Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill Debate

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Department: Home Office
Lord Agnew of Oulton Portrait Lord Agnew of Oulton (Con)
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My Lords, I do not seek to press this amendment. I merely say that the fraud plan, which my noble friend the Minister worked so hard on, has produced a list of some 74 commitments. I certainly am not going to add to the agony of the House and list them; all I ask my noble friend to do is to ensure that there is a mechanism for his department to track the progress of all these commitments. In aggregate, they would entirely change the landscape, but if they are not pursued, we will not move forward.

Baroness Blake of Leeds Portrait Baroness Blake of Leeds (Lab)
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Amendment 128 in the name of my noble friend Lord Coaker has a straightforward, clear ask: within a year of the Bill passing, the Secretary of State must publish a report on economic crime and investigation. It must include the performance of the framework for investigating crime, et cetera, and an assessment of the roles of the Serious Fraud Office in particular. Important elements mentioned in the amendment include the adequate resourcing of staff and the strategy for fees, which we have discussed elsewhere.

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Moved by
129: After Clause 202, insert the following new Clause—
“Civil recovery: costs of proceedings
After section 313 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 insert—“313A Costs orders(1) This section applies to proceedings brought by an enforcement authority under Part 5 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 where the property in respect of which the proceedings have been brought has been obtained through economic crime.(2) The court may not make an order that any costs of proceedings relating to a case to which this section applies (including appeal proceedings) are payable by an enforcement authority to a respondent or a specified responsible officer in respect of the involvement of the respondent or the officer in those proceedings, unless—(a) the authority acted unreasonably in making or opposing the application to which the proceedings relate, or in supporting or opposing the making of the order to which the proceedings relate,(b) the authority acted dishonestly or improperly in the course of the proceedings, or(c) it would not be in the interests of justice.””Member’s explanatory statement
This extends the cost cap for civil recovery cases beyond Unexplained Wealth Orders. Part 5 of the Proceeds of Crime Act permits the recovery of criminal assets where no conviction has been possible. For example, because the individuals avoided conviction by remaining remote from the commission of the crimes but were beneficiaries of them, or having fled the country. It retains safeguards on costs for improper action taken by prosecuting authorities.
Lord Agnew of Oulton Portrait Lord Agnew of Oulton (Con)
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My Lords, I shall be very brief. First, I thank my noble and learned friend the Minister for his active engagement on this; he knows how strongly I feel about it.

We have a complete mishmash on the principles of cost capping at the moment. For example, cases taken in the magistrates’ courts have cost capping, as do cases taken by the SRA. However, we do not have cost capping for the most important of all: those large cases where the enforcement agencies are trying to take on big-time oligarchs.

The only other thing I would say is that we have heard about Bill Browder tonight. I have spoken to him a lot over the past few months. He said, “The one clause you must get through in this Bill is the one on cost capping”. I beseech the Government to listen to us on this and bring forward a clause on cost capping.

Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I rise briefly to support the noble Lord. Two key themes emerged from our lengthy debates on the Bill. The first was that the scale of economic crime is a major threat to the prosperity of the country. The second was that there is a significant inequality of arms between the enforcement authorities and the perpetrators of economic crimes. I could weary the House at length but I will not do so. This is an attempt to redress that inequality and not provide a disincentive for the authorities to pursue the perpetrators of economic crime.

Lord Bellamy Portrait Lord Bellamy (Con)
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My Lords, unfortunately, the Government are not able to accept this amendment, although we are sympathetic to the points made by my noble friend Lord Agnew. The amendment is designed to protect public authorities from having costs awarded against them if they fail to recover the proceeds of economic crime under the Proceeds of Crime Act.

First, the Government are not persuaded that public authorities that lose their case should be protected in this way. Secondly, this is a major breach of the general principle applied in civil litigation in the High Court that the loser pays.

Thirdly, it is a major interference with the discretion of the court on the question of costs. Fourthly, if such a change were to be contemplated, it should be a matter for the Civil Procedure Rules and not something inserted without detailed reflection on Report in your Lordships’ House. Fifthly, it would produce even more inconsistency than allegedly we have already. I do not accept that there is material inconsistency, but you would have one rule for some POCA cases and another rule for other POCA cases, because not all POCA cases are economic crime cases.

However, the Government are prepared actively to consider a consultation to properly consider this matter and the evidence with a view to ensuring that there is a correct balance of justice and the proper consideration of the pros and cons. That, very briefly, is the Government’s position.

I will briefly deal with one or two points. This is not like unexplained wealth orders, which have been mentioned. Those are an investigative procedure and not determinative of civil rights and obligations. In some respects, the UWO procedure is closer to a search warrant than to a recovery of money in civil litigation. It does not provide an analogy to the present case.

It is true that there are various costs regimes in various cases. It is probably not useful to weary your Lordships with particular decisions, but it is not without interest that in the case of Pfizer and Flynn, which involved the Competition and Markets Authority, the authority lost at first instance and was ordered to pay some of the costs. The Court of Appeal overturned that on the basis that it did not want to have the “chilling effect” of public authorities having to pay the costs when they lose litigation. However, the Supreme Court restored the original judgment and said, “This so-called chilling effect is only one factor”. In other words, it is not decisive. You must consider in that jurisdiction all the factors. The Government draw from that case that the so-called chilling effect is not necessarily decisive, and that one must have a regime that enables the court to balance all the relevant effects.

With all respect for the motives behind it and the concerns that have been expressed, this amendment is too blunt an instrument to be a proper exercise of primary legislation in an area which very much calls for balanced consideration under the Civil Procedure Rules. As I said at the outset, the Government are perfectly prepared actively to consider reform of the Civil Procedure Rules with that aim in mind.

I hope that I have persuaded your Lordships that this is not an occasion to make an exception to the well-established rule that has stood for hundreds of years, whether it applies to HMRC, the National Crime Agency or the FCA. If they make a complete Horlicks of a case, there is no reason to let them off the costs. That is the Government’s position.

Lord Agnew of Oulton Portrait Lord Agnew of Oulton (Con)
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I thank my noble and learned friend the Minister for his answer. He has always been entirely consistent, and I respect that. We have a genuine difference of views. English law has plenty of exceptions to the landscape which my noble and learned friend has set out—for example, when local authorities bring cases following the Booth case, law enforcement bodies when they bring cases in the magistrates’ court, the Law Society when it brings disciplinary action, its prosecutions that fail following the Baxendale-Walker case, and the Competition and Markets Authority, where the Competition Appeal Tribunal can rule in its favour when it is unsuccessful in bringing a case.

There are plenty of examples. I am not seeking to make the perfect the enemy of the good. We can bring this in with this Bill. It would send a very powerful signal. I seek to test the opinion of the House.