A NEW UK database of company ownership details, designed to expose international money-laundering and tax-evasion schemes, will be opened to public scrutiny, British Prime Minister David Cameron said.
The "beneficial ownership register" goes beyond existing registration of corporations and shareholders by untangling deliberately opaque ownership structures to help authorities track down those who are using low-tax regimes overseas to illegally reduce their tax bills.
By making the data public, a move taken after consultation with businesses and pressure groups, the British government hopes to put more pressure on firms and individuals seeking to hide wealth and profits.
"A small minority has hidden business dealings behind a complicated web of shell companies. . . This cloak of secrecy has fuelled all manner of questionable practice and downright illegality," Mr Cameron said at a conference in London promoting open governance.
At June's G8 summit, he was unable to secure agreement from leaders to guarantee they would take similar steps, only a promise that they would draw up a plan to provide more data on company ownership.
The question of how much tax corporations pay – especially when the government has imposed cuts on ordinary people to reduce Britain's debt pile – has been highlighted by disclosures that companies such as Starbucks and Amazon pay little or no tax into British coffers, provoking a public and political uproar. Many, such as Google, use their operations in Ireland to avoid UK taxes.
While they operate within the rules to minimise their tax burden, it is hoped the new register will shine a light on firms illegally evading paying tax.
Britain's register will hold information on those who have 25pc or more of a company's shares or voting rights, or who otherwise control the way it is run, the government said.
However, Mr Cameron confirmed it would not cover complex trust structures which can also be used for tax avoidance.
Campaigners said that by making the first move with the register, Britain had set a welcome precedent for others.
"You have to have someone who makes a stand on principle and then gets the world to follow. In this case it's the UK," said Gavin Hayman of anti-corruption group Global Witness. (Reuters)