Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Secrecymania

ON 20th November I attended the launch of the British Foreign Office anti-corruption film 'Crimes of the Establishment'. The film is a welcome initiative, and the launch offered a useful opportunity for discussion about the UK's role in tackling corrupt practices.

However, the focus of both the film and the discussion at the launch was largely on bribery of public officials and embezzlement by kleptomaniacs, and no mention was made about the role of financial intermediaries and Western firms using their political power to extract fiscal incentives from developing countries, or using offshore finance centres to operate trade mispricing schemes for profits laundering purposes. When I raised questions on this subject it was clear that British officials have still not grasped the essential issue, which is that for so long as Britain and its Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories continue to provide secrecy space by allowing non-disclosure of beneficial ownership of companies and trusts, this country will remain a nexus for the facilitation of corrupt practices.

Coincidentally, last week US Senator Carl Levin shifted the focus of the Permanent Sub Committee of Investigations to examine the role of shell companies in enabling money laundering and corruption. Over two million companies are formed annually in the US without disclosure of ownership. The vast majority of these will be used for correct purposes, but a significant proportion will not. In evidence to the Sub Committee a senior official said: "This domestic transparency gap is an impediment to US law enforcement and the enforcement of tax laws in other countries."

Exactly the same applies to Britain. We cannot pretend that the proliferation of new statutes and agencies in recent years will be adequate to tackling the supply side of corruption without taking robust measures to scrap offshore secrecy. It is time to recognise that legitimate business has no need for secrecy. On the other hand, countries that allow non-transparent corporate structures and secret trusts are inviting criminality. So whilst I welcome the release of 'Crimes of the Establishment' I nevertheless hold to my view that the British Establishment remains committed to policies which foster corruption both in Britain and abroad.

John Christensen

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