Failure to Prevent an Economic Criminal Offence

Part of Criminal Finances Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:00 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Conservative, North West Norfolk 4:00 pm, 21st February 2017

I, too, would like to say a few brief words on new clause 6. I declare an interest: I chaired the all-party British Virgin Islands group and I am a former Minister with responsibility for the overseas territories.

I am well aware of the challenges in Africa. My right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell mentioned the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He and I will remember when Tullow Oil had its licences expropriated by the Kabila Government. It transpired that the interface company was a BVI-registered shell company in which Kabila, and part of Zuma’s family, had shares. It would have been very useful if we had been able to confirm that at the time.

I entirely accept that looking to the future and envisaging public registers across the world makes a lot of sense. What I am very worried about—this is the only point I am going to make—is that if new clause 6 is passed and territories like the BVI lose their business model, there would be a massive exodus by legal services, accountancy firms, banks and so on. They would have to then rely on tourism, and it could well be that they move back to being dependencies.

The other issue is this: would it solve the problem? No. The companies registered in the BVI, the Cayman Islands or the Turks and Caicos Islands would simply register elsewhere in countries that do not have public registers. They would go to Panama or Colombia. Indeed, I saw recently that the United States, Hong Kong and Singapore have said specifically that they will not bring in public registers until the rest of the world moves on. New clause 6 is well intentioned, but we should be very mindful of the unintended consequences.

Apart from the BVI losing its business model, those unintended consequences would include, above all else, the loss of some excellent intelligence and exchange of information arrangements. For example, the BVI has in place a beneficial ownership secured search system that enables our crime and fraud agencies to co-operate immediately and confidentially to get the information required. If these companies were registered elsewhere in the world, we would lose that crime-busting capability.

For those reasons, I hope that the Minister will reject new clause 6, well intentioned though it is, and instead work with right hon. and hon. Members concerned about this whole issue and make sure that in due course we persuade more and more countries around the world to work together and ensure a uniform approach in the future.