Today MPs were due to vote on an amendment to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill from Labour politician Margaret Hodge calling for the UK to impose a fully transparent and public register of beneficial ownership – revealing who owns assets held by companies registered in a jurisdiction – on the Crown Dependencies and British Overseas Territories.
It is feared that the move would undermine the financial services industries of many of the jurisdictions, whose clients often value strict confidentiality arrangements.
As things stand, Jersey has a register of beneficial ownership, but it is not publicly accessible.
It is, however, made available to other countries’ tax and law enforcement authorities on request. On Saturday, Chief Minister Ian Gorst said that the UK legislating for Jersey was ‘unconstitutional’ and a public register of beneficial ownership could not be forced on the Island without its consent.
Senator Gorst, who is due to attend a Senatorial hustings this evening, interrupted his election campaign to travel to London, accompanied by External Relations Minister Sir Philip Bailhache, on a special visit to lobby UK parliamentarians.
And after a day of meetings in London, he said that the UK government has now tabled its own amendment which he says respects Jersey’s constitution.
‘Following meetings with UK ministers and senior officials today, I am reassured that the UK Government recognises both our constitutional position and our strong track record on meeting international standards of transparency,’ he said.
‘As a result, the government has tabled its own amendment to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill passing through Parliament, that does not attempt to impose legislation on Jersey.’
He added: ‘This amendment, if passed, would properly respect our constitutional relationship. I believe this reflects Jersey’s leading position in having already established registers of beneficial ownership and effective procedures for information sharing that prevent the Island from being used for money laundering and terrorist financing.
‘If public registers were to become an international standard, we will consider implementing such a policy in the same way as we have other international standards in this area.
‘The speed with which the UK Government has intervened on this issue demonstrates the value of our close co-operation and our centuries of shared heritage.’
Speaking earlier in the day, Senator Bailhache said the matter of introducing a public register was for Jersey and not the UK. He added: ‘That is what constitutional autonomy means. We have made our position clear and that is that we do not respond to UK directions to enact legislation.’
A number of Tory MPs were planning to vote in favour of the Hodge amendment along with Labour and the other parties, leading to speculation that there was a strong possibility it would be passed. It is unknown at this stage what level of support there is for the government’s alternative amendment.
Calls have been made for several years for the UK to impose greater levels of transparency on its offshore jurisdictions, which have, because of their positions on client confidentiality and privacy laws, been accused by critics of assisting in money-laundering and helping the super-rich hide their wealth.