Foreign companies owning UK properties will have to reveal their ultimate owners on the world's first public register.

Criminals who illegally profit from some of the UK’s most exclusive properties through the use of overseas shell companies face up to five years in jail for concealing the true identity of their owners.

Under new draft laws laid out in Parliament today, foreign companies owning UK properties will be required to reveal their ultimate owners on the world's first public register.

The register forms part of a wider crackdown on criminals laundering dirty money in the UK and will make it easier for law enforcement agencies to seize criminal funds.

The penalties include a ban on any foreign entity selling or leasing property without first publicly declaring its beneficial owner.

An individual found to have committed this offence could face up to five years in jail and an unlimited fine.

Those failing to register overseas entities, or who knowingly try to deceive the register by providing false information, face up two years in jail and an unlimited fine.

“The UK is known around the world for its open and dependable business environment and this reputation is maintained by keeping under review our required high standards,” said Business Minister Richard Harrington.

“That is why we are introducing the world’s first public register which will expose the ultimate owners of overseas shell companies, giving authorities the information they need to come down on criminals who launder their dirty money through the UK’s property market and to seize the proceeds of crime.”

Under the new draft laws, companies will also be required to provide annual updates to Companies House to ensure the information on the register is up-to-date.

UK government minister for Scotland Lord Duncan said: “For too long criminals have been able to use the property industry as a front for investing dodgy funds, hiding dirty money and evading the law. This stops now.”

The register - which will go live by 2021 - follows the introduction of the Criminal Finances Act 2017, part of the government’s Anti-Corruption Strategy, which provides new powers such as Unexplained Wealth Orders to law enforcement agencies to help them seize the proceeds of crime.

More than £2 billion of criminal assets have been recovered under the Proceeds of Crime Act, while the government has recovered more than £3 billion extra since 2010 through recovery under additional powers.

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