Inside the Clearing House Group
Secretive group of financial executives and public servants has won key tax concessions
The media listens to Taoiseach Enda Kenny, with members of the IFSC Clearing House Group, outside Government Buildings, in a file photograph from 2011. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Every month the group meets privately in room 308 of Government Buildings.
The gatherings are chaired by the State’s most senior civil servant, Martin Fraser, and include representatives of heavyweight firms in the financial and legal worlds such as Citi, KPMG and Bank of Ireland.
There are also civil servants from the Departments of An Taoiseach and Finance, along with officials from State agencies such as the Central Bank, the Revenue Commissioners and the IDA.
This is the “IFSC Clearing House Group”, a secretive group of financial industry executives, accountants and public officials formed in the late 1980s to promote Dublin as a financial centre.
Following claims it was too secretive and gave the financial services industry unprecedented access to Government, the group began publishing minutes of its meetings last year.
Behind closed doors
But the work of its subgroups in areas such as banking and treasury, insurance and international assets continues behind closed doors.
Now, new documents throw light on the extent of the industry’s access to senior Department of Taoiseach and Department of Finance officials, and the Central Bank, the industry’s regulator. They indicate that it lobbied successfully for a series of taxation and legal incentives and exemptions in the Finance Bill for 2013.
These include a range of incentives for research and development; changing the tax treatment of investment funds; exemptions to capital acquisitions tax for foreign firms; and changes to the taxation of foreign dividends for firms with branches abroad.
In some cases, proposed sections of legislation were drafted by the industry groups – which tend to represent multinational companies – and then put to the Department of Finance for consideration.
For critics such as the MEP Nessa Childers, the extent to which the industry is able to successfully lobby for measures from which it directly benefits is unhealthy for wider society. “When this group is influencing policy that not only affects the financial services sector but also impacts on the lives of all sections of Irish society, there must also be far more balance in these meetings,” she said, recently.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny has insisted the Department of Finance determines tax policy and meetings are simply a “forum” for the exchange of views and co-ordination of effort. Since the group was established in 1987, he says, the IFSC has grown to employ 33,000 people and contribute over €1 billion annually in corporation and payroll taxes.
“Clearly, this is an important and potentially expanding area of financial services with great possibilities for future employment,” he told the Dáil. “The fact that the minutes are published means there is no secrecy about it, because the issues are there for people to tease out.”
But the extent of the industry’s access, and the number of provisions it has been able to secure in budgets and finance Bills, is the envy of any other vested interest. It is estimated that 21 separate measures were contained in the 2012 Finance Bill or budget which had been sought by the Clearing House Group or its subgroups.
One included a tax break to lure multinational executives to Ireland. The special assignee relief programme, contained in the budget, provided an exemption from income tax on 30 per cent of a salary of between €75,000 and €500,000 for employees assigned to work here for up to five years.
For observers such as Nicholas Shaxson, an associate fellow of the UK think tank Chatham House, these are the hallmarks of “the captured state”.
He defines this as a world in which policymaking has been largely taken over by multinational financial interests that can pick and choose between jurisdictions and in effect write the laws they need.
But groups such as Financial Services Ireland, which forms part of the Clearing House Group, have insisted they don’t dictate policy. They simply provide valuable input about market trends and opportunities, and highlight the impact of changes and competitive issues that arise.
“It’s vital that the public sector and industry consult regularly. Good policy can only be made if its impact is understood, and if all parties talk to each other,” a spokesman said. Inevitably, whatever about job creation, a weary public may remain sceptical about what really goes on behind closed doors.
Recent years have provided a troubling insight into the sometimes toxic relationship between banking, property developers and government.
Some tax policies have benefited big business much more than ordinary taxpayers.