France acts on asset declaration

Reposted from the Transparency International UK blog.

It has been striking how far and how quickly France has moved towards asset disclosure by government ministers in recent weeks, with parliamentarians to follow if a new law is passed. Striking also that when political will exists, galvanised by public outrage, transparency is not so hard to achieve after all.

French citizens will have different reasons for being interested in the asset disclosures: spotting hypocrisy among politicians, straightforward prurience and, of most interest to Transparency International, identifying corruption. When you can see that a person’s assets far outstrip their earning power, and they are in a position of political power, the obvious question is: where did you get the money? Of course, in many cases it will be of legitimate origin. A good example, though embarrassing, is the French socialist minister who has accrued a €5 million private fortune.

But it is also the case that such assets may be corruptly obtained, and asset disclosure helps us see when that is the case. Indeed, it is the foundation of the court case currently underway in France, in which TI France is attempting to get expensive houses and fast cars, all located in France, confiscated from three African presidents and their families – the presidents of Gabon, Congo and Equatorial Guinea. The property is worth many millions of pounds. The notional Presidential salaries can be counted in the tens or low hundreds of thousands. Where did they get the rest of the money?

Asset disclosure is an important aspect of transparency, but it is not the whole story.A World Bank survey in 2012 of 176 countries showed that

78% of countries have financial disclosure systems in place – but only 43% actually require assets to be disclosed publicly

It is clear that public disclosure must be part of the solution if citizens are to hold their governments to account.

However, asset disclosure is only part of the solution. It is not beyond imagination that those who have corruptly stolen money will also lie about their assets. That is why we also need a longer chain of transparency that includes tax havens. We need to know who are the beneficial owners of companies and trusts registered in the British Virgin Islands and elsewhere. And let us not forget that London is also part of this chain – a chain of money that is laundered, property that is bought, and the legal and accounting professionals who set up and disguise all the transactions.

The Prime Minister has announced that transparency will be one of his three key themes as President of the G8 – and he will make an announcement on this at the G8 Summit in June. We await the summit with interest.

Where do we stand in the UK?

The BBC website states:

In the UK, for example, (contrary to what the French government is saying) there is no obligation for government ministers to publish what they own – only to reveal those interests which might clash with their responsibilities. Interests, in other words, are public.”

Though I begin to diverge from the BBC’s view at this point:

But assets should be private. And forcing politicians to make their personal possessions public could persuade many a would-be MP that it’s not worth the humiliation.”

What do you think?

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