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Letter: Be wary of a crackdown on trusts in pursuit of oligarchs’ wealth

As an anthropologist, Gillian Tett will know how easily tribal emotions can be stirred up against a common enemy. In “The world needs to come clean about dirty money” (Magazine, FT Weekend, March 26) she paints a sinister picture of a “social silence” around assets held in trust, and governments “forced to peer into the shadows” to find oligarchs’ “ill-gotten gains”.

This may be well and good if the assets are definitely those of our enemies, and the gains are “ill-gotten”. But Tett appears to be attacking anyone holding assets in a trust or company. Yes, trusts are often viewed with suspicion but there are many good reasons for honestly acquired wealth to be put into trust. What will happen to your disabled child when you die? Do you want your kids to know about the inheritance that could spoil them? Are there enemies or competitors who want to steal your assets? Governments don’t usually steal, but can you be sure?

It’s true that there’s a lot of money offshore, but the claim of “a whopping 10 per cent of global gross domestic product” is overstated, as that 10 per cent was accumulated over many generations, while GDP is one year’s work. It’s also easy to talk about this money being “dirty”, but what happened to the pecunia non olet (money has no smell) maxim?

Trusts are typically very long-term commitments and are now taxed as though they are avoidance schemes, which many are not. For some, yes, that’s the price of hiding, but I think most are perfectly legitimate investors and our government collects billions in taxes from them.

So certainly we need the sanctions, but a good witch-hunt is also a classic opportunity to get illiberal legislation, snaring the innocent and damaging our reputation for reliability as a safe home for investors. So, yes there may be some problems, but let’s be careful.

Richard Edgecliffe-Johnson
Ockley, Surrey, UK

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