The latest Government plans for a public register of who owns millions of UK companies have been welcomed by UK-based churches' global development agency Christian Aid as a significant step towards ending the menace of phantom firms used by criminals.
But the charity also called on the Government to go further and ensure the UK’s tax havens – the Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies – follow its lead. The tax havens include the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands and Jersey.
"While the details of the new register are still to be finalised, today's announcement shows the Government is heading in the right direction", said Joseph Stead, Christian Aid's Senior Economic Justice Adviser.
"On key questions, such as ensuring that companies’ owners are identifiable, making the register open to the public and free to use, and putting strict limits on any exemptions, the Government appears to be moving towards the right answers", he added.
Christian Aid’s comments come as the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills unveiled its latest thinking on how the UK’s new public register of company owners should operate. Prime Minister David Cameron announced the creation of such a register in October 2013.
The UK’s new register will require all individuals who control more than 25 per cent of a company to declare details of how they exercise control over the company, as well as their full name, a contact address, month and year of birth, nationality and country of residence. While exemptions will be allowed, they will only be available in exceptional circumstances and will have to be applied for.
"Christian Aid, 17,000 of our supporters, and many others have been campaigning hard for this," added Mr Stead.
"We will not stop until we the register is up and running effectively but we are pleased that the Government appears to have listened to our arguments on how the tax evasion and corruption that phantom firms facilitate is costing developing countries vital resources for tackling poverty.
"The UK now has the opportunity to set a new gold standard on transparency of company ownership, that other countries should be encouraged to follow. While we are pleased the UK is talking about encouraging the EU and G20 to follow its lead, we are concerned that there is no talk about the UK's Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies.
"All of them have committed to having consultations on establishing similar public registers to the UK. Yet while the Prime Minister has written to the European Council calling for the EU to follow the UK's lead, there has been no similar encouragement to the Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies.
"We are calling on the Government to use all powers and influence at their disposal to spread public registers around the world, including to the Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies," said Mr Stead.
"It is worrying that we have yet to hear any plans in this regard from the Overseas Territories, which are home to vast numbers of companies. In fact, the latest indications from the British Virgin Islands are troubling – a new law is proposed which would impose draconian measures on financial whistle blowers," said the Christian Aid spokesperson.