STEP and IFCs

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By Hélène Anne Lewis, Former Chair of the BVI Branch of the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (“STEP”) and former Chair of STEP Worldwide (2012-2014). 

Professional organisations have never been more committed to the continuing professional development of their members than at the present time – post 9/11, post GFC, post FATCA, post UBS/HSBC, but the real trailblazer in this space has been the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (now simply known as “STEP”). Founded almost 25 years ago on the basis of a deep conviction that the path to professionalism lay not just in qualifying examinations, but through a process of continual learning based on practical experience, STEP has evolved into a global organisation of more than 20, 000 members with more than 100 Branches in 90 jurisdictions around the world. Attracting and retaining the membership of highly qualified professionals, STEP offers not only the continuous education needed to specialise in the wealth management industry, but also offers strong organisational support for its members who are faced with environments that are increasingly challenging not to say “hostile”.

Staffed at its London Headquarters by a multi-disciplinary secretariat, STEP has built a strong team of Policy Advisers who have developed an enviable credibility, not only with the relevant Departments of the UK government, but also with the multi-national organisations (EU, FATF, OECD) based in Paris and Brussels. Recognising the importance of advocating for its members who practise not only in Britain and Europe but also in all the better known International Financial Centres (“IFCs”) around the world, STEP did not hesitate when funding was sought for the publication of a thesis on “fairness” that needed to be injected into the very early onslaught against IFCs by the FATF and the OECD in 2004. “Towards a Level Playing Field”, a review commissioned by the International Trade and Investment Organisation and The Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners, conducted by Canadian firm Stikeman Elliot, and published in 2006, was a magnum opus on the equitable regulation of corporate vehicles involved in cross border transactions.

Towards a Level Playing Field”…was a magnum opus on the equitable regulation of corporate vehicles involved in cross border transactions.

The report, which had the effect of stemming the tide of some of the more egregious initiatives that were being launched by European organisations, clothed STEP in a high degree of trustworthiness, not only in the corridors of Whitehall, Brussels and Paris, but also with the IFC governments in Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America. STEP Policy Director George Hodgson has been a reliable intermediary between the STEP Membership and the “international civil service” for many years, and his efforts to ameliorate the more deleterious effects of international regulation on the industry have been highly effective. Ably supported by the work of several senior STEP members such as Richard Frimston, Richard Hay, John Riches and Paul Knox, as well as STEP CEO David Harvey, Hodgson has consistently presented persuasive arguments in Brussels and Paris that have been beneficial to STEP members around the world, but especially in the IFCs.

In the beginning, the role of STEP was crucial to educating the technocrats in Europe who were engaged in drafting the “alphabet soup initiatives” on the nature and essence of the Anglo-Saxon trust. As “practitioners” of civil law, the Europeans were all too often at sea when it came to understanding the very entity they were proposing to regulate. STEP published a very basic manual “What is a trust” in order to assist in the negotiation of more “user friendly” positions on the part of the FATF, the EU and the OECD.

Many IFCs…are Overseas Territories of the United Kingdom, which cannot generally “speak for themselves.

More recently, however, the introduction of multi-lateral agreements as “weapons of mass persuasion” by the European organisations that represent the G20, has tended to minimise the effectiveness of STEP as a neutral, reliable advocate on behalf of its members, while emphasising the role of governments in advocating and negotiating on their own behalf with the G20 states. All well and good for independent states, but many IFCs – especially in the Caribbean – are Overseas Territories of the United Kingdom, which cannot generally “speak for themselves”, and therefore had to negotiate their positions with the UK – a member of the G20 – and rely on the UK to present their positions to the FATF and the OECD! STEP nonetheless again took the lead in consulting and educating its Branch Leaders, encouraging them to dialogue with their governments. By calling Branch Leaders together in an annual forum, STEP is able to assist in equipping them to be able advocates and intermediaries with their governments, by exposing them to the “deep dive” information and “ahead of the curve” thinking critical understanding of the issues. The “cross border relationships” that develop in this environment result in meaningful and effective collaboration, especially amongst the IFCs. STEP is a catalyst for these relationships and strengthens its own global reach as a result. In an unprecedented collaboration, the branches of the Caribbean and Latin American Region under the leadership of Roland Jones, Vanessa King, Timothy Prudhoe, Nigel Porteous, Hélène Anne Lewis and Keith Robinson, formed a steering group that retained highly renowned human rights Counsel, Hugh Tomlinson QC, to assist in the formulation of arguments against the continued assault on privacy, resulting in STEP being able to persuade the EU to resile from its previously untenable position regarding disclosure of the identities of trust beneficiaries on a public register. As a direct consequence of this effort, STEP’s Policy Team was able to build on that work and to advance the arguments that have held sway since the spring of 2015, and given some pause to the “creeping damp” of the initiative.

As a Society of individuals it is critically important that STEP serves its members’ needs, not only on the CPD level but also by recognising the critical importance of minimising the threats to their careers. By restructuring its CPD offering to make it more relevant to the prevailing industry requirements, and making qualifications more flexible, STEP has ensured that routes to membership are accessible, but has maintained high standards that result in STEP qualified professionals being the most sought after employees in the industry. In IFCs around the world, STEP members play key roles in advising governments on legislative responses to the changes impacting the industry, and are the real change agents in leading IFCs to develop new value propositions, moving away from their rusty images as “tax havens”, while emphasising their role as linchpins in the global economy and premier providers of support services to the global financial services industry. IFCs that are repositioning themselves as the centres of excellence they are becoming because of the influence and importance of organisations like STEP, are the future of an industry that is surviving a battering and emerging from the crucible stronger and more resilient than ever.

STEP members…are the real change agents in leading IFCs to develop new value propositions, moving away from their rusty images as “tax havens”.

 

Hélène Anne Lewis is a national of Trinidad and Tobago and English qualified lawyer of more than twenty-five years who has been practising in the BVI since 1990. She is the Founding Partner of SimonetteLewis, a boutique law practice that serves as BVI legal advisers to private banks in Europe and Asia, as well as to private wealth advisers and high net worth individuals onshore. Mrs Lewis’ practice includes advising on property, trust, probate and corporate matters involving BVI structures. With her Litigation Partner, she has also appeared in several high value trust and civil litigation matters in the Supreme Court of the Virgin Islands and the OECS Court of Appeal. She has presented to several conferences on Trust, Compliance and Corporate issues and is a member of the organising committee of one of the trust industry’s most successful conferences’, the STEP Caribbean Conference, which she has chaired twice in her capacity as Chairman of the BVI Branch of the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (‘STEP’).

After admission to the Bar at Gray’s Inn, the former Hélène Anne Simonette returned to Trinidad where she was at various times, State Counsel in the Attorney General’s Chambers, Legal Advisor to the Ombudsman, and to the Leader of the Opposition. After having been the Senior Crown Counsel and sometimes Acting Attorney General of the Turks and Caicos Islands, she joined a prominent BVI law firm, but established her own practice (SimonetteLewis) in February 2007. Mrs Lewis has served as President of the B.V.I. Bar Association, of which she was previously Secretary for seven years, and has also served as Vice President and Treasurer of the OECS Bar Association, a regional association of the Bar Associations of the nine countries which comprise the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States. She has served as a member of the STEP Worldwide Council and Board of Directors, and had the distinction of being elected in November 2012 to be Chairman of the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners. She was re-elected to the post in November 2013 and stood down in November 2014. She currently services as a Vice President of STEP Worldwide and Chairman of the Branch Development Committee. Mrs. Lewis is also admitted to practice in St. Kitts & Nevis.

For more information, visit STEP.org.