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Foreign firms with UK property could be forced to reveal real owners

Overseas companies holding property in the UK could be required to declare who really controls them under government plans to crack down on corruption and money laundering.

The business minister Margot James has set out plans for what was said to be the world’s first public register of the “beneficial owners” of foreign companies and other legal entities with property in Britain.

The register would also include the beneficial owners of overseas-registered firms bidding for central government contracts.

The move comes amid concern that foreign criminals are investing in the UK property market as a way of laundering the proceeds of crime.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (DBEIS) said that since 2004, more than £180m worth of UK property had been identified by investigators as the suspected proceeds of corruption.

In three-quarters of cases, those under investigation used overseas companies to hide the real owners.

Launching a consultation on the plan, James said: “We are committed to protecting the integrity and reputation of the UK property market and this register would be a valuable measure to increase transparency and investor confidence.”

The National Crime Agency’s director for economic crime, Donald Toon, welcomed the move.

“Criminals and their money launderers will always seek to hide the true ownership of assets, including property, to frustrate investigations and hold on to the profits of their crimes,” he said.

“Greater transparency over the true ownership and control of UK property held in the name of overseas companies will make the UK a less attractive place to launder money and will help investigators track down and recover the proceeds of crime.”

The DBEIS said it was commissioning a research project to assess the likely impact of the overseas property register on inward investment and wider corporate transparency.