July 4, 2022

‘Dirty money’: U-turn as Tories back plans to make tax havens transparent

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By Dan Sabbagh From The Guardian UK

Government says it will support bill amendment to introduce public ownership registers in Britain’s overseas territories

Britain’s overseas territories will have to introduce public ownership registers, after a minister announced the government would support a backbench amendment designed to stem the global flow of “dirty money”.

Sir Alan Duncan, the Foreign Office minister, told the Commons that the Conservatives recognised “the majority view in this house” and that the government would not oppose an amendment to the sanctions and anti-money laundering bill put down by the Labour MP Margaret Hodge and the Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell.

The retreat came minutes after the Speaker rejected a string of government compromise amendments, which would have watered down the disclosure commitment, because they were tabled so late.

The Hodge/Mitchell amendment requires the 14 overseas territories, including the financial centres of the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands, to introduce public ownership registers by the end of 2020 or face having them imposed by the UK government.

Duncan told MPs that ministers were reluctant to dictate to the overseas territories, but added: “We have listened to the strength of feeling in this 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.”

About half of the companies referred to in the Panama Papers, offshore ownership disclosures revealed by a consortium of investigative journalist organisations including the Guardian, were set up in the British Virgin Islands (BVI), according to Transparency International. The campaign group Global Witness estimates that £68bn flowed out of Russia via the British overseas territories between 2007 and 2016.

Hodge said the importance of the issue justified intervention in the affairs of the overseas territories. “The areas on which we have intervened … are moral issues. I can’t think of another issue which is more moral than trying to intervene to prevent the traffic in corrupt money and illicit finance across the world.”

Mitchell told MPs that the justification for disclosure was made “elegantly but passively” by the leaking of the Panama and Paradise Papers, which revealed the true owners of thousands of offshore companies. “It is only by openness and scrutiny, by allowing charities, NGOs and the media to join up the dots, that we can expose this dirty money and those people standing behind it. Closed registers do not begin to allow us to do it.”

Twenty Tory rebels had been lined up to support the amendment, including former ministers Ken Clarke and Nicky Morgan, which also had the support of Labour, the Scottish National party and the Liberal Democrats. That was enough to defeat the government had the matter been put to a vote.

Representatives of the territories had argued that the disclosure requirement would be expensive to implement at a time when countries in the Caribbean were recovering from the impact of Hurricane Irma.

A few MPs questioned whether how effective public disclosure would be. Geoffrey Cox, a Conservative backbencher, said the benefit from transparency would be “a one-hit wonder” and argued that “money will go to where it is darkest”, other global territories where there are no public disclosure requirements.

The amendment does not apply to the crown dependencies, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, because parliament does not have the legal right to impose its will on them. However, Mitchell said that in the light of the success of the amendment parliament would expect the government “to make the point persuasively, that we hope that the crown dependencies embrace the same ethical position and equal transparency”.

IMAGE: Britain’s 14 overseas territories, including the Cayman Islands (above), will have to introduce registers by the end of 2020. Photograph: Westend61/Getty Images

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