A pressure group is calling for estate agents to conduct additional checks to ensure the legal provenance of buyers’ funds, and wants all on- and off-shore companies owning UK property to be obliged to tell the Land Registry the identify of their beneficial owners.
Global Witness - a group campaigning for greater transparency in the operation of financial and resource sectors of economies - says the UK should also do more to identify tax havens which may be used by companies as bases from which to buy property in this country.
GW says the Westminster government could do this by convincing British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies to create their own public registers of beneficial ownership.
The demands come hot on the heels of the Channel 4 programme From Russia With Cash, which concerned the approach to anti-money laundering measures taken by five UK estate agents when handling overseas buyers of prime central London homes.
GW claims that “big chunks” of Baker Street in London, including residential elements, are owned by “a mysterious figure with close ties to a former Kazakh secret police chief accused of murder and money-laundering.”
The allegations concern activities dating from 2009 when what GW describes as “an unknown individual” acquired a network of offshore-owned companies which in turn invested in £147 million worth of prime property.
The pressure group report says that “London’s high-end property market is one of the go-to destinations to give questionable funds a veneer of respectability” and adds that “this kind of access to the financial system entrenches the corruption that keeps citizens in poor countries poor and threatens global stability.”
It says it is far too easy for the criminal and corrupt to launder money through luxury property, hiding the real owners behind anonymous companies, often registered in secrecy jurisdictions like the British Virgin Islands and hidden behind ‘nominee’ directors.
It claims that at least £122 billion worth of property in England and Wales is now owned by companies registered offshore, and 75 per cent of properties whose owners are under investigation for corruption made use of this kind of secrecy.