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Beneficial ownership refers to the person who ultimately owns or controls an asset (for example, a property or a company).

The concept of beneficial ownership exists because the direct legal owner of an asset is not necessarily the person who actually controls and benefits from it. For example, the registered legal owner of a residential property may be a company registered overseas, which is controlled by an individual.

There are both lawful and unlawful reasons for wanting to separate the legal and beneficial owners of something. Nonetheless, registers of beneficial ownership provide transparency and play an important role in the fight against corruption, tax evasion and money laundering.

The UK has or intends to have registers of beneficial ownership for three different types of assets: companies, properties and land, and trusts. Information on the beneficial ownership of companies (the People with Significant Control (PSC) register) has been publicly available since 2016, although concerns have been raised about its accuracy. The register for trusts was introduced in 2017 and is not public.

The Government has since 2016 said it plans to launch a public beneficial ownership register for UK property. Despite being mentioned in the December 2019 Queen’s Speech the Government has not yet announced when it plans to bring forward legislation to implement such a register.

Around the world, many countries have created or have plans to create registers. In the EU, Member States had to introduce public company beneficial ownership registers by January 2020. As at March 2020, campaign group Global Witness said most had still not done so.

All British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies have or will introduce public company beneficial ownership registers. An amendment introduced by MPs to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 intended to require the UK Government to legislate to ensure British Overseas Territories introduce such registers by the end of 2020, although the Government interpreted this provision differently and British Overseas Territories have now committed to introduce such registers by the end of 2023. Crown Dependencies have also committed to do so after the EU reviews the implementation of its own public registers, in 2022 or 2023.

Our briefing Economic crime in the UK: a multi-billion pound problem discusses attempts to tackle economic crime, including the role of beneficial ownership registers.

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