the EU’s response to the Panama Papers scandal, with the introduction of the EU’s 5th Money Laundering Directive in January 2020, and new requirements on the disclosure of beneficial ownership for companies operating in Europe.
Tice has been a vocal critic of EU tax policy in the past. With the UK’s imminent departure from the EU, it remains to be seen how much of the directive will be implemented in the UK. Under the current UK system, companies can structure their operations via subsidiaries in tax havens to reduce their tax contributions in the UK.
Speculating on Tice’s support for Brexit, John Christensen said: “The EU Anti Tax Avoidance Directive, which came into force at the start of 2019, might be a reason why Tice and his business colleagues want to leave the EU. Corporate tax abuse costs European countries hundreds of billions annually, yet there is no sign that Tice will use his position as an MEP to support efforts to tackle this scourge.”
Christensen added: “Extensive use of tax havens is totally inconsistent with [Tice’s] claims about wanting to strengthen parliamentary democracy in Britain.”
In correspondence with openDemocracy Tice has said: “My support for Brexit is to bring back power and control to the UK, as a sovereign nation. It has nothing to do with these totally incorrect assertions.”
Update 28/10/19, 17:00
Since the publication of this article, Mr Tice's solicitors have been in touch. At their request, we are happy to clarify that Mr Tice's current personal shareholding in Sunley Family Ltd is 5%, and to add that Mr Tice is involved in a large number of businesses globally. We have also amended this article to reflect that, when we refer to the recent expansion of Sunciera’s involvement with Sunley Properly LLP, this points to an increase of a specific offshore vehicle – not vehicles – within company structures controlled by Tice and his relatives.