Certain British overseas territories, including the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands (BVI), are to be required to maintain publicly available registers of the beneficial ownership of companies, as part of new legislation to encourage greater transparency about financial dealings
The government’s about-turn on the issue came after a cross-party group of MPs was successful in bringing an amendment to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill, which is currently going through the final report stage in Parliament.
The legislation will require the overseas territories to provide public information about the beneficial ownership of companies by the end of 2020. Those on the list are Anguilla, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, Turks and Caicos Islands, and the BVI.
Duncan Hames, director of policy at the campaigning group Transparency International UK, said: ‘This is very welcome news that the UK will finally be able to open up the financial centres in the British overseas territories. These jurisdictions have long been the Achilles Heel of our defences against dirty money.
‘Agreement on this represents a hugely significant moment in the fight against corruption, not just in the UK but around the world.’
Plans to include the Crown dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man were dropped from the amendment as it was agreed.
The move to make registers compulsory and public had been strongly opposed by the overseas territories, who claim it amounts to constitutional interference, adds compliance costs and is a threat to the local economies which are dependent on the financial sector.
During the debate, foreign office minister Sir Alan Duncan said: ‘Of the seven overseas territories with significant financial centres, four already have central registers or similarly effective arrangements.
‘They are able to provide UK law enforcement authorities, on request, with access to such information, even at very short notice—it can be within 24 hours, or even within one hour in urgent cases.’
However, Duncan said the government accepted an amendment from Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell and Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP and former chair of the public accounts committee, calling for this information to be both mandatory and publicly accessible.
Duncan said: We do not want to legislate directly for the overseas territories, nor do we want to risk damaging our long-standing constitutional arrangements, which respect their autonomy.
‘However, we've listened to the strength of feeling in the House on this issue and accept that it is without a doubt the majority view of this House that the overseas territories should have public registers.’
Reaction from the Caribbean overseas territories has been forceful. David Burt, Bermuda’s premier and minister of finance, described the decision as a regrettable ‘about face’, which failed to acknowledge the country’s ‘long history of full internal self-government’.
‘This attempt to legislate for Bermuda from London is a return to base colonialism and is an action that has no place in 2018. It is especially telling that the Crown dependencies are not included in this amendment which is restricted to the Caribbean overseas territories and Bermuda,’ Burt said.
Orlando Smith, BVI premier, said: ‘This is a deeply flawed policy as the BVI already provides verified beneficial ownership information to the UK and other law enforcement authorities.
‘We believe that in the absence of a global standard and a level playing field, the imposition of public registers of beneficial ownership on the Virgin Islands could have negative economic consequences. It is unfortunate that this development has taken place as we continue to recover from last years’ disasters.’
Guernsey’s deputy Gavin St Pier, president of the policy and resources committee, welcomed the withdrawal of the clauses in the amendment which would have brought the Crown dependencies within scope of the new requirements, saying it would have created a ‘constitutional breach’ and undermined the island’s autonomy.
'Guernsey is committed to meeting international standards, in particular in relation to fighting financial crime. As we have previously stated we would introduce a public register if that becomes the agreed global standard. This must be a level playing field for all,’ he said.
Jersey’s chief minister, senator Ian Gorst, agreed citing ‘the substantial work of the Island on transparency and robust financial regulation’.
‘We will continue to pursue the highest international standards and will consult with the UK in relation to their implementation – including of the fourth and fifth Anti-Money Laundering Directives, the EU’s progressive legislation designed to counter money laundering.
‘This is in line with our existing good neighbour relationship with the EU and the fact that we have considered the implementation of previous EU Directives in this area. However, we will do this in our own time,’ he said.
Report by Pat Sweet