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UK tackles 'dirty' property at anti-corruption summit

US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) and Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari (right) listen as British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks at an anti-corruption summit in London on May 12, 2016
Dan Kitwood (Pool/AFP)
Cameron is pushing for new int'l commitments to tackle corruption from almost 50 nations, overseas territories

British Prime Minister David Cameron kicked off a global anti-corruption summit on Thursday with a plan to stop the flow of dirty money into London property, but faces calls to do more to open up Britain's overseas tax havens.

Cameron is pushing for new international commitments on tackling corruption from almost 50 nations and overseas territories attending the summit, including the leaders of Nigeria and Afghanistan, and US Secretary of State John Kerry.

"Corruption, writ large, is as much of an enemy because it destroys nation states as some of the extremists we're fighting," Kerry said, describing the summit as "the beginning of something different".

The meeting comes amid public outrage over the revelations in the Panama Papers, which lifted the lid on the large-scale use by global elites of anonymous companies to shield their wealth.

They put the spotlight on Britain by highlighting the role played by its overseas tax havens and British lawyers and accountants, and revealing how many offshore firms are used to buy London property.

Niklas Halle'n (AFP/File)

Under a new plan intended to combat money-laundering, foreign firms that own more than 100,000 British property titles will have to reveal their true owners.

Any foreign firms buying new property or bidding for government contracts would also have to appear on a new public register of so-called beneficial ownership, which goes live next month.

But Cameron is under pressure to go further in addressing the secrecy in offshore financial hubs such as the British Virgin Islands, where more than half of the firms revealed in the Panama leaks were incorporated.

"Legitimate business has no need for anonymous companies. Please ban them," Mo Ibrahim, the Sudan-born telecoms tycoon whose eponymous foundation pushes for greater governance in Africa, urged the prime minister.

A short walk away from the summit, activists set up a "tropical tax haven" in London's Trafalgar Square, complete with sand, palm trees and financiers in suits and bowler hats reclining in deck chairs.

Aiming for 'gold standard'

Cameron said transparency was key to tackling corruption, and hailed France, the Netherlands, Nigeria, and Afghanistan for following Britain's lead in creating a public register of beneficial ownership.

"We should keep on going towards that gold standard," he said.

Niklas Halle'n (AFP/File)

The French scheme, announced this week, will go further by including trusts as well as companies.

This register will not be extended to Britain's overseas territories, however.

Instead, some British territories and crown dependencies such as Cayman Islands, Isle of Man and Jersey agreed to be among 40 jurisdictions automatically sharing company ownership details with law enforcement agencies under a new deal.

The British Virgin Islands were not present at the summit and did not sign up to the new agreement.

Cameron hailed a new OECD announcement that Panama, the country at the heart of the leaks scandal, had agreed to comply with international standards on exchanging tax information.

But French Finance Minister Michel Sapin, whose country has included Panama on a blacklist of tax havens, repeated that the territory "poses us, collectively, with an enormous problem".

'Fantastically corrupt'

Cameron began the summit on the defensive, after being caught on camera bragging that the leaders of some "fantastically corrupt" countries were attending, naming Nigeria and Afghanistan.

Adrian Leung, John Saeki (AFP)

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who has embarked on a widespread anti-corruption campaign since taking office last year, responded with a pointed request that Britain return assets stolen by corrupt officials who fled to London.

Britain announced it would set up a new international center, with help from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland, to help with the recovery of stolen corrupt assets.

Cameron acknowledged: "The evil of corruption reaches into every corner of the world. A global problem needs a truly global solution."

Jose Ugaz, chairman of Transparency International, said: "Bit by bit they are making it harder to hide the proceeds of corruption. But we need more progress on public disclosure of company information."

Robert Palmer of campaigners Global Witness said the announcements so far represented "good progress" but "the biggest piece of the puzzle is still missing -- the tax havens must open up".


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