EDITORIAL – Ownership registry: A clear picture of the fight ahead

While on his whirlwind visit to Cayman last week, here to discuss both natural and man-made disasters, Lord Tariq Ahmad offered reassurance — and a bit of a reality check — regarding Parliament’s decision to compel Cayman and Britain’s other overseas territories to create public registries of company ownership.

Lord Ahmad, who is minister for the territories, understands the U.K.’s unique responsibilities to our jurisdictions. He arrived last Wednesday to review hurricane preparedness protocols and continue discussions of the beneficial ownership registries, which Parliament has decreed we must make public — voluntarily or by force.

This board has written voluminously of that betrayal, which began with a House of Commons amendment directing the U.K.’s overseas territories (but not Crown dependencies) to publish the private information of beneficial owners of companies registered in their jurisdictions by Dec. 31, 2020. If they do not, Mother Britain will issue an order in council. A few weeks later, the House of Lords assented to the language in an act, it must be noted, Lord Ahmad did not support.

As he told his peers in the House of Lords during their discussion of the Commons amendment to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill last month, the act of compelling territories to open company registries by issuing an order in council would not only decimate our economies, it would run roughshod over our constitutions and disenfranchise our elected representatives.

“Let me be absolutely clear,” he cautioned, “The overseas territories are British, but they are separate jurisdictions with their own democratically elected governments, responsible for their own fiscal matters and are not represented in this Parliament.”

Despite his eloquent arguments, the Lords agreed to the bill’s wording, allowing the amendment to stand. During his visit, Lord Ahmad was appropriately candid about where we stand as a result of that decision.

He realistically advised that there is no way to “undo” an act of Parliament. This is the path before us. He spoke to government’s plans to review the constitution, particularly Section 125, which grants Her Majesty’s government “reserved powers” to legislate for our territory on local matters — effectively to override local control.

Lord Ahmad advised that any proposals for constitutional change would be given “due consideration,” but warned that those reserved powers have traditionally been an important element for the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office in its agreements with overseas territories.

“If there are issues [the territories] wish to raise about the constitution, we will look to address them,” he said, urging everyone to remain calm as events unfold.

Certainly, we would have welcomed better news — a silver bullet, a way to hit “delete” on Parliament’s overreaching decision. Still, we appreciate Lord Ahmad’s candor and willingness to “tell it straight.”

By all accounts, Cayman and other offshore jurisdictions have a tough fight ahead of us. We need the facts in our arsenal.

And we need friends in London, like Lord Ahmad, who will help our leaders realistically chart a path forward.

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