“The UK is keeping the door wide open for sulphurous billionaires”

Chronic. One oligarch lost, ten billionaires found? After a few weeks of hesitation, the United Kingdom ended up imposing sanctions against a long list of Russian billionaires, modeled on that prepared by the European Union. It’s not nothing. The British government, criticized for so many years for turning a blind eye to the source of the wealth of the London-based oligarchs, acted decisively.

If this may be the end of “Londongrad”, the United Kingdom nevertheless keeps the door wide open to billionaires with sulphurous fortunes. It is enough to note the deep hesitations of the British government to toughen up its legislation. In England and Wales there is a public register of landowners. For less than 5 euros, it is possible to find out who owns any address across the country. With one exception, but a major one: in all legality, it is possible to hide your name behind a front company registered abroad. Bernard Arnault thus owned a magnificent villa near London in complete anonymity, until the “Paradise papers” revealed it in 2017. It is completely authorized, but it destroys the transparency sought with this register. Billionaires around the world act the same way, including the less desirable ones. In total, nearly 100,000 “companies” own real estate. In the borough of Westminster, in the heart of London, these shell companies represent 8% of the owners.

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As early as 2016, David Cameron, then Prime Minister, had promised to put an end to this practice, by creating a register of foreign owners. His successors took up his promise. However, in January, after much discussion, Boris Johnson quietly buried the bill. It took the war in Ukraine for him to turn around. The “law on economic crime” has just been passed urgently in Parliament and it provides for the famous register. It now remains to see its implementation. Scalded, anti-corruption activists fear that there are still many possible workarounds.

The small arrangements of the City

Another law – absolutely not discussed on the political level – leaves skeptical on the British will to attack dirty money: the existence of the famous “non-doms”. This status concerns foreigners who reside in the United Kingdom, but who are “not domiciled” for their taxes. Concretely, they must declare all their income repatriated to the United Kingdom, but they do not have to do so for their fortune based abroad. This exorbitant privilege is one of the reasons for the City’s success.

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