Beneficial ownership back in the spotlight

Yesterday, a high-profile debate in the UK House of Commons passed a set of amendments to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill that brought the issue of beneficial owners of companies and public registers back into the spotlight.

While we are pleased that the House of Commons chose not to call for legislation relating to the creation of public registries on the Crown Dependencies, in no small part recognising Jersey’s standing as a jurisdiction committed to the global transparency agenda, the debate at times was a source of much frustration, relying on unsubstantiated statistics and an outmoded view of the role of international finance centres.

To be clear, Jersey is absolutely committed to the global transparency agenda and stands side by side with the UK in terms of our shared ambitions to fight financial crime and tackle corruption.

We have a validated, verified and world-class beneficial ownership register that has been in place for almost 30 years. Information on the register must be verified by a regulated service provider and can be made available to UK law enforcement authorities in as little as an hour. We do not allow the identities of beneficial owners to be hidden, and you can’t buy or form ‘shell’ companies in Jersey. We’re proud to have a rigorous checking process that means we’re one of the few jurisdictions anywhere in the world that can have absolute certainty about its business practices, and who it works with – now, and in the future. 

This contrasts greatly with the UK’s public register. Still very much in its infancy, the UK register relies on self-certification with no checks and balances in place to ensure the register remains current, laying it open to abuse by the unscrupulous. 

Interestingly a study by the NGO Global Witness, released this week, highlighted that more than 500,000 companies in the UK have failed to identify their controlling shareholders despite the UK’s introduction of a public corporate register with more than one in 10 corporations not stating their ‘persons of significant control’.

These may only be teething problems. But swapping our proven, robust register for a, at least currently, unproven system flies in the face of our shared goal of transparency. Rather than providing the ‘disinfectant of sunlight’ – a phrase seized upon throughout yesterday’s debate – it would more likely ‘sow a seed of doubt’ that we were truly identifying those intent on funnelling illegal monies across the globe.

Furthermore, while a public registry provides grist for investigative journalists and NGOs, it can be used by the malicious, not only the curious. 

I have made this argument several times in these pages but there is a cavern of difference between something that is of interest to the public and something that is in the public interest. Jersey’s approach to compliant confidentiality means that while no one remains anonymous to the relevant authorities they are afforded the human right to privacy, which we would all wish to retain and seemed to be a point missing from yesterday’s debate.

Jersey continues to remain absolutely aligned with the UK in terms of its commitment to combat money laundering and financial crime. Our high standards and commitment to transparency have been recognised on numerous occasions by independent authorities including the OECD, IMF, World Bank and MONEYVAL. Jersey has always led from the front in this respect, differentiating itself from other jurisdictions, and I do believe that this approach assisted in the sensible and pragmatic decision the UK Government reached yesterday.

Tackling financial crime and corruption is very much top of our agenda but for real change it needs to be a global effort. Jersey already does and will continue to work with the international community to find the best way of doing this and I hope yesterday’s decision frames the sensible debate we need to move forward.

Download PDF Copy Article HTML to Clipboard