LONDON – A handful of countries agreed Thursday to publish lists of who really owns companies in their territories, a move hailed by the British government as a step toward stopping a global plague of tax evasion, money-laundering and bribery.
The “beneficial ownership” registers were announced at a London summit called by Prime Minister David Cameron to fight what he termed the “cancer” of corruption.
Cameron, who has made combating financial wrongdoing one of his flagship policies, said the gathering showed that after years of good intentions, the conference marked the start of “a global movement against corruption.”
“There’s nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come,” he said.
But many countries didn’t sign up to the tough actions Cameron sought, and anti-corruption groups said criminals would still find plenty of places to stash their money — including tax havens linked to Britain.
Susana Ruiz, tax expert at anti-poverty charity Oxfam, said “tax dodgers can still sleep easily tonight.”
Heads of state, ministers and diplomats from some 40 countries met Thursday at the elegant London mansion Lancaster House, and made a plethora of promises: to fight bribery in public contracting and the energy sector; to clean up international sports; to step up intelligence and law-enforcement co-operation; and to return stolen assets to their owners. The U.S. and Britain announced they would host a global asset-recovery conference next year.
Firm commitments, however, varied widely. Just six countries — Britain, France, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Kenya and Afghanistan — agreed to publish registers of who really benefits from corporate ownership, a key goal of anti-corruption groups. Six more, including Australia, Ireland and Norway, said they would “explore doing so.”
The U.S. didn’t make that commitment, although Secretary of State John Kerry told the conference that a “pandemic” of corruption “is as much of an enemy” as extremist terrorism — which it helps drive by fueling public anger and helplessness.
In Britain, the law requires companies — including foreign firms that own British property or seek government contracts— to disclose who really benefits from their ownership.
Cameron said the register was a move toward “cleaning up our property market right here in London,” which is a magnet for wealthy overseas investors.
Corruption, he said, “is the cancer at the heart of so many problems we need to tackle in our world.”
Critics of Cameron’s efforts say London’s financial district, the City, is awash with ill-gotten gains, and many of the world’s leading tax havens are British dependencies or overseas territories.
Cameron’s own financial credentials were tarnished by last month’s revelation — in leaked papers from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca — that he had a stake in an offshore firm established by his late father. Cameron sold his shares in 2010, before he became prime minister.
And the British leader ruffled feathers before the summit when a television microphone caught him saying “leaders of some fantastically corrupt countries” were coming. Speaking at a Buckingham Palace reception with Queen Elizabeth II, he referred to Nigeria and Afghanistan as “possibly two of the most corrupt countries in the world.”
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani have both promised to curb corruption in their countries, and were among the most high-profile attendees at the conference.
Buhari said he wasn’t seeking an apology from Cameron over the remarks, but wanted something “tangible” — the return of plundered Nigerian assets held in British banks. He told the meeting that “corruption is one of the greatest enemies of our time.”
Ghani said corruption was fueling his country’s political violence, and the fight against wrongdoing “should not be a fashion that is discarded with the next set of elections.”
There were some notable omissions on the conference guest list. Delegates discussed corruption in sport, but soccer governing body FIFA, wracked by a vast bribery scandal, is not at the meeting.
British-linked tax havens including Bermuda and the Cayman Islands were represented at the summit — but others, such as the British Virgin Islands, were not.
Cameron said Britain’s overseas tax havens had agreed to share company-ownership information with U.K. law-enforcement bodies. Jersey, the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, Anguilla and the Isle of Man agreed to join a group of several dozen nations that share such information with one another.
Cameron said Britain’s overseas tax havens were now “ahead of many developed states” in openness.
But charities and opposition politicians said Britain must go farther and insist that the territories’ ownership registers are made public.
Allan Bell, chief minister of the Isle of Man — a British Crown dependency in the Irish Sea — said there wouldn’t be real progress unless the United States made its own tax havens, such as Delaware, more open.
Robert Palmer of anti-corruption group Global Witness said the results of the meeting were mixed, but positive.
“The tide is definitely moving toward transparency, and the tax havens and the U.S. are being left behind,” he said.