Column: UK Parliament, Bermuda’s Register Law

December 5, 2018 | 10 Comments

Scott Pearman Bermuda December 2018[Opinion column written by OBA MP Scott Pearman]

With our Premier in London meeting with the UK Overseas Territories Association, this may be an appropriate moment to reflect on Bermuda’s current relationship with the UK.

There are times when Bermuda’s Premier [or Finance Minister] needs to politely disagree with our UK counterparts – to ensure that Bermuda’s interest is protected.

One recent example is the UK’s approach to Bermuda’s Register of Beneficial Ownership of companies.

This Register relates to Bermudian companies, not UK ones. However, London is saying it will force Bermuda to make our Register public by 31 December 2020, if our Parliament does not do so.

Yet Bermuda is a self-governing overseas territory. We’ve had Bermuda-made laws since 11 July 1612. Our own Parliament since 1 August 1620: almost 400 years.

Constitutional Convention

In schooldays, when ‘knee-high to a grasshopper’, Bermudians learn we are self-governing: that London does not legislate for the Mid-Atlantic.

We Bermudians make our laws. This understanding has been called a ‘constitutional convention’, respected by the UK for four centuries – with few exceptions.

Our Register of Beneficial Ownership dates back to the 1940s. The UK only recently implemented theirs. So why is Britain telling Bermuda what to do on beneficial ownership?

Why is the British Parliament now threatening to legislate directly for Bermuda on beneficial ownership – after 400 years?

Bermuda’s Register of Beneficial Ownership

When Bermuda Inc. first spread its wings, our Island made sure we knew who was doing business here. A Register was created to record ownership of companies.

Yet Bermuda’s Register was private, not public. Individuals were not publicised for all to see. If information was needed about any company, then the Register could be accessed through due process.

There was a respect for privacy and ownership rights – foreshadowing the right to privacy enshrined in Bermuda’s Constitution in 1968.

The Right to Privacy

And privacy should be protected. Right?

Sure, we publish MP salaries, because we are paid by the People. But what about your salary? Should your co-workers know what you are paid?

Should your worldly possessions [or debts] be published for everyone to see?

In today’s digital world, once personal details escape online, they acquire a life of their own.

In April, amidst allegations that Facebook misused people’s private data, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder, came before the US Congress to be questioned. He was asked about the importance of privacy – a ‘right’ often trampled upon by social media’s hang-it-all-out-there approach.

Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, asked Mr. Zuckerberg a poignant question:

Sen. Durbin: Would you be comfortable sharing with us the name of the hotel that you stayed in last night?

Mr. Zuckerberg: Um…uh…no.

This response was more revealing than most Facebook posts. His reluctance confirmed that privacy matters. Zuckerberg declined to answer. But he had the right to decline; the right to keep his personal information private from the World.

The Former Chief Justice

Back to Bermuda: Before Ian Kawaley retired from our Supreme Court Bench, the Chief Justice gave a judgment [PDF] that captured rather less media attention than others. This judgment, about privacy and trusts, was nonetheless important.

The Chief was contemplating criticisms levelled at Bermuda [and other financial centres] where privacy is protected in financial matters. His Lordship said this: “Bermuda’s offshore sector began in the mid-1930’s and the concept of offshore companies and offshore trusts were commercially driven, at least in part, by anxieties on the part of far-sighted members of the European moneyed classes about a looming war and the risk of confiscation of their assets [or worse] by populist governments envious of their wealth in recessionary times.

“The confiscation of assets and worse did in fact occur, and Bermuda fought on the victorious side which introduced the notion of fundamental human rights designed to ensure that untrammelled democracy would not trample on personal and property rights again.”

European history demonstrated, at great cost, what happens when fundamental rights fall victim to extreme populism.

The observations by the former Chief Justice were cited by Bermuda’s Governor last month, when welcoming international legal experts to our Island for a trust conference – welcoming those whose clients still consider Bermuda a safe haven in an increasingly turbulent world.

Why does all this matter?

Because history has shown why ‘rights’ – such as the right to privacy – must have the utmost protection in law; and why our very own Constitution does so.

Because the populist ‘many’ can trample upon the ‘few’: sometimes with catastrophic effect.

Because 400 years of convention dictates that Bermuda – and not the UK – has the right to decide whether our Register of Beneficial Ownership should remain private.

In our House

Premier Burt, to his credit, has taken a clear stance on this issue.

He told the House of Assembly: “There will be no public Register of Beneficial Ownership in Bermuda until this Honourable House, elected by the people of Bermuda, votes to implement one.”

Like other Premiers before him, from all parties, Premier Burt rightly asserts that the choice is one for our House of Assembly.

Law abiding private citizens have the right to privacy, including privacy in their financial affairs. Bermuda is entitled to protect this right. The Parliament of Britain, a country steeped in history, should respect historical convention and let Bermuda’s Parliament decide.

- Scott Pearman is the Shadow Minister for Legal Affairs

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Comments (10)

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  1. …that the Minister of Finance, currently, needs to POLITELY, at times, disagree.. nonsense.
    This dude needs to pay attention. Foreigners always thinking and saying that their opinion is much more necessary and more important than intelligent, Bermudian, political leaders.
    His thoughts and opinions mean very little. He must be of the thought that this political party is OBA.
    NO!!!!
    He must step back and quietly absorb the political happenings of 2018.

    • Double S says:

      “Foreigners always thinking and saying that their opinion is much more necessary and more important than intelligent, Bermudian, political leaders.”

      Easy mistake to make if they view the ignorant, badly structured and hate filled comments you make on a daily basis as being representative of Bermudians.

    • Rocky5 says:

      Suggest you read the “whole” opinion piece before shooting off your mouth…..

    • question says:

      “Foreigners always thinking and saying that their opinion is much more necessary and more important…”

      You’re talking about Tweed, right?

    • Jus' Wonderin' says:

      ENGLISH M#%$$%#%$#%$#% DO YOU SPEAK IT?!

  2. Mike Hind says:

    Wait… are you saying that Scott Pearman, a Bermudian, is foreign.
    I wonder what it is about him that would make you say that… hmmm…

  3. Herbalist says:

    Who is this UBP man?

    You should write a column on why so many voters black/white/blue/red/yellow left the ubp/OBA over the years.

    Also write about why you try to change the name as much as you change leaders in the last 12 months.

    • Mike Hind says:

      Good distraction!

      • What says:

        Distraction? Your music playing is a distraction! See how much money you make now that us Church people have boycott our and Tony B!

  4. Bermudian says:

    STRAIGHTFORWARD, Why do you think he’s a foreigner?
    Its people like you that we don’t need, Bermudian or not, spewing your nonsense and once again calling the race card.

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