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Sunday, 9 August 2015

We Simply Don't Know Which Terrorist Organisations Own London Properties

David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, recently raised concerns about lack of transparency in the ownership of London's high - end properties. Ownership is often registered with companies in our Tax Havens - places like the Cayman Islands and the Virgin Islands which the UK Parliament has licensed for such activities. And those offshore companies are often created to disguise the ultimate beneficial owners of the properties. Until Parliament decides enough is enough, Mr Cameron can only fume.

The Financial Times has been diligent in following up the issue. In a half-page report (FT, 8/9 August 2015) Cynthia O'Murchu says that an FT study concludes that over £122 billion of UK property is owned through non-transparent offshore company structures. Much of this is high-end London property and, more than probably, much of it owned by the world's unsavoury.

The initial concern was expressed in terms of money-laundering. With the help of estate agents, solicitors and those "offshore jurisdictions" licensed by Parliament, criminals of all types have had their path smoothed to converting their loot into London property - quite a lot of it unoccupied and quite a lot of it owing arrears of Council Tax.

Keith Bristow, Head of the National Crime Agency, is quoted as calling money laundering "a strategic threat to the UK's economy".

But maybe it's a strategic threat full stop. If drug barons and kleptocratic despots can confidently convert their loot into desirable addresses with nice secure entryphones and CCTV, so can terrorist organisations. If we don't know who owns Kensington and Chelsea, we don't know whether any of the owners are creating safe houses to use for storing or making weapons and munitions; and we don't know whether any of the properties are designed to provide bolt-holes for assassins and terrorists.

I rather hope that Mr Cameron decides to pursue the issue and not be deflected by the cloud of obfuscation now being puffed out by London's property middlemen, the men in expensive suits with a very large vested interest in smoothing things for dodgy clients.

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