In a largely secret process, this autumn will see tense negotiations between Parliament and member states about the extent to which many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of families should have intimate details about their financial affairs placed on public display.
The public are rightly outraged that criminals, including tax evaders, so often seem to be able to hide funds away beyond the reach of investigating authorities. To tackle this problem, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the worldwide inter-governmental body responsible for setting global anti-money laundering standards, has brought forward proposals for reforms designed to make it harder for illegal funds to flow through the financial system.
For the past two years the EU has been working on a revised EU Anti-Money Laundering Directive to implement the reforms put forward by the FATF. The EU Commission’s initial proposals closely followed the new international standards. After prolonged debate, however, member states agreed a way forward which went well beyond the FATF’s recommendations in some key areas, with the focus on ensuring quicker and more effective access to information on who owns financial assets by investigating authorities.
In contrast, the EU Parliament has taken its own path on the new Directive. In a fundamental shift, MEPs are proposing the introduction of publicly accessible registers. The register will give full details to the public of all those who might benefit – the ‘beneficial owners’ in the jargon – from both companies and trusts. In the case of trusts the EU Parliament also calls for full details of the trust, including the assets held in the trust, to be generally made public.
These proposals from MEPs raise some fundamental problems when it comes to trusts.
In the popular view of those unfamiliar with them, trusts are used by the wealthy to evade taxes and hide money. This view seems to lie behind the pressure from the EU Parliament to open up trust details to the public.
The reality is very different. Trusts are very common in countries with an English legal tradition. In the EU this includes not just the UK but other Members States such as Ireland and Malta. Research by the UK tax authorities confirms that the majority of trusts are set up because a family wishes to help provide for a family member, often because the family wish to protect the long-term interests of a relative (a ‘beneficiary’) not currently able to look after their own affairs. As a result, one in four trusts have beneficiaries who are considered vulnerable.
Looking at trusts with vulnerable beneficiaries in more detail, the study found that in over a third of cases one or more of the beneficiaries were children aged under 18. In 17% of cases the trust beneficiaries were elderly and needed help running their financial affairs, in 15% of cases a beneficiary was mentally handicap and in 7% of cases they suffered from a physical disability.
Is it either fair, or safe, that the names of such vulnerable people should be freely available to the public as the EU Parliament proposes? Particularly if, as proposed, the details of the assets in the trust also appear on the register there would seem to be an all too obvious risk that this information will be abused.
The issue of compulsory registries open to public inspection is thus the key issue that will need to be hammered out in the negotiations that will get under way in a few weeks between Parliament and Member States. All sides expect this so-called ‘trialogue’ process to be even more than usually contentious.
It is worth bearing in mind that trusts are in any case not secret. Most trusts are potentially subject to tax and will be reported for tax purposes just like, for example, a bank account. Moreover trusts are subject to full anti-money laundering checks, so both the trustees and their bank will need to establish who the beneficial owners are and provide that information to the authorities if requested. The current proposals from member states would make this information even more easily available to investigating authorities, but crucially the general public would not be given access to such sensitive information.
What is the legitimate public interest in exposing the details of people who might benefit from a trust to the public gaze? The EU Parliament has never provided an answer to this key question, but it exposes a fundamental point of principle with implications that extend well beyond the issues surrounding trusts.
When the new global FATF standards which have prompted the revised EU Directive were drafted there was a lengthy debate on how to balance the need for investigating authorities to have effective access to information without losing core protections for the individual in terms of privacy and data protection. Reflecting this debate, the FATF standards do not require compulsory public registers for trusts. It is disturbing that there seems to have been little equivalent debate within the EU Parliament when it considered requiring details of all trusts to be placed on a publicly accessible register.
Families normally expect, quite legitimately, that their financial affairs will remain confidential. But the EU is now in real danger of stumbling into a situation in which large numbers of ordinary families will see their affairs opened up to the merely curious, the intrusive and the potential criminal alike. That should not happen without a very serious public debate about where the boundaries of any right to family confidentiality should be set.