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Offshore Companies: Property

Volume 820: debated on Tuesday 29 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they made towards ensuring the transparency of beneficial ownership of offshore companies holding properties in the United Kingdom in the recent discussions between the Minister for Asia and the Middle East at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the government of the British Virgin Islands.

My Lords, the 2022 economic crime Act creates a register of overseas entities that own properties in the UK. This will apply to legal entities from any overseas jurisdiction that own UK property, including those registered in the British Virgin Islands. The overseas territories already share confidential information on company beneficial ownership with UK law enforcement bodies, an arrangement that has enabled the UK’s first unexplained wealth order.

My Lords, it is four years since the passage of the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act required the overseas territories to open up their company registers. My understanding is that the British Virgin Islands, which has one of the largest sets of companies owning property in the UK—more than 20,000 properties—has been reluctant to open up its registers fully. One has to ask individually and know what one is looking for. Can the Minister explain what the relationship between the sovereign United Kingdom and these overseas territories is in this respect? Do we require them to accept our instructions, or do we ask them if they would mind?

My Lords, we have a very constructive relationship with our British Overseas Territories. We regard them very much as part of the British family, and we have a co-operative partnership with the British OTs. That is the way it should be. In terms of recent engagement, my right honourable friend the Minister for the Overseas Territories, Amanda Milling MP, discussed the BVI’s newly announced consultation on a publicly accessible register, to which it is, along with all the other overseas territories, totally committed, ensuring that there will be working registers by the end of 2023.

Can we really wait that long? It was 2018 when we legislated on this, and we are now facing a crisis in which this country is seeking out illicit funds. Surely it is time to go back to places like the British Virgin Islands and say, “Open your register to us, the Government, so that we can have a clear view of what is going on.” The Government should not wait until 2023, when things are going on in Ukraine.

My Lords, on the issue of Ukraine, as the noble Lord is aware, all the overseas territories are absolutely committed. With each sanction that is passed, it becomes incorporated into their jurisdictions. There are two where Orders in Council are required, and they have also initiated those processes. These sanctions apply immediately. In terms of the overseas territories themselves, we have discussed this before. The noble Lord will be aware that, with the OTs that have these registrations, the register is open to both tax authorities and law agencies. As I explained in my response to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, the first unexplained wealth order was in conjunction and in partnership with the BVI.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, will recall the briefings that he and I received when we both worked in the Foreign Office about the excellent information and intelligence gathering between ourselves, the NCA, other authorities and the different authorities in the overseas territories. Does the Minister share my concern that, while it is incredibly important to keep this information flowing on an ad-hoc, confidential basis, if these registers become completely open, the companies will simply move to places such as Panama and Delaware?

My Lords, I believe the overseas territories have been very constructive on their engagement when it comes to registers, but I also recognise the point the noble Lord, Lord Collins, made, about the need for accessibility of registers. We believe we are working constructively and in partnership with the overseas territories in a responsible way, including those within the financial services sector who recognise the importance of consultation. That is exactly what the OTs are doing.

My Lords, last Monday I met a delegation from the British Virgin Islands, including the speaker, deputy speaker and leader of the opposition. I asked them direct questions about beneficial ownership. They refused to answer any questions, saying it was not the responsibility of Parliament. Does that not sound very suspicious to the Minister? Could he take it up and raise with the British Virgin Islands Government parliamentary accountability and the concern that a territory which has 45% of all offshore companies registered on it really ought to come clean?

My Lords, I am surprised that the noble Lord let the speaker of the BVI leave without giving a straight answer to his question. Perhaps he should have been slightly more persuasive in his normal way. That said, I agree with the noble Lord that it is important. Of course, it is the responsibility of Parliaments and Governments to ensure that appropriate access is given. I have already indicated that there is a working, constructive relationship, particularly with those OTs which have financial services at their core. Equally, the commitment that the overseas territories have given, both in terms of response to the sanctions and their commitment to public registers, is something we welcome. We continue to work very practically and pragmatically with them.

My Lords, the scale of this challenge is enormous. Transparency International UK has found £250 billion worth of funds diverted by rigged procurement, bribery, embezzlement and unlawful acquisition of state assets from across 79 different countries sheltering in companies registered in the UK’s overseas territories. Why is there a reluctance to deal with this problem? Why has it taken so long—since 2018—to have the Order in Council enacted for this register? Is it because, for example, the British Virgin Islands, with a GDP of $1.027 billion is responsible for $24.3 billion of inward investment into the United Kingdom? Is that the real reason?

No, my Lords, the real reasons are that there is a practical working relationship with the overseas territories, and that the SAML Act which was brought forward, approved and became not just something we debated but an Act, guaranteed that the overseas territories would respond with public registers. As I have already explained, that is happening. There are existing arrangements in place. There is no reluctance, but it is right that we work constructively with the sectors, and of course there are issues, as the noble Lord points out, about corruption and criminality. It is right that we act, and act accordingly.

My Lords, if, as the Minister claims, the overseas territories are totally committed, surely speedier progress would have been made since 2018. What is the problem? Are, for example, the BVI asking for compensation for loss of revenue? If so, what is the government response?

My Lords, what was agreed with the overseas territories was that they would have public registers by the end of 2023. That is the timetable they are working with. However, in terms of immediate needs as, again, has been discussed regarding sanctions in response to Russia, we worked hand in glove with them to ensure that every sanction passed by your Lordships’ House and the other place—by Parliament—is immediately incorporated into our overseas territories.

There is no delay or dither on this; we are working practically and pragmatically with our overseas territories. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, we are working both in partnership and overseeing as part of our offering of global Britain. It is an important partnership, and we respect their rights to legislate locally on key issues, but at the same time they need to be held to account where there are issues of corruption and criminality.

My Lords, if the partnership is so productive, why is it taking five years to implement the responsibility contained in the statute of 2018? What does the Minister think the miscreants have been doing during the five years?

My Lords, at the risk of repeating myself, they are working to a timetable. For example, Tristan de Cunha, the main export of which is lobsters, is still required under legislation to have a public register; in that particular instance, and for a range of other overseas territories, we are providing direct technical support, working through both the FCDO and the Treasury, and where assistance is needed we are providing it. The bigger territories, as I have said, are actively consulting with industry to ensure that they get their partnerships right and the registers are established in line with the timetable that I have already indicated.

My Lords, the UK has legal and moral responsibility for good governance of OTs and Crown dependencies. With that in mind, can the Minister assure the House that the register of beneficial ownership of companies in the BVI and in other territories will at least match the transparency standards applicable in the UK, and that they will all be publicly available?

That is exactly the standard we are working to with the overseas territories. We are also working to ensure that these are verifiable registers. As we see further legislation coming on increasing the robustness of the UK register, we will also apply the key principles. I agree with the noble Lord: we have a moral responsibility for good governance in the overseas territories and to ensure strong partnerships with our overseas territories’ Governments.