By Joseph Stead
Have you ever seen someone throw themselves into a brave and valuable project, only to neglect details so important that they risk scuppering the entire enterprise?
That painful picture is what we see at the moment, in relation to the government's extremely welcome plan to create a public register of who really owns UK registered companies.
MPs are debating the government's proposals today as part of the second reading of the small business, enterprise and employment bill.
The new register of companies' real owners is intended to help stop criminals using UK companies for tax evasion, money laundering, bribery, fraud, terrorist financing and pretty much every other crime for which a company is useful. Even the horsemeat scandal is thought to have involved a company with hidden ownership.
At present, it is all too easy for criminals to abuse companies, because firms are not required to reveal their owners. So anyone, including the police, will struggle to detect or prove the link between the two.
It is this secrecy around who is really in charge that the register seeks to end.
So far, so good – and David Cameron deserves credit for taking on the menace of secret ownership. While he had the comfort of a wide range of backers, from the Institute of Directors and Confederation of British Industry to Christian Aid and Global Witness, to name a few, he is committing the UK to a reform that no other country has yet adopted.
All the more important then, perhaps, for the UK to get it right, so that others can follow with effective registers of their own. As Cameron has pointed out, this is not a problem that one country alone can solve.
But as the UK's bill currently stands, the register is unlikely to be as accurate as it could be, thus undermining its central purpose of shedding light on who is really in charge. For one thing, it is not clear that the government plans any system for checking the information that is supplied to the register of company owners.
While the government understandably will not want to spend significant funds verifying every single piece of information, there are simple and cheap actions they could take to improve the quality of data. Instead, the government appears to be assuming 100% compliance with the rules - the equivalent of pretending the problem doesn't exist.
For another, government plans will leave the register out of date, because firms are required to update the register with any changes to their ownership only once a year. This is potentially open to exploitation by the very criminals the new register is meant to counter.
Then there are worries that the punishments envisaged by the bill are too weak to deter some companies and individuals from ignoring the register – and that as the bill stands, too many individuals may be able to argue they are special cases which should not have to reveal their roles.
While these are serious deficiencies, which we hope parliament will remedy, there is a further, more embarrassing problem which the government may find harder to solve. This is that the UK's own tax havens – the overseas territories and crown dependencies – have yet to get their own houses in order.
They include the British Virgin Islands (BVI) and the Cayman Islands, which alone host at least half a million shell companies. Some have turned up in criminal cases involving the theft of telephone-number sums of public money from developing countries.
In one documented by the Africa Progress Panel, mining rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo were sold for knockdown prices in deals that involved a series of secretly-owned firms in the BVI, leaving it unclear who had benefited from what may have been corrupt deals. Corruption was denied by everyone known to be involved. What was clear was that the people of the DRC lost out on at least $1.36 billion – equivalent to twice the country's health and education budgets.
The UK is trying to convince other countries both at the G20 and in the EU to follow their lead. For the UK to have much credibility when it urges other countries to create public registers of their own, it will need to ensure that the likes of the BVI have done the right thing. It will also need to set up an effective register of its own. Over to you, MPs.
By Joseph Stead, senior economic justice adviser at Christian Aid
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