Richards accuses Britain of bias
Former finance minister Bob Richards has accused British MPs of betraying an inherent bias by forcing Bermuda and the other Overseas Territories to be transparent on company ownership.
Mr Richards described the British Parliament's decision on Tuesday to make the OTs reveal the owners of all their registered companies by the end of 2020 as a “huge retrograde step and totally unacceptable”.
He added that it was obvious why the Crown dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man were not being told to take the same measures, likening it to Britain's “kith and kin” policy towards the former Rhodesia under the rule of white leader Ian Smith.
“In other words, because the Rhodesians who were in charge of Rhodesia were the descendants of the white British, they were kith and kin. They had a different approach towards kith and kin.
“The folks in the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey are also kith and kin.”
The retired One Bermuda Alliance politician, who lost his seat at the last General Election, took particular exception to a remark made by Labour MP Liam Byrne during the parliamentary debate.
Mr Byrne said: “Have we not learnt that dark money will move to wherever the law is darkest? If we bring transparency to the Overseas Territories, most of the money is simply going to be relocated to the Crown dependencies, unless we change the law to cover them, too.”
Mr Richards said: “This is an affront to us. It's an affront to our democracy. It's an affront to Bermuda in every way you can think.”
He added: “The reference to ‘darkest' was an unfortunate one in the broader context. The broader context is that, notwithstanding the points being made by certain Members that say that the Crown dependencies should have been treated the same as OTs, the fact is that the UK Parliament, overall, voted to exclude them, after strong lobbying.
“Taken in this overall context, where the residents of the Crown dependencies, who are indeed kith and kin of the majority of British citizens, escape these sanctions, while the residents of the OTs involved in financial services, who are by and large not kith and kin, do not escape, leads one to the inevitable conclusion of net bias in the UK Parliament.
“After all Bermuda has done over the past 20 years to be early adopters of the ever-evolving global standards of transparency and co-operation, the statement that we are, and have been, an epicentre of ‘dark money' is not only a display of profound ignorance, and crass stereotyping, but an example of the kind of scapegoating, for UK-specific political purposes, we have had to endure in recent years.”
Britain first raised the idea of requiring the OTs to make their beneficial ownership registers public in 2013, during Mr Richards's time as deputy premier and finance minister.
The Bermuda Government got a legal opinion from a London barrister, who Mr Richards said was “very clear that the decision by the United Kingdom can't stand scrutiny in the courts”.
Mr Richards said: “The Bermuda Constitution is different to the other Overseas Territories. An order in council [by the UK Parliament], having to do with matters that are clearly the responsibility of the local government — which the beneficial ownership thing is — is not allowed in the Constitution.
“Our self-governing powers in the local constitution are more advanced than that of other Overseas Territories.”
He said the Bermuda Government had access to the legal opinion and he was “totally confident” it would challenge the UK decision and be successful.
The debate on Tuesday centred on an amendment to an anti-money laundering Bill put forward by Labour MP Margaret Hodge and Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell, which won the support of a majority of the House of Commons.
Mr Richards said the politicians' claim that the British OTs were tax havens and were harbouring illicit funds was “purely rhetoric to try to embarrass the Conservative Government”.
“Unfortunately, we are being made a whipping boy for political issues in the United Kingdom,” Mr Richards said. “I think the opposition party in London will try to do anything to embarrass the Government. They are also playing to a false narrative that places like Bermuda are taking food from the mouths of starving babies in Africa. This whole argument in the UK is about their tax.”
Agreeing that Bermuda was a competitor to London in the financial-services sector, he said the island's registry was “hugely superior” to Britain's and company ownership information was provided to overseas tax authorities swiftly.
“We have always demanded to know who the human beings were behind a company,” he added.
The UK's Guardian newspaper reported that the amendment did not apply to the Crown dependencies because Parliament did not have the legal right to impose its will on them.
Mr Mitchell was quoted as saying that in light of the amendment's success, Parliament would expect the Government “to make the point persuasively, that we hope that the Crown dependencies embrace the same ethical position and equal transparency”.
Mr Byrne could not be reached for comment by press time. An assistant at his Birmingham constituency office explained he was busy with local elections yesterday.