Public registers of beneficial ownership of companies registered in Crown dependencies and overseas territories

Criminal Finances Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 22nd November 2016.

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‘(1) In Part 1 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (introductory), after section 2A, insert—

(1) It shall be the duty of the Secretary of State, in furtherance of the purposes of—

(a) this Act; and

(b) Part 3 of the Criminal Finances Act 2017

to take the actions set out in this section.

(2) The first action is, no later than 31 December 2017, to provide all reasonable assistance to the Governments of Crown Dependencies and overseas territories to enable each of those Governments to establish a publicly accessible register of the beneficial ownership of companies registered in that Government’s jurisdiction.

(3) The second action is, no later than 31 December 2018, to enact an Order in Council in respect of any overseas territory that has not yet introduced a publicly accessible register of the beneficial ownership of companies within their jurisdiction. This Order would require the overseas territory to adopt such a register.

(4) The third action is, no later than 31 December 2018, to consult with the Governments of the Crown Dependencies that have not established a publicly accessible register of the beneficial ownership of companies, regarding the ability of those jurisdictions to do so.

(5) The fourth action is to take all reasonable steps to support the Crown Dependencies to consent to adopting publicly accessible registers of the beneficial ownership of companies.

(6) In this section ‘a publicly accessible register of the beneficial ownership of companies’ means a register which, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, provides information broadly equivalent to that available in accordance with the provisions of Part 21A of the Companies Act 2006.”’—

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to take steps to provide that overseas territories and Crown dependencies establish publicly accessible registers of the beneficial ownership of companies, for the purposes of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 and Part 3 of the Bill (corporate offences of failure to prevent facilitation of tax evasion).

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Crime and Prevention)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

We discussed this subject this morning in connection with clause 38. The new clause would make it incumbent on the Secretary of State to do all that she can to ensure that there are public registers of beneficial ownership in the UK’s overseas territories and Crown dependencies for companies operating and registered in their jurisdictions.

Proposed new subsections (2) to (5) delineate the steps that the Secretary of State would take to ensure that such registers were adopted. Proposed new subsection (3) states that those territories that failed to do so by a specific time would be subject to an Order in Council. I know what was said this morning, but there is precedent for that; I could go through a whole list of examples, but I will not bore the Committee with that quite yet.

The Government have created a Bill with the express intention of stamping out financial crime and clearing up the UK and London’s image. We quite rightly no longer wish to be seen as a country that is a soft touch, or as a City where dirty money can be hidden. To me and others, it is therefore astounding that there is no mention at all of the UK’s overseas territories and Crown dependencies in the Bill.

Thanks to the Panama papers, we and the rest of the world know that the UK overseas territories and Crown dependencies facilitate corruption, money laundering and tax evasion on a global scale. I am sure that the Minister is sick to death of hearing about the issue—we heard about it so many times in the evidence, and pretty much in every speech on Second Reading, with both Government and Opposition Members mentioning it—but I am afraid to say that the public are also sick of hearing about the double standards that exist for the politicians and wealthy elite who do not pay their taxes.

Opinion polling and recent research has shown that more than eight in 10 people think that it is morally wrong for businesses to avoid paying tax, even if that is legal or looks like, prima facie, a victimless crime. Only 20% of people think that any political party has done enough, and 77% think that the Government should be doing more to ensure that companies stop tax-dodging; among leave voters, that figure rises to 83%. More than two thirds of people want the Government to insist on public registers of beneficial ownership in the overseas territories and Crown dependencies. Again, there are a whole alphabet soup of different organisations and charities involved. This is all according to ComRes polling done on the issue for Oxfam and Christian Aid.

The issue will continue to reappear until the Government start listening to the people, finally step in and, if needs be, compel overseas territories to toe the line. None of us wants overseas territories to have registers forced on them, so we would be delighted if they did something. Christian Aid suggested a timeline, a set of goals being put in place to make something happen, because nothing will happen overnight; those jurisdictions are used to propping up tax evasion, so they will not fall into line quickly. A set of dates and objectives, however, would be extremely helpful.

We have already heard today about how overseas territories and Crown dependencies are making progress, but it is not swift enough. They have had three years, but nothing has happened. Under the former Prime Minister, they were first asked to take action three years ago, but not one of them bothered to consult on that request. The ones that responded to it largely said a simple no to the supposed consultations. In April 2014, they were asked again to do so in a letter from the former Prime Minister, but only one, Montserrat, committed to adopting a public register. The worst offenders, however, the ones that facilitate the stealing of wealth from developing countries and so in effect harbour blood money —the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands—ignored the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s request to meet and discuss the issue. I tried to ask about that this morning, but did not get a proper answer.

At every step of the way, the overseas territories and Crown dependencies have sought to frustrate any real progress. I did not mention any particular ones by name in my speech on Second Reading, but I had a really snotty, or not very friendly, letter from the Isle of Man, basically saying, “How very dare you. You don’t understand any of this.”

The Library brief on beneficial ownership cites a Minister who said:

“We have made huge progress in ensuring that we have registers of beneficial ownership in the overseas territories…The progress that has been made in the overseas territories is the greatest under any Government in history, which perhaps is one reason Transparency International said that the summit had been a good day for anti-corruption.”—[Official Report, 15 June 2016; Vol. 611, c. 1745.]

However, the brief also states:

“Given that some of the Crown Dependencies and British Overseas Territories have already…said very firmly that they will not be creating public registers, it seems likely that any further negotiation towards such registers will not be easy.”

That is an impartial brief. Transparency International recognises that some people are setting their faces against this.

I have a copy of Hansard from Jersey that I was thinking of pulling out this morning. It was pointed out to me that a Deputy asked the following question in the Jersey States Assembly on 15 November:

“Following statements made in the House of Commons by the Minister for Security on 25th October, that the U.K. Government”—

that is the Minister opposite me, is it not?

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Crime and Prevention)

Yes. The Minister was quoted in the Jersey States Assembly in a question about the fact that

“the U.K. Government hopes the Crown Dependencies might have made their Registers of Beneficial Ownership of Companies public by the end of this year, or into next year.”

The Deputy asked whether the Chief Minister would

“advise what discussions he has had” and what steps were being taken to put in place the good work that the Minister has mentioned. The following answer came back:

The U.K. Government accepts, and has accepted in conversations with us, that our approach meets the policy aims that they are trying to meet and international bodies, standard setters and reviewers, have acknowledged that our approach is a leading approach and is superior to some other approaches taken.”

The answer is quite long, and I will bore people if I read it all out, but in essence it was, “We’re doing enough, and we’ve been told that it’s fine.” That is quite scandalous. A supplementary question was also asked. The Chief Minister of Jersey has said, “We’re doing what we’re doing, and it’s enough.” That does not go far enough. As long as such countries can get away with that, they will do that. There is a race to the bottom. They are all saying, “We don’t have to do it; no one else is doing it.”

As I am sure the Minister knows, Orders in Council have been made over the years in relation to different things. One was made in 1991 to abolish capital punishment for the crime of murder in the Caribbean territories of Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat and the Turks and Caicos Islands. In 2009, the UK Government suspended the ministerial Government and the House of Assembly of the Turks and Caicos Islands. The Government basically went in to run the thing: direct rule from London was imposed, despite opposition and criticism. There is a longer list of examples. That has been done before. It seems from the Chief Minister’s answer that Jersey thinks it can get away with it. Could we perhaps set a date of, say, 2020 and say that if it has not published entirely public registers of beneficial ownership by then, we will presume that all money coming through is dirty, or something like that? That may concentrate minds.

I could go on and on about the new clause, but I was told to be brief this afternoon, so I will end there for now. I am curious to hear the Minister’s response.

Photo of Richard Arkless Richard Arkless Scottish National Party, Dumfries and Galloway

The SNP generally supports that proposition—we would prefer that Crown dependencies and overseas territories held publicly available registers of beneficial ownership—but to further a point that I made earlier, as the Scottish National party, we are obviously reluctant to compel this place in primary legislation to legislate for jurisdictions where it perhaps does not have locus. Proposed new section 2AA(5) in new clause 5 highlights the constitutional quagmire that that would put this place in. It states that this place would

“take all reasonable steps to support the Crown Dependencies to consent”.

Are we going to try to persuade them to consent? I do not quite understand what that subsection is getting at. If we have jurisdiction, we have jurisdiction; if we do not have jurisdiction, we simply do not have jurisdiction.

In conversations that I have had with the Jersey authorities—I have forthcoming conversations with the Isle of Man authorities, which sent me a similar letter, although I perhaps would not describe it in such terms—they have been at pains to stress that this place does not have competency to make such legislative provisions. I am minded to agree, even though I think it would be a good idea if they did, under their own steam, make those public registers available. Our position is that we support the proposition in principle, but we do not see that this new clause is competent, given the jurisdictional capabilities of this place over the Crown dependencies.

Photo of Roger Mullin Roger Mullin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

The SNP has been very supportive of everything today, but I have to say that for the past year and a half I have been having discussions with the Isle of Man authorities, including with the First Minister there, and I have found them genuinely willing to engage in discussions. I think that the language used about the Isle of Man was unfortunate.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

As the hon. Lady rightly says, this subject has been raised significantly, both on Second Reading and elsewhere. New clause 21 would set a legislative timetable for the UK Government to ensure that overseas territories have a public register of beneficial ownership, and to work with Crown dependencies to achieve the same outcome. There is considerable interest in this specific issue and I am pleased that this amendment allows us to debate it. I understand where the Opposition are coming from and appreciate the desire for these jurisdictions to have publicly accessible registers of beneficial ownership information—David Cameron made this an ambition in 2015. I would be grateful if the hon. Lady clarified why she chooses to treat Crown dependencies differently from overseas territories when it comes to some of the measures; that would be helpful to all Members.

While the overseas territories and Crown dependencies are separate jurisdictions with their own democratically elected Governments, and are responsible for their own economic diversification and fiscal matters, we have been working with them on their role on company transparency. If public registers emerge as a new global standard, the UK Government would expect all relevant jurisdictions to meet that standard. However, it would be wrong to say that, in the absence of public registers, no efforts have been made to increase corporate transparency and tackle tax evasion and corruption. The Crown dependencies and those overseas territories with financial centres are already taking a number of important steps on beneficial ownership and tax transparency, which will put them well ahead of most jurisdictions. This includes some of our G20 partners and other major corporate and financial centres, including some states in the United States. These measures will prevent criminals from hiding behind anonymous shell companies and mark a significant increase in the ability of UK law enforcement authorities to investigate bribery and corruption, money laundering and tax evasion.

I asked officials whether there has ever been an example of our imposing legislation on the Crown dependencies. As far as we can find out, in recent history there has never been an example of our imposing legislation on Crown dependencies without their consent. That is important—we have not gone around imposing our will on Crown dependencies as we see fit. Where we have done so on overseas territories, it has been on very strong moral issues such as capital punishment. Both in Crown dependencies and overseas territories, people have moved quite significantly and, I have to say to the hon. Lady, far more significantly that in 13 years of a Labour Government. We cannot sit here and ignore the elephant in the room.

Under our Government. we now have a position where the debate in this room is about the word “public” and whether registers are going to be public. It is not about whether these islands and other places will have a central register of beneficial ownership. By next year, they will either have a direct central register or linked registers and that is 90% of the way. By the way, our law enforcement agencies will have automatic access to that information.

The best thing, in my view, would be to say, “Yes, we know what David Cameron’s intention was in 2015 when he made that statement; yes, the United Kingdom pretty much leads the world in making our register public for the whole of the United Kingdom”, but also to say, “Let us revisit this once we get the Bill through, once we see whether our law enforcement agencies can use that access to prosecute, deter, change culture and show the way forward.” If that is not happening, of course we can have these debates again, but we should recognise that a lot of those countries have moved without our imposing our will on them, and we are hopefully giving access to our National Crime Agency and HMRC—all the things that we struggled to get for very many years. Let us see where that journey takes us. Our intention is clear. We pretty much lead the world in this. I urge hon. Members to recognise that we are going a long way.

Photo of Richard Arkless Richard Arkless Scottish National Party, Dumfries and Galloway

The Minister will forgive me if I am wrong, but he has only outlined the position and the progress made by the Crown dependencies in having registers and information sharing. Will he elaborate on the overseas territories or did I miss something?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing that out. I meant and/or the overseas territories. The full house will, hopefully by next year, have those registers in place with automatic sharing enabled for our law enforcement agencies, and vice versa—should someone choose to use our country to hide tax from those other countries, their law enforcement agencies will be able to have it.

What I notice about all this is that the world is changing. Transparency is in the ascendancy, secrecy is not. Whether these places are overseas territories or other countries that are nothing to do with the United Kingdom, it is not secrecy that makes them competitive or attractive, but the tax rates and surrounding regulations. That is generational change. Yes, there will be people who wish to hide their wealth for all the wrong reasons, but we are now in a position where our agencies and bodies of law and order will be able to access those areas. They will not have to rely on leaks or third-hand information.

I would not be surprised if, in five or 10 years, we are talking about entirely different countries around the world, maybe even countries that we might think would not be harder to access, but actually are. Those countries might have a more developed legal system and a more protective privacy system that makes it harder for our forces of law and order to get hold of data. I certainly think that these places have come 90% of the way, and we should see whether that works for us. We all have the intention and the United Kingdom is leading by example.

The new clause is a very strong measure. We should not impose our will on the overseas territories and Crown dependencies when they have come so far. Irrespective of the point raised by the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton about their attitude and about whether they were pushed or forced, they were not pushed there by a gunboat. It is important to recognise that we have got where we have through cajoling, working together and peer group pressure, which, after all, makes a real difference. Therefore, I urge the hon. Lady to withdraw the new clause.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Crime and Prevention)

It is not good enough to say that we just have to pat ourselves on the back and that everything is fine. I am a bit disappointed with the Minister for trotting out that thing about 13 years of Labour. What did Labour do? We passed the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, which the Bill amends; the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005; the Bribery Act 2010, section 7 of which we discussed so much this morning; and the Money Laundering Regulations 2007. We created the Serious Organised Crime Agency to ensure a single, intelligence-led response to organised crime.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Crime and Prevention)

Let me finish this list. We also passed the Terrorism Act 2000, part 3 of which we have been amending here, as well as part 2 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001—legislation to deal with all these things that we have been talking about, such as terrorist funding. It is a bit low of the Minister to trot out that one about 13 years of Labour. We have been consensual and friendly all the way through this Committee, saying what good legislation this is, so that is a bit tawdry. [Interruption.]

Order. It is a bit difficult to hear what the hon. Lady has to say. Is the Minister intervening?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Minister of State (Home Office) (Security)

We could say that that is a whole list of missed opportunities for Labour to impose its will on the Crown dependencies. The point is that this takes time. I do not expect Labour to rustle up a perfect, tax-transparent solution to the problem; I did not expect Labour to do it in 13 years, and it is unreasonable to say suddenly, “We are going to impose it in the Bill.” There has been a direction of travel all the way through the last decade and a half. This has been about building a slow but thorough process to make sure that we got to where we are. We will be back again on economic crime and reviews of regulators, and to build on some of these issues.

I am not making the party political point that Labour did not do anything for 13 years. My point is that these things are easier said than done. Labour had plenty of opportunities to do them, but did not, and I respect the reasons for that. Labour did not do these things, not because it could not be bothered, but because it felt it had to build a foundation of recovering assets from crimes. Once the foundation was built, Labour moved to elements of the Bribery Act 2010, and to all the other parts of the law, so that we have ended up where we are. We can go on to build on that. That was my point. I do not need to make cheap party political points; I need to make the point that these things are easier said than done, and we have all come a long way.

Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Crime and Prevention) 3:15 pm, 22nd November 2016

I respect the Minister and I know that he is a reasonable person, but six years into government, he is dragging up the record of a previous Government. I would like to pass on to him the Hansard of the States of Jersey legislature. In it, the question was asked:

“Can the Chief Minister confirm that this is not something that, from Jersey’s perspective, is immediately on the cards” or is

“the Minister for Security in the UK”— that is the Minister opposite me—

“under a misunderstanding of what direction the Crown Dependencies are going in?”

The answer from Senator Gorst, from the governing party in Jersey, was as follows:

“they have decided that the best approach for them is a public register. Of course, they are asking others around the world to consider following their approach. We take the approach which meets the international standard which is, as far as we are concerned, a leading approach.”

Judging from that, Jersey has no plans to have a public register until it becomes the international standard.

I accept that the Minister says that it is bad to compel people to do things, but in my last speech, I said that we could work towards some sort of timeline or some dates. Rather than compelling and forcing people to do things, we can encourage them with dates. Already three years have passed, and very little has happened. From what the Chief Minister and all these people in Jersey have said, it looks very much as though they have no intention of taking this action. Earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle referred to things looking a bit hypocritical from the outside; I worry that people might judge us that way. I have listened carefully to what the Minister said. We will not push the new clause to a vote, but I am sure that he is aware that a lot of people are concerned about the issue. I thought he would be interested to see that Hansard, in which he is mentioned; it is quite flattering. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 45