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Overseas Territories head off UK’s demand for central registers

Monday, 7 December, 2015

Britain's Overseas Territories appear to have successfully resisted the UK's demands that they set up central registers of company beneficial ownership, directly accessible by the UK authorities.

Representatives of the territories met Foreign & Commonwealth Office ministers at the Joint Ministerial Council meeting in London last week. Discussions were held with London's Overseas Territories Minister James Duddridge on the register issue – which most of the territories have opposed, although the UK intends to set up its own, publicly available, register next year.

The communiqué issued after the meeting was equivocal, committing the territories only to holding beneficial ownership information within the jurisdiction, 'via central registers or similarly effective systems'. Moreover, the information will not be made accessible to the general public.

It continued: 'We discussed the details of how these systems should be implemented, including through technical dialogue between the Overseas Territories and UK law enforcement authorities on further developing a timely, safe and secure information exchange process to increase our collective effectiveness for the purposes of law enforcement. We agreed that addressing this issue would be given the highest priority and that progress on implementation would be kept under continuous and close review.'

Cayman Islands Premier Alden McLaughlin issued a stronger statement, emphasising that there was 'no agreement to public registries and no agreement to direct access to information by foreign law enforcement, tax or regulatory authorities'. The latter is one of the requirements set out by the UK government for a satisfactory system for establishing beneficial ownership without warning the owners of a company that they are being investigated. Cayman law specifies that a service provider cannot be forced to divulge the information to a criminal investigation without a court order.