Overseas tax evaders jail threat

Updated: 

George Osborne

People who avoid paying tax by hiding their money overseas could face jail under sweeping new regulations being planned by the Government.

Chancellor George Osborne is consulting on the creation of a new criminal offence to make it easier to prosecute British citizens who hold undisclosed money in offshore accounts.

The changes would give HM Revenue & Customs the power to prosecute people who do not declare their foreign income, even if they did not deliberately intend to avoid payment.

The new legislation would be a move away from current laws, which demand that prosecutors show that individuals intended to avoid paying tax on foreign income.

Speaking from the International Monetary Fund meeting in Washington, Mr Osborne told the Financial Times: "We are changing the balance of the law so the burden of proof falls on those who are hiding their money offshore and we don't have to prove that they intended to do so."

He added: "It is totally unacceptable for people not to pay the tax that is due and the message will be clear now with this new criminal offence that if you're evading tax offshore, there is no safe haven."

HMRC has come in for criticism for the small number of tax evaders it prosecutes, the FT said, and the threat of prosecutions is likely to persuade more tax avoiders to come forward.

A document being published on Monday will outline the details, and the new criminal offence and sanctions are expected to come into effect next year, with HMRC receiving information on offshore accounts from 2016, The Times said.

But the announcement was greeted by dismay from some, with critics suggesting the law could result in people being jailed when they were genuinely ignorant of the law.

Bill Dowdell, head of tax at Deloitte, told The Times: "It's horrifying. People should not be put in prison unless you can prove intent. I'm shocked to find that an offence which could lead to a prison sentence could be decided on a strict-liability basis.

"If this change applies to all evasion cases I think that's unacceptable. People should not be put in prison unless you can prove intent."

The Treasury said prosecutors would still be able to exercise some discretion, The Times said.