Cameron Rallies Nigeria, Others to Expose Secret Property Owners in UK
David Cameron is to counter claims that his campaign against international corruption is hobbled by London’s reputation as the money laundering capital of the world by introducing a new corporate offence for executives who fail to prevent fraud or money laundering inside their companies.
Writing in the Guardian before Thursday’s anti-corruption summit in the capital, the prime minister reveals plans to require all foreign companies buying property in the UK to disclose their true owners in a public register for the first time.
By extending a corporate failure-to-prevent clause to fraud and money laundering, the government’s intention is to go further than merely requiring firms to prevent bribery and tax evasion. Should an employee be charged with money laundering, the company will be deemed liable if it cannot show that it had put procedures in place to prevent money laundering and fraud.
Cameron describes corruption as “one of the greatest enemies to progress” and says the new measures “will clean up our property market and send a clear message to the corrupt that there is no home for them here”.
The all-day summit at Lancaster House will be attended by the US secretary of state, John Kerry, and world leaders including Muhammadu Buhari, the Nigerian president, and Ashraf Ghani, the president of Afghanistan. On Tuesday, Cameron was caught on camera telling the Queen at a Buckingham Palace reception that both countries were “fantastically corrupt”.
Meeting of world leaders will address what British PM has called ‘the cancer at the heart of so many of the world’s problems’
In his article, Cameron goes out of his way to praise the two presidents, saying they have shown the political will to fight corruption in their countries. Lauding their political commitment, he writes: “We know that real progress against corruption begins with political will.”
Buhari, who was elected on a mandate to fight corruption and has been given star billing at the unusually constructed summit, said on Wednesday that he was not going to demand an apology from Cameron, but hit back at the slow pace with which western governments returned assets stolen by corrupt former government officials.
“Unfortunately, our experience has been that repatriation of corrupt proceeds is very tedious, time consuming, costly … The repatriation of identified stolen funds should be done without delay or preconditions,” Buhari said.
Describing corruption as a hydra-headed monster and a cankerworm – a major pest – he conceded that Nigeria was corrupt, saying: “Cameron is being honest about it. I don’t think you can fault him.”
In an attempt to inspire a feeling of momentum, Cameron has lined up a series of announcements for Thursday, in addition to the firm commitment on corporate money laundering.
He promises that foreign companies that own properties in the UK will have to publicly register who ultimately controls them and he says no foreign company will be able to buy UK property or bid for central government contracts without joining the register.
Foreign companies own 100,000 properties in England and Wales, of which more than 44,000 are in London. “We will clean up our property market and send a clear message to the corrupt that there is no home for them here,” Cameron says.
The prime minister adds that if UK agencies believe that a property was bought with illicit wealth, the burden of proof could be reversed, with the owner required to show that legitimate funds were used in the purchase or else the assets would be seized.
He also promises: A small group of countries including France, Nigeria and the Netherlands will join the UK in committing to set up public registers of beneficial ownership. A further six countries, including Australia, will consider doing the same.
Some UK overseas territories, not including the Cayman Islands or the British Virgin Islands (BVI), will join the UK and 33 other governments in agreeing to automatically and regularly share their registers of company ownership.
A group of nations will make a commitment to sign an open data partnership, saying that transparency in public procurement will cut costs.
Cameron has registered his displeasure with the BVI’s refusal to join the automatic exchange initiative by refusing to invite its officials to the summit.
Despite the refusal of some overseas territories to sign up to public registers, the prime minister said the package represented huge progress, adding that law enforcement agencies across the world would be able to use the data they provide to expose corruption.
Robert Palmer of anti-corruption group Global Witness said: “The world is turning towards transparency and the tax havens are getting left behind. Today, we’ve seen good progress on stemming the flow of dirty money into UK property and more international cooperation on tackling corruption, but the biggest piece of the puzzle is still missing – the tax havens must open up.”
There was unhappiness in some quarters that the BVI and the Caymans, two of the largest offshore centres, had not been signed up to the ownership register. Alex Cobham of the Tax Justice Network said: “This looks like a major climb-down. It looks like the UK has given up before the anti-corruption summit has even begun. The Panama Papers have revealed to everyone just how much abuse takes place when ownership information is hidden. The UK has full legal authority to require this change so if the government has chosen not to, it is a comprehensive indictment of its willingness to fight corruption.”
A No. 10 spokesman said the government would continue to put pressure on the offshore jurisdictions, but stressed that they had already gone further than many other countries, including the US, where some states allow structures that disguise a company’s ultimate ownership.
The summit will also hear a discussion on how to crack down on corruption in world sport, with the International Olympic Committee on the panel. Fifa, the football governing body rocked by a corruption scandal, will not attend.
Some anti-corruption campaigners are privately sceptical about the focus on sport, warning that it is a distraction from the more serious issue of cracking down on kleptocrats and the companies that help them to hide their ill-gotten gains. But senior government officials said: “There’s a point here: most people in the world see a real value for sport, and you want to know, whether you’re playing or spectating, that the sport you’re watching or taking part in is a free and fair competition.”
On Wednesday, the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, pressed Cameron in the House of Commons over whether Conservative MEPs would support tougher rules to prevent multinationals dodging tax that are being voted on by the European parliament on Thursday. UK Guardian.