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Overseas Territories: Registers of Beneficial Ownership

Volume 606: debated on Tuesday 23 February 2016

11. By what date he expects to have set a timetable for overseas territories with financial centres to adopt central registers of beneficial ownership or similarly effective systems. (903705)

I had productive discussions at the Joint Ministerial Council with leaders of the overseas territories in December. We agreed progress on implementing central registers, and equally effective systems should be kept under continuous and close review. Discussions are still ongoing, but I want to see significant progress ahead of the anti-corruption summit that will be hosted by the Prime Minister in May.

Will the Minister confirm that the overseas territories and Crown dependencies will attend the summit? Will we do our part to make sure that we secure their commitment to clean up their act and make company owners public?

Final invitations for the summit have not yet gone out, but discussions are very much ongoing. In fact, the director for overseas territories and the National Crime Agency are currently visiting the Cayman Islands and British Virgin Islands to thrash out some of the detail that is needed.

Does the Minister expect the registers to be publicly available, or will they be closed registers that can be accessed only by the relevant authorities?

There will be open registers available for law enforcement agencies to interrogate. There will not be publicly open registers. That is a long-term aspiration, but initially we want there to be access for law enforcement agencies. That will create greater transparency and reduce corruption and terrorist payments.

In April 2014, the Prime Minister said:

“I believe that beneficial ownership and public access to a central register is key to improving the transparency of company ownership and vital to meeting the urgent challenges of illicit finance and tax evasion.”

Nearly two years have passed and there still appears to be no timetable for transparency arrangements in respect of the financial centres. Why is that?

There has been much progress, which the hon. Lady dismisses too readily. There are checkpoints. Only last week, I spoke to overseas territory leaders. There are people out there at the moment and we hope to crystallise some of the improvements before the May summit on corruption. That summit was called by the Prime Minister and will be held here in London, which demonstrates the British Government’s commitment to this important issue.

Will the Minister tell the House the exact date by which he expects overseas territory financial centres to ensure that there are proper transparency arrangements, or will we continue to hear more excuses for inaction in the years to come?

This is a matter of direction, rather than an ultimate destination. We will constantly ask the international community to do more to create greater transparency, but it is crucial that the international community, whether it is the Crown dependencies, the overseas territories or other overseas Governments, move together on this, because we want to eliminate the problem of corrupt and untransparent moneys, rather than shift it from territory to territory.