Last night, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (the ICIJ) made public a searchable database containing details of over 200,000 offshore companies and the people that sit behind and benefit from them. To date, the unprecedented leak of information from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca has led to resignations and inquiries around the world and catapulted transparency to the top of the political and compliance agenda.
The latest Panama Papers revelations have conveniently been released shortly before the anti-corruption summit in London on 12 May hosted by David Cameron. The summit is seeking to galvanise a global corruption response and is scheduled to deal with issues including corporate secrecy, government transparency, the enforcement of international anti-corruption laws, and the strengthening of international institutions. One of the key agenda items at the summit will be the ongoing status of tax havens, an issue that has been highlighted by 300 economists who wrote to world leaders last week calling for “significant moves towards ending the era of tax havens” and urging governments to “lift the veil of secrecy” that exists around tax havens.
Over recent weeks, momentum as regards transparency has been growing - the EU Commission has indicated that it will take steps to toughen rules aimed at forcing trusts and companies to disclose their owners. The rules, agreed last year, require Member States to set up registers disclosing "beneficial ownership". This though will not be the end of measures to increase transparency; "we have to look at the accessibility of the beneficial ownership registers and also look at the rules for trusts," said Ms Jourova, EU Justice Commissioner "we need to further increase transparency". The EU sees this as a critical weapon in the fight against terrorist financing and money laundering with proposals for better coordination of asset freezes across the EU now being actively considered.
In parallel, the UK is attempting to lead the way on transparency issues. Last month, the UK implemented its register of individuals who are deemed to have "significant control" of businesses, which comes on top of a new regime under the Modern Slavery Act requiring businesses to set out what they are doing to clean up their supply chains. Looking forward, the UK government has released proposals for "unexplained wealth orders", which would shift the burden of proof on to suspected money launderers to prove that their assets were legitimately acquired. The UK has also confirmed that it will go ahead with a plan requiring offshore companies that buy property in the UK to reveal who controls them.
The desire for greater transparency and combatting corruption through more pro-active enforcement is growing around the world and should act as a reminder to businesses to keep pace with and pre-empt new transparency requirements. Failure to do so could lead to significant financial penalties and criminal proceedings.