Bermuda’s commitment to allowing public access to its companies beneficial ownership register will strengthen the island’s international standing, an independent expert has said.
However, Dominic Thomas-James, a specialist in British Overseas Territories, an academic at the University of Cambridge and a barrister, warned that ill-defined global standards for registers could lead to a “race to the bottom”, as countries with less robust standards attract those who wish to conceal their interests.
Dr Thomas-James added that there were doubts over the effectiveness of public registers in deterring illicit finance activities, as the accuracy of owner information depended on robust verification.
Curtis Dickinson, the finance minister, announced this month Bermuda’s intention to make its register public by 2023, “to stay in line with evolving international standards in terms of regulation and best practice”.
Dr Thomas-James said it was a “positive move” that would strengthen the island’s anti-money laundering regime, which was already classified as “robust” in a review by the Financial Action Task Force this year.
Dr Thomas-James added that Bermuda had been for decades one of the few countries in the world with an ownership register.
“As at 2018, only six G20 countries had functioning central registers,” he said.
“The move highlights Bermuda’s ability to adapt its existing register — which can only be positive in terms of harnessing its international reputation and continuing to operate an effective regulated environment.
“Countries which do not meet these ever-changing standards, despite even being positively reviewed by international monitoring bodies, do remain susceptible to international criticism and sanctions such as being included on greylists and blacklists.”
Eight British Overseas Territories have committed to a public register under pressure from Britain — the only one to resist is the British Virgin Islands, whose finance minister Andrew Fahie said last week said that “controlled transparency” of a register open only to competent authorities “is safer and more secure for individuals, and more effective to law enforcement than unlimited transparency”.
Mr Fahie described Britain’s own public register as “unverified”. Dr Thomas-James said there were “some serious and unresolved shortcomings of public registers”.
He added: “While the transparency campaign intensifies, and simultaneous castigation directed at ‘offshore’ jurisdictions continues, it is still unclear what public registers are precisely designed to disrupt, or achieve — other than the notion of the public right to scrutiny.
“In this context, scrutiny is most effective if the information is accurate. There remain significant concerns about independent verification and the accuracy of public registers.”
In 2018 Kevin Brewster, a British businessman, registered a company in the name of Vince Cable, then the Liberal Democrat leader, to show how easy it was to include false ownership information. He was then fined for registering false information.
The Independent reported that the Italian Mafia had managed to set up one British company with a director named as “Ottavio Il Ladro di Galline” or the chicken thief in English — whose occupation was listed as “truffatore”, meaning fraudster.
Another concern for Dr Thomas-James involves the countries who do not to follow the public register standard.
He said: “As public registers are far from the global norm, it may encourage a race to the bottom towards jurisdictions which have a poor, or non-existent, regulatory environment in which international co-operation may simply not exist. While the move is undoubtedly positive for Bermuda in adding to its regulatory toolkit, the idea of public registers more broadly requires further operational thought.”
Bermuda’s commitment showed “a proactive commitment to comply with anti-economic crime initiatives advocated at United Kingdom and EU level”, while also building on reforms, including modern anti-corruption legislation and economic substance rules, he added.