British public oppose company secrecy

Over half of British people are opposed to company owners being able to keep their identities secret.

Some 57% say this should not be allowed, with the same percentage saying they are suspicious about owners' motives where they conceal their identities.

According to the ComRes poll commissioned by Christian Aid, members of the public guessed company owners choose anonymity because of tax avoidance and evasion (78%), to keep their true wealth secret (70%), or to hide criminal behaviour (59%).

More than half of those polled, some 58 per cent, agreed that a registry of ownership should be open to the public, as well as to tax and law enforcement authorities, including the police, both in the UK and abroad.

Less than a quarter (23%) were aware that a company could be set up in the UK legally with anonymous owners and only 9% agreed that company owners should have a right to this kind of privacy.

Nearly three-quarters (74%) said the UK Government should "force" the Crown Dependencies and British Overseas Territories to make information about company ownership publicly available.

Christian Aid said company secrecy was often facilitated by tax havens, which made it possible for 'phantom' companies to operate with the identity of the beneficial owners being completely hidden. The companies are often shell companies that only exist on paper and do not have offices or staff.

With core ownership disguised, Christian Aid's Joseph Stead said criminals were able to use the phantom companies to evade tax, launder money and pay bribes "safe in the knowledge that even the police will find it very difficult to trace them".

"This causes harm worldwide, not least in poor countries, which lose billions every year to tax evasion and corruption," said Stead, Christian Aid's senior economic justice adviser.

Overall, the poll revealed strong opposition to tax evasion, with 84% expressing anger at multinationals avoiding tax and over a third (34%) saying they are boycotting products or services because of tax evasion concerns.

The majority (87%) think the accounts of multinationals should be more transparent and publicly available, and 83% believe multinationals receive more lenient treatment from the taxman than individual tax payers.

Eighty-six per cent think it is too easy for multinational companies in the UK to avoid paying tax and 90% think companies should pay tax in all the countries where they make a profit, a move Christian Aid says would help to prevent tax abuses currently costing developing countries up to US$160bn a year.

A registry of ownership for use by police and tax authorities was endorsed in principle by the Government at the recent G8 Summit in Northern Ireland, which it chaired.

However, Christian Aid said little progress had been made since the summit and there was concern that the Government was now rethinking its pledge.

"The Prime Minister wanted to go further and make it public. If he changes his mind now, he will undermine his own commitment to transparency," Stead continued.

"Our poll shows there is clear public demand for a register that is open to all. Business Secretary Vince Cable must resist the inevitable pressure from some businesses and tax lawyers against such a registry, and deal a fatal blow to corporate secrecy."

Stead added: "As well as putting its own house in order, the Government must also ensure that the UK's tax havens – the Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories – follow suit with their own registers of who really owns what. The British Virgin Islands alone hosts at least 400,000 companies, to say nothing of trusts and other legal entities."

Christian Aid is calling on the public to email business secretary Vince Cable to ensure public registers are created which reveal who owns what, where, and for whose benefit at christianaid.org.uk/phantomfirms

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