PANDORA PAPERS: what you need to know about the biggest-ever probe into offshore accounts which has unmasked owners of offshore-held UK property worth £4bn

Heads of government, oligarchs, business tycoons, ruling families and a Middle Eastern monarch are among the anonymous owners of at least £4bn in UK property, the Pandora papers reveal.
From the leaked files – the biggest trove of leaked offshore data in history – the Guardian has been able to identify about 600 individuals who used secretive offshore companies to keep their British property acquisitions confidential. Many of the properties are in the most exclusive London postcodes: Mayfair, Knightsbridge, Kensington and Belgravia.
UK property worth more than £170bn is estimated to be held overseas, much of it anonymously. By offering a rare glimpse into the true ownership of a significant tranche of that, the Pandora papers are likely to intensify pressure on the government to enact previous promises and force overseas owners to publicly register their UK holdings. Buying property through offshore companies is legal, and some who use this route may have genuine and legitimate privacy or security concerns for doing so. But the secrecy that it confers can heighten the risk of the UK property market being misused for tax avoidance and money laundering, prompting repeated government pledges to overhaul the system.
UK-based property buyers are legally required to be identified via the Land Registry and Companies House, but a loophole means that those wealthy enough to hire lawyers, accountants and corporate providers to create offshore entities can hide their ownership from public view.
The inconsistency can, the government has said, be used to avoid the attention of HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) or law enforcement agencies.
The Guardian – working with the BBC, Finance Uncovered and other media outlets – has through months of research identified hundreds of anonymous owners by cross-referencing UK Land Registry data on properties directly held offshore with leaked files in the Pandora papers. Those files contain the names of the ultimate beneficial owners (UBOs), in other words the people in actual control, of hundreds of offshore companies. Discovery of these ownerships is not in itself any indication of illegality but the lack of transparency and accountability around them raises its own concerns.
The research reveals that a wide variety of overseas buyers – often politically active – have used the offshore route to acquire UK property. At one extreme sits the King of Jordan, whose assets in the exclusive Belgravia district of London are part of an international luxury property empire worth well in excess of $100m, who cited security concerns for holding the properties anonymously and said no public funds were used to purchase them; at the other the multimillionaire ruling family of Azerbaijan and their associates, who have been repeatedly accused of corruption, including by the European parliament. They did not comment.
Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, attends the Generation Equality Forum, a global gathering for gender equality in Paris on 30 June 2021.Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, attends the Generation Equality Forum, a global gathering for gender equality in Paris on 30 June 2021. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty ImagesElsewhere in the data are family members of Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, who used a company in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) to acquire a flat in Westminster. Thani Abdulla TJ al-Thani of the Qatari ruling family bought 16 London properties between 2010 and 2018 to a value of £640m. Neither commented on the real estate purchases revealed by the Pandora papers. The family of the Russian oligarch Mikhail Gutseriev – placed under sanctions by the UK, EU and US in June over his links to the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko – owns more than £50m of property in the City and West End of London, the data shows. Representatives of the family said Gutseriev had no interest in the assets, which were acquired 15 years ago, and that his son Said Gutseriev, an entrepreneur and the offshore beneficial owner of most of the property, was a UK citizen.
Alexei Chepa, another Russian politician, used a BVI company to acquire a 10-bedroom mansion in Holland Park, London, in 2011. The property, which has its own underground cinema and swimming pool, sold this year for £25m. A representative of Chepa said: “Acquisitions of any property that may have been made would have followed absolutely the proper processes as advised at the time.” Tina Green, the wife of the British retail tycoon Sir Philip Green, acquired a £15m luxury maisonette near the Dorchester hotel in Mayfair via an offshore company. According to the leaked files, Lady Green, who is a tax-resident of Monaco, was growing her property empire in April 2016 as staff at her husband’s former department store BHS, which collapsed in the same month, were pleading with him to bail out its stricken pension fund. He later agreed to contribute £363m to rescue the pension scheme.
Lawyers for Lady Green said her offshore corporate structures were legal and entirely unconnected with Sir Philip Green’s affairs and had no link to BHS whatsoever.
The documents also reveal a list of 47 BVI companies of which Lady Green is beneficial owner and her anonymous stake in a real estate partnership that acquired commercial property in west London in 2011. The property was sold four years later generating a £37.5m profit. There is nothing illegal about this, but that she was one of the investors was not publicly known before the Pandora leaks.
The case highlights a key argument made by the government for a compulsory public register of overseas and offshore property investors. Such transparency would help to ensure a level playing field in the property market by guaranteeing that buyers and sellers have access to the same information.
More than 60 of the secretly owned properties detailed in the Pandora papers cost in excess of £10m at their last recorded transaction – sometimes many years ago. Owners of properties valued at more than eight figures in the data include Battushig Batbold, the son of the former Mongolian prime minister Sukhbaatar Batbold, whose BVI company acquired an £11m flat in Knightsbridge.
Lawyers for Sukhbaatar Batbold said his London purchases had been sold and neither he nor any members of his family retained any financial interest in them. There were “obvious privacy and security reasons for a politician of our client’s standing” to acquire property via an offshore company, they added.
Also detailed is the purchase more than a decade ago of two London properties worth in excess of £3m by Nirupama Rajapaksa, a niece of Sri Lanka’s president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and her entrepreneur husband, Thirukumaran Nadesan.
Although the couple no longer have an interest in the properties, the Rajapaksa family have dominated Sri Lanka’s politics for decades and Nirupama was a politician until 2015. In 2016 Nadesan was accused of involvement in corruption in Sri Lanka. He denies the charges and says they were politically motivated.
Cost of inactionThe public interest arguments for tougher legislation on concealed overseas and offshore UK property ownership have been repeatedly made by the government. In 2015 the then prime minister, David Cameron, promised to go on the offensive against what he called “dirty money” in the UK property market. He said some London property was “being bought by people overseas through anonymous shell companies, some with plundered or laundered cash”.
At an anti-corruption summit in 2016, Cameron’s government pledged to introduce a register of owners of UK property. Draft legislation was brought forward in 2018. Yet still the plan failed to make it into the Conservative party manifesto at the 2019 election. By this year’s G7 summit in Cornwall the idea was back, with another Whitehall pledge to take action “as soon as parliamentary time allows”. So far, it has not.
In the meantime, concerns about the effects of inaction are rising. A Home Office and Treasury report in December raised the government’s assessment of the money laundering risk for the property market from “medium” to “high”. It said criminals were increasingly laundering illicit funds and that “purchases made by corporate structures or trusts based in secrecy jurisdictions pose the greatest level of risk, due to the difficulties in determining the ultimate beneficial owners”.
The document added: “Corrupt foreign elites continue to be attracted to the UK property market, especially in London, to disguise their corruption proceeds.”
Moving money offshore is not illegal and there can be legitimate reasons for overseas individuals, including politicians and heads of state, to do business in the UK via offshore companies. Opposition figures in repressive regimes, for example, sometimes require such forms of anonymity for their holdings.
However, tax havens generally are estimated to cost governments anywhere between $400bn and $800bn (£293bn to £586bn) annually in lost tax revenues.
Ben Cowdock, the investigations lead at the anti-corruption campaign group Transparency International, said: “Since 2015, successive governments have vowed to introduce measures to bring transparency to secretive offshore companies holding UK property, revealing their true owners and making it easier to target where there is corruption. Despite draft legislation having cross-party support these measures are yet to be introduced to parliament.” Guardian

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