The use of shell companies to mask the true owners of assets is still on top of the political agenda and interest in the issue continues to grow. This week the UK government announced further details of its plan to implement a public registry of company ownership.
This is important because shell companies can facilitate crime, corruption and tax evasion. Public registries of beneficial owners are seen as an effective and efficient way to counter anonymous company abuse, by allowing citizens, journalists and law enforcement authorities around the world easy access to company information.
Jersey, a crown dependency of the UK (ranked ninth on the Financial Secrecy Index) has an ongoing public consultation on company registries and whether beneficial ownership lists should be made public which closes today.
Online campaigning platform Avaaz has a public petition inviting citizens to call on Jersey to take action and combat money-laundering and tax evasion and put an end to secret ownership of shell companies.
Transparency International UK co-signed a letter with other civil society organisations including Global Witness and Christian Aid to the Jersey consultation calling for the registries that it already has on ownership of companies to be made public.
The UK public registry was a significant part of David Cameron’s G8 commitments in 2013. He also encouraged the British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies, which include Jersey, the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands, to follow suit: these are major offshore financial centres and secrecy jurisdictions.
Several of the territories responded by presenting action plans and announcing public consultations on the issue; consultations in the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands closed in January 2014.
Ironically, responses for the Jersey consultation are meant to be addressed to Jersey Finance, a financial industry body, which is on record opposing public registries – so it is far from certain that Jersey will join the UK in coming out in favour of transparency.
However, compared even to a year ago there have been advances at the global level, and momentum against shell company abuse is undoubtedly growing. If citizens and the media can keep up the pressure, and governments stick to their commitments, 2014 could yet become a turning point in the fight against shell companies.
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