Privacy – it’s not all about money
By Geoff Cook, chief executive of Jersey Finance
As you will have noticed, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into force this week. Our inboxes have been bombarded with emails making sure we still want our personal details on record from a plethora of groups and companies. However, it does seem a bit peculiar that this crusade for privacy should be happening at the same time as we have been facing national debate on transparency.
On 1 May, a high-profile debate in the UK House of Commons passed a set of amendments to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill that brought the issue of beneficial owners of companies, and public registers, back into the spotlight.
But while MPs have been fighting for wealthy individuals to have their business affairs made public, GDPR is doing its utmost to ensure our personal details are kept private. While the two ideas may seem miles apart, objectively, the underlying concept is the same. Why should everyday identities be protected, while significant economic structures have details shared at the expense of their owners’ safety and privacy?
This sentiment is not just of local interest but is gaining traction more widely too. The European Commission has recently agreed a set of measures in its fourth Anti-Money-Laundering (AML) Directive, one of which looks at this exact issue of an individual’s right to privacy. It recommends that ‘… Member States should have due regard to the protection of fundamental rights of individuals, in particular the right to privacy and protection of personal data.’
This echoes our stance in Jersey. Allow me to arm you with the facts.
Jersey has collected information about the main ‘beneficial’ (real) owners of companies on a central register since 1989. Although this register is not public to everyone, it is made available on request to law enforcement and relevant authorities when necessary. This, we believe, promotes a fair balance of protecting business matters and personal identity, while also ensuring that the data is made available to the right authorities when necessary. We consider the UK’s ‘public register’ model to be, as yet, an unproven model based on self-verification with much fewer checks and balances than that of our own.
Jersey’s business registry meets the highest international standards and provides a robust platform for companies to tick all the boxes required for legal compliance. We are absolutely committed to the global transparency agenda and we stand side by side with the UK in terms of our shared ambitions to fight financial crime and tackle corruption.
It’s often assumed that the only reason individuals might base their money in an account overseas, or in Crown Dependencies like Jersey, is because of tax. This is wrong. Take actress Emma Watson as an example. She had a company overseas to hold her properties in purely for privacy concerns, fully declaring all of this to the UK tax authorities. The reason she did this was because she was being stalked and did not want her addresses to be discovered. This is a stand-out example of why many individuals use centres like Jersey or Cayman, to base their companies – and it has nothing to do with tax or financial advantage.
We think that the authorities must have this information. It’s just that not everyone does.
Jersey, as a leading International Financial Centre (IFC), provides a robust financial and legal framework for companies all over the world, and we play a large part in the health of the wider economy. In a report we recently produced with the Institute of Economic Affairs, it’s highlighted that IFCs such as Jersey not only provide personal privacy for their clients, but they also offer a very welcome location for the wealth of people who may live in countries of political unrest or human rights issues. The fact we can protect people in this way is certainly not illegitimate or illegal.
Combating financial crime is very much at the top of Jersey’s agenda, and we are committed to making sure we work with countries all over the world to do so. We also strongly believe that everyone has a right to privacy, no matter who you are or your level of wealth – after all, would you want your bank details available online? The important point here is that the two are not mutually exclusive, and you can achieve a balance of both, which is exactly what Jersey is striving to achieve.