Early impacts of public registers of beneficial ownership: United Kingdom

The UK’s leading approach

1. A free-to-access public register

In 2015, the UK government introduced new provisions into the Small Business Enterprise and Employment Act to establish a free, publicly accessible register with information on beneficial owners of UK companies.[6] The register came online in 2016, and members of the public are able to access it free of charge and without the need for registration. Use of the data is licensed by statute, imposing no rules or requirements on how the information on the register is used.[7] Combined with the digital approach to collecting and publishing data, this has led to the register being widely used.

2. A digital approach to maximise data use

The UK took a highly digital approach to implementing the PSC register. Companies are able to register and update PSC information online. The data is available to the public on a record-by-record basis, where users can search by company name, company number, and officer name, although not by PSC name. In addition, data is available in bulk via daily data snapshots from Companies House as well as through an application programming interface (API) as structured machine-readable data. This has allowed users throughout civil society and the private sector to access and analyse the full register data.[8] These measures have led to impressive use of the PSC register, with over 9.4 billion searches made in 2019.[9] Data is routinely ingested into software operated by private sector and civil society, including the Global Open Ownership register (GOOR)[10] and commercial due diligence databases.

3. Iterative approach to improving data quality

Following the launch of the PSC register in 2016, Companies House has been responsive to feedback from data users identifying potential improvements. Large scale analysis by civil society actors in 2018 was cited multiple times in the UK government’s subsequent public consultation on proposed improvements, and several of the recommendations have been incorporated into the government’s proposed reforms.[11] The civil society analysis found instances of suspicious and seemingly inaccurate information, highlighting a significant gap in the register’s effectiveness to tackle corruption and money laundering, and calling for the information to be verified.[12] This was underscored by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) evaluation, which recommended that the UK improves the quality of information in the register by verifying the data.[13] The UK government embraced this feedback and has consulted on widespread potential reforms to the PSC register, including granting Companies House legal powers to verify the data.[14] In September 2020, the government announced its intention to implement these reforms, which if achieved in full would significantly improve data quality.[15]

4. Mobilising international ambition

The UK has leveraged its early adoption of beneficial ownership transparency (BOT) to encourage other countries to implement public registers. Countries such as Nigeria have cited the UK’s PSC register as an example they have drawn from when establishing their own PSC register.[16] In 2016, the UK government hosted an International Anti-Corruption Summit in London, securing solid commitments towards BOT from many of the 43 attending countries.[17] These commitments, alongside an increasing number of country commitments made within the framework of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), led to the UK working with OO. In 2019, OO and the OGP established an international Beneficial Ownership Leadership Group.[18] Through this forum, the UK has shared insights from its PSC implementation with other countries.

Endnotes

[1] O. Bennett, “Economic Crime in the UK: A Multi-Billion Pound Problem”, House of Commons Library, 2020 https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-9013/CBP-9013.pdf.

[2] “The Register of People with Significant Control (PSC Register): Understanding the New Requirements, Recording Control on the PSC Register and Protecting People at Serious Risk of Harm”, Department for Business Innovation and Skills, October 2014, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/395478/bis-14-1145-the-register-of-people-with-significant-control-psc-register-register-final-1.pdf; Rosie Sharpe, “Eight reasons why everybody needs to be able to see company ownership information (not just the police)”, Global Witness, 30 June, 2016, https://www.globalwitness.org/en/blog/eight-reasons-why-we-all-need-be-able-see-beneficial-ownership-information-rather-just-police/; “PM speech at Open Government Partnership 2013”, GOV.UK, 6 November 2013, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-speech-at-open-government-partnership-2013.

[3] “Companies House service”, Companies House, n.d., https://find-and-update.company-information.service.gov.uk/.

[4] “UK PSC Register”, Open Ownership, n.d., https://register.openownership.org/data_sources/uk-psc-register; Nienke Palstra, “10 lessons from the UK’s public register of the real owners of companies”, Global Witness, 23 October 2017, https://www.globalwitness.org/en/blog/10-lessons-uks-public-register-real-owners-companies/; Alan Duncan, “Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill [Lords] debate”, UK Parliament, 20 February 2018, https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2018-02-20/debates/4203FE32-0E68-46CD-BAAF-6F65D05050A2/SanctionsAndAnti-MoneyLaunderingBill(Lords)#contribution-5A46DAEC-CE87-44E8-A421-8B89533BA050.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Beneficial Ownership Transparency, milestones on the road to 2020: Highlights from EITI Countries”, Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), 2020, https://eiti.org/files/documents/eiti_botmilestones_8.pdf.

[7] “Statutory guidance: Our public task, copyright and Crown copyright”, GOV.UK, 9 August 2019, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/companies-house-accreditation-to-information-fair-traders-scheme/public-task-copyright-and-crown-copyright.

[8] “The UK’s performance against the Open Ownership Principles”, Open Ownership, n.d., 8, https://www.openownership.org/uploads/Rapid%20assessment%20of%20UK%20performance%20against%20the%20OO%20Principles%20.pdf.

[9] “Press release: Reforms to Companies House to clamp down on fraud and give businesses greater confidence in transactions”, GOV.UK, 18 September 2020,https://www.gov.uk/government/news/reforms-to-companies-house-to-clamp-down-on-fraud-and-give-businesses-greater-confidence-in-transactions.

[10] Please see: “Open Ownership Register”, Open Ownership, n.d., https://register.openownership.org/.

[11] “Corporate Transparency and Register Reform: Government response to the consultation on options to enhance the role of Companies House and increase the transparency of UK corporate entities”, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, 18 September 2020, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/925059/corporate-transparency-register-reform-government-response.pdf.

[12] “The companies we keep: What the UK’s open data register actually tells us about company ownership”, Global Witness, n.d., https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/corruption-and-money-laundering/anonymous-company-owners/companies-we-keep/.

[13] “Anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing measures: United Kingdom Mutual Evaluation Report”, Financial Action Task Force (FATF), December 2018, 157, https://www.fatf-gafi.org/media/fatf/documents/reports/mer4/MER-United-Kingdom-2018.pdf.

[14] “Corporate Transparency and Register Reform: Consultation on options to enhance the role of Companies House and increase the transparency of UK corporate entities”, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, May 2019, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/819994/Corporate_transparency_and_register_reform.pdf; See OO’s consultation response: “Corporate transparency and register reform – consultation response”, Open Ownership, n.d., https://www.openownership.org/uploads/oo-response-to-corporate-transparency-and-register-reform-consultation.pdf.

[15] “Press release: Reforms to Companies House to clamp down on fraud and give businesses greater confidence in transactions”, GOV.UK, 18 September 2020, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/reforms-to-companies-house-to-clamp-down-on-fraud-and-give-businesses-greater-confidence-in-transactions.

[16] “Improving the business environment in Nigeria through transparency in the management of beneficial ownership: A policy brief”, Federal Ministry of Justice of Nigeria (FMOJ) and International Business Leaders Forum (IBLF) Global, February 2017, https://irp-cdn.multiscreensite.com/e0b6c17a/files/uploaded/Policy%20Brief%20on%20Beneficial%20Ownership%20FMOJ%20and%20IBLF%20Global%20Final.pdf.

[17] “Anti-corruption Summit London 2016 – Communiqué”, GOV.UK, 12 May 2016, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/522791/FINAL_-_AC_Summit_Communique_-_May_2016.pdf; TI, “London Summit Commitment Database Assessment”, 2016, https://www.transparency.org/files/content/feature/2016_LondonSummitCommitmentDatabaseAssessment.xlsx.

[18] “The Beneficial Ownership Leadership Group”, Open Ownership, n.d., https://www.openownership.org/what-we-do/the-beneficial-ownership-leadership-group/.

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