By Nicholas Winning
LONDON -- U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron announced the creation of a task force to investigate information contained in the so-called Panama Papers, after acknowledging that his own handling of the disclosure of personal links to offshore funds had been poor.
In a statement Sunday, the government said the new force, led by the U.K.'s tax authority and National Crime Agency, would probe the leaked documents from Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca once it gets access to them. The force will have an initial budget of up to GBP10 million ($14.1 million) and will report to the Treasury chief and home secretary on its progress, it said.
"The U.K. has been at the forefront of international action to tackle the global scourge of aggressive tax avoidance and evasion, and international corruption more broadly," Mr. Cameron said in the statement. "There is clearly further to go and this task force will bring together the best of British expertise to deal with any wrongdoing relating to the Panama Papers."
The prime minister admitted on Thursday that he had benefited from an offshore fund set up by his late father, after several days of questions from the media and the demands of the opposition Labour Party about his involvement.
"Well, it's not been a great week," Mr. Cameron said on Saturday at a meeting of members of his Conservative Party. "I know that I should have handled this better, I could have handled this better. I know there are lessons to learn and I will learn them."
Mr. Cameron's father, Ian Cameron, was mentioned in the Panama Papers as having helped set up an offshore fund in the early 1980s. The existence of the offshore fund did become publicly known in 2012, but the renewed focus has prompted politicians to push Mr. Cameron on the full details. Mr. Cameron said on Thursday that he sold the stake in his father's trust in 2010 before he became prime minister.
He denied his father's fund was set up with the purpose of avoiding tax. Rather, it was set up after foreign-exchange controls were relaxed so people who wanted to invest in dollar-denominated shares and companies could do so, the prime minister said. He said it was reported to U.K. regulators and properly audited each year.
"I paid income tax on the dividends. There was a profit on it but it was less than the capital gains tax allowance so I didn't pay capital gains tax," he said Thursday. "But it was subject to all the U.K. taxes in all the normal ways."
Until Thursday, Mr. Cameron had declined to disclose whether he had ever benefited from his father's offshore fund, Blairmore Holdings Inc.
The center-left Labour Party has said the prime minister's handling of his own links to offshore investments has raised serious questions over public trust in his office and his willingness to be straight with the public.
On Sunday, it said the investigation of the Panama Papers should be entirely independent of the government.
"The government's inadequate plans will fail to win back the trust of the public," John McDonnell, Labour's spokesman on economic affairs, said.
Several hundred protesters gathered on Saturday near the prime minister's official residence on Downing Street to call for Mr. Cameron to resign and close tax loopholes, according to local media and news television footage.
On Saturday, he pledged to publish information that goes into his own tax return for this year and years past, "because I want to be completely transparent and open about these things."
The prime minister has said the U.K. is a leader in the fight against tax evasion and avoidance, but the leaked documents have shone a light on offshore centers in the last remnants of the British Empire, including the British Virgin Islands and Anguilla.
Mr. Cameron plans to host an international anticorruption conference in May focused on improving financial transparency.
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