On March 17, the anti-corruption organization Global Witness announced that its analysis of HM Land Registry data showed that anonymous companies registered in tax havens own more than 87,000 properties in England and Wales. It also stated that “[t]he value of these properties is at least £56 billion according to Land Registry data – and likely to be in excess of £100 billion when accounting for inflation and missing price data.”
The Global Witness analysis found that 40 percent of the anonymously owned properties that it identified are in London. Within London, the areas with the highest number of anonymously owned properties (as of March 2019) are 10,000 in Westminster, 5,729 in Kensington and Chelsea; 2,320 in Camden; and 1,930 in Tower Hamlets.
Note: Since 2016, the United Kingdom Government has made available, through the public register at Companies House, a public central register of company beneficial-ownership information for companies incorporated in the United Kingdom. The Government, however, has yet to implement its proposal of a public central register for company beneficial-ownership data for non-United Kingdom companies.
It is encouraging to see the Government’s increasing use of its Unexplained Wealth Order authority to reveal ownership of property by persons reasonably suspected of involvement in, or of being connected to a person involved in, serious crime. But that authority, as valuable as it is for law enforcement, is no substitute for a comprehensive and complete listing of beneficial ownership. If the Government wants, as Minister of Security Ben Wallace put it, “the ‘full force of the government’ to bear down on criminals and corrupt politicians using Britain as a playground and haven,” and to constrict the laundering of an estimated £90 billion each year, it needs to deploy a comprehensive public register that pieces the veil of foreign ownership of United Kingdom properties and provides much-needed transparency.
There is no guarantee that this latest Global Witness analysis will prompt the Government to reverse course on its recent decision to pull the debate and votes on a bill that would expand public-register requirements to British overseas territories. It may, however, keep alive debate about the importance of a more extensive public central register, as part of a comprehensive Government response to the problems of money laundering and tax evasion.