BVI to unmask secret owners.

The ownership of hundreds of thousands of companies registered in one of the world’s most secretive financial jurisdictions is to be made public for the first time. The British Virgin Islands (BVI) has committed itself to creating a publicly accessible register of company ownership by 2023 in a move welcomed by the UK government. Anti-corruption campaigners hailed a victory for transparency and the fight against hidden movements of huge sums of money. The BVI has featured heavily in leaked documents such as the Panama Papers and the recent Fincen data from the United States. The Panama Papers leak from the law firm Mossack Fonseca showed that more than half the offshore companies mentioned in its files had been incorporated in the BVI. Among the wealthy individuals identified were the Russian billionaires Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, close friends of Vladimir Putin, who established seven companies in the British overseas territory.

Zamira Hajiyeva, the woman at the centre of the first unexplained wealth order case, was revealed in the High Court to have bought her £11.5 million home in Knightsbridge through a company registered in the BVI. A BBC investigation in 2018 found that a quarter of British properties owned by foreign companies were registered to entities in the BVI. It calculated that 11,700 companies registered there owned 23,000 UK properties. The islands join the other overseas territories — Anguilla Bermuda, Cayman, Montserrat and Turks & Caicos — in promising a public ownership register. Gibraltar is required to establish one under EU anti-money laundering directives.

Baroness Sugg, the Foreign Office minister, said that the BVI’s move was “a strong signal of the UK family’s commitment to tackle the global problem of illicit finance”. Ava Lee of Global Witness said that it was “a major step forward in the fight against the UK’s tax havens being used in global money laundering”.

Credit: Sean O’Neill, The Times, 30 September 2020