Britain announces property register for foreign firms in anti-corruption push

Skyscrapers including the Leadenhall building stand surrounded by commercial office buildings in the City of London.
Skyscrapers including the Leadenhall building stand surrounded by commercial office buildings in the City of London.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

LONDON (AFP) - Britain will force foreign companies that own property in the country to reveal their ownership on a public register, Prime Minister David Cameron announced ahead of a global anti-corruption summit on Thursday (May 12).

Foreign companies hoping to buy property in Britain or bid for central government contracts will have to join the register, to be launched next month.

It will also apply to the foreign firms that already own some 100,000 properties in England and Wales, almost half of them in the capital London.

"The new register for foreign companies will mean corrupt individuals and countries will no longer be able to move, launder and hide illicit funds through London's property market, and will not benefit from our public funds," a government statement read.

Currently, true owners of the titles can be obscure as property is registered to anonymous offshore companies.

The British government said the new register of true owners or "beneficial ownership information" would be the first of its kind in the world.

"The evil of corruption reaches into every corner of the world. It lies at the heart of the most urgent problems we face - from economic uncertainty, to endemic poverty, to the ever-present threat of radicalisation and extremism," Mr Cameron said in a statement.

"Today is just the start of a more coordinated, ambitious global effort to defeat corruption."

Britain has come under pressure to address accusations that assets there, particularly London property, is used to hide the illicit gains of corruption or to launder money.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, responding to a gaffe in which Mr Cameron described his country as "fantastically" corrupt, called on Wednesday for Britain to return assets stolen by corrupt officials.

A series of countries would commit to launching similar registers, including France, the Netherlands, Nigeria and Afghanistan, Britain announced.

But despite demands by campaigners, the register will not extend to Britain's overseas territories.

Some of them, however, will be among 40 jurisdictions to automatically share company ownership with law enforcement authorities under a new deal, the statement said.

Campaign group Transparency International welcomed the announcement, but said that more countries should commit to public registers.

"We remain concerned that some countries are trying to water down the final communique and prevent this summit from achieving its ambitious goals," Transparency International chair Jose Ugaz said in a statement.

"It would be disappointing if countries with a poor record on corruption and little political will were able to lower the standard that everyone else is trying to achieve."