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Deadline delay for UK tax havens register “not acceptable”

The publication of registers of beneficial ownership in British overseas territories could be pushed back to 2023, despite the risks posed to national security.

They would set out all of the businesses registered within these jurisdictions in a bid to improve tax transparency.

“We welcome the [Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s] assurances that it is working with the [overseas territories] to help them implement the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act,” a Foreign Affairs Select Committee report stated.

“We profoundly regret, however, that public registers may not be published before 2023.

“It is simply not acceptable that this will be long after the deadline set out in the Act,” it added.

The Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act became law in May 2018.

It stated that the government “must, no later than 31 December 2020, prepare a draft Order in Council requiring the government of any British Overseas Territory that has not introduced a publicly accessible register of the beneficial ownership of companies within its jurisdiction to do so”.

An Order in Council is a legislative tool issued by the Privy Council and approved by the Queen, which tends to be used to transfer responsibilities between government departments.

The Act however, appeared to have been interpreted differently by different parties.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon told the Committee in December that there was actually “no specified date when public registers must be operational” and it was rather just the obligation of the government to prepare the legislation by the 2020 deadline.

The British Virgin Islands (BVI) was highlighted in the report as being associated with a company with ties to a North Korean arms dealer as well as the man responsible for Muammar Gaddafi’s long-range missile programme.

In May, an international row broke after Bermuda, Gibraltar and BVI reacted angrily to the House of Commons’ vote requiring British Overseas Territories to create public registers

At the time, BVI’s premier and minister of finance Orlando Smith told the territories’ House of Assembly, “We reject the idea that that our democratically elected government should be superseded by the UK parliament, especially in an area which has been entrusted to the BVI people.”

He added that it flew in the face of constitutional arrangements and would be “a sad day for democracy”.

In 2016, the BVI was one of the offshore jurisdictions linked to secret bank accounts revealed in the Panama Papers.

Originally published in Economia, February 2019.