Is privacy and data protection a good thing or not?
Should there be a public register of what you own? Would you like your neighbours, friends, children and employees knowing precisely what you own; properties, businesses, pensions and bank accounts? Why not – if you have nothing to hide?
Tony Blair, is on record as saying that one of his greatest regrets had been his own Freedom of Information Act. Why because in his view ‘information is neither sought because the journalist is curious to know, nor given to bestow knowledge on ’the people’. ‘It is used as a weapon’.
To protect his privacy once he left office and started to make money, he erected barriers to prevent an accurate assessment of his wealth His income was channelled through a complicated legal structure. At the top was BDBCO No.819 Limited a company called either Windrush or Firerush. Windrush Ventures No.3 LP was part owned by Windrush Ventures No.2 LP which in turn controlled Windrush Ventures Ltd. The scheme’s advantage was that the LPs, or limited partnerships, were not obliged to publish accounts. Even without public registers and the protection of limited partnerships, Tom Bower, author of ‘Broken Vows’ managed to track down these details – so why do we need a public register?
Furthermore, the drive for a public register is for ownership of companies and properties, but not of the beneficiaries of a trust – so for anyone wishing to disguise their ownerships they simply need to set up a trust – or take their assets outside the Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies – in which case Britain plc is shooting itself in the foot. We will get nothing and business will flee from the territories we should be protecting.
This week a Government Bill designed to protect the City in the event of a no-deal Brexit was pulled in the face of almost certain defeat after MPs added an amendment that would have forced greater transparency on the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey – the Crown Dependencies.
The idea of public registers of companies, was originally proposed by David Cameron and George Osborne in 2013 in the fight against the use of offshore financial centres to launder money using a myriad of offshore companies. It was dropped when May became Prime Minister, but resurrected by a bank benchers Hodge and Mitchell.
It is generally accepted that the UK cannot interfere in the affairs of another country even an ‘Overseas Territory’ such as the BVI or Cayman, or a ‘Crown Dependency’ such as Guernsey except in extreme circumstances.
The UK has however intervened in the affairs of the Overseas Territories, such as in the repeal of the Death Penalty in 1991 and decriminalising homosexuality in 2,000, but has made no such intervention in the Crown Dependencies, which is why the bill had to be pulled to give time for a more detailed debate.
Hodge takes the view that a public register of ownership to stamp out the ‘traffic of corrupt money and illicit finance’ across the world’ justified such intervention! The Paradise Papers according to the campaign group Global Witness estimates that £68bn flowed out of Russia via the British-overseas territories between 2007 and 2016, - but what of other countries? To date only three prosecutions have been made. Is this a good enough justification for undermining the privacy of many others?
Andrew Mitchell takes it one stage further, ‘It is only by openness and scrutiny, by allowing charities, NGOs and the media to join up the dots, that we can expose this dirty money and those people standing behind it. Closed registers do not begin to allow us to do it’
That did not prevent Tom Bower finding out all he needed to know about Tony Blair!
The real debate needs to be on how far can we undermine the human right to privacy enshrined in many countries so that rich countries can pick out a few bad apples in a barrel of good ones?
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