British public urge PM to crack down on company secrecy – survey

Tuesday, 27 August 2013 17:05 GMT

In this 2009 file photo, a man carries a briefcase in central London REUTERS/Toby Melville

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LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Over half of Britons surveyed think that company owners should not be permitted to keep their identities secret, according to a poll commissioned by the international development charity Christian Aid.

Of the 57 percent of those questioned who expressed opposition to company secrecy, a further 57 percent said they were suspicious of the motives of company owners who hid behind a veil of secrecy, the survey said.

Tax evaders, corrupt officials and money launderers are known to use companies, many of which only exist on paper, to hide their illicit funds. This is possible because a number of jurisdictions allow companies to hide their true or beneficial owners.  

British Prime Minister David Cameron has sought to clamp down on secret flows of money, making this a centrepiece of his presidency of the G8 this year.

At the G8 summit in Northern Ireland in June, the leaders of the world’s rich economies signed up to a number of aims, including improved transparency about who owns shell companies and more information-sharing between countries’ tax authorities.

But their communique did not contain a firm pledge to create public registers of the "beneficial" - or true - owners of companies that would be available to tax authorities and law enforcement officials.

Britain had committed itself to this and campaigners had hoped other G8 countries would follow suit.

Some campaigners, including Christian Aid, are concerned that Cameron is now backing away from his promise to set up a public registry of the beneficial owners of companies.

“If he changes his mind now, he will undermine his own commitment to transparency,” Christian Aid’s senior economic justice adviser, Joseph Stead, said in a statement.

Many of the jurisdictions with the greatest number of secretly owned companies are British Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories.

Nearly three quarters of those polled said the British government should force the Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories to make information about company ownership publicly available, the survey said.

“As well as putting its own house in order, the government must also ensure that the UK’s tax havens – the Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories – follow suit with their own registers of who really owns what,” Stead said.

“The British Virgin Islands alone hosts at least 400,000 companies, to say nothing of trusts and other legal entities,” he added.

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