The ultimate owners of companies and the beneficiaries of trusts may have to be listed in public registers, under draft anti-money laundering rules currently working through the European Parliament.
There is an increasingly prevailing view among leading Governments that lack of transparency about who ultimately owns and controls companies, trusts and other types of legal entities facilitates crimes such as money laundering, corruption and tax evasion.
Proposals for a public registry of “beneficial ownership” of companies are not new. Following agreement among the G8 leaders in June 2013, the UK Government announced intentions to create such a registry in October. However, the European Parliament has recently widened their proposals to incorporate trusts.
The current draft of the EU’s Fourth Anti-Money Laundering Directive includes a requirement for member states to set up public registers identifying the beneficiaries of trusts. The registers would be interconnected across Europe and access would be made public to those who complete a basic online registration.
The draft Directive includes some provisions to protect privacy and it is not currently suggested that details of Trust assets will need be disclosed. Nevertheless, there are many areas of concern in the proposals, including the administrative burden on legitimate entities and uncertainty regarding which trusts might be subject to the new regime.
These proposals are further manifestations of a desire for greater information sharing among global tax authorities and the continuing attack on the use of trusts for valid family succession and tax planning reasons.
The Directive will be considered further by the European Parliament in coming months. It will be interesting to see to what extent the terms of the debate are altered by the recent election results and corresponding changes to the composition of the Parliament.
A decision regarding implementation of the final Directive will be left to individual member states. To date, the UK Government has indicated that it welcomes mandatory public central registries of company beneficial ownership, but not of trusts. A possible middle-ground is a register which must be kept up to date but is only accessible to law enforcement agencies on request.
We shall, of course, keep you up to date as matters progress.