Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill Debate

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Department: Home Office
Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I shall speak to my Motion B1, as an amendment to Motion B, which is being debated within this group. It would

“leave out from ‘House’ to end and insert ‘do insist on its disagreement with the Commons in their Amendment 161A, do not insist on its Amendment 161B, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 161C, and do propose Amendment 161D in lieu’”.

That is very clear.

We return to what has been described as a cost-capping amendment. Since this is not the first time that we have had the debate, I will try to be brief. This Bill has been a welcome, if late, addition to the government agencies in their fight to combat fraud. The scrutiny of the Bill through your Lordships’ House has been thorough and constructive. It has also been non-party political. I do not think that either the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, or I would consider ourselves to be natural rebels.

All noble Lords have participated in this debate—and I very much include the Ministers in this—with a common purpose: to make this legislation as effective as it can be. Two themes emerged during the many debates. The first was the scale of the problem. The Government estimate, for example, that £100 billion was laundered through the United Kingdom last year, and yet under the Proceeds of Crime Act assets of only £345 million were recovered: that is 0.3%. The second theme was the frequent imbalance that exists between the resources available to enforcement agencies and those of the fraudsters, who may well employ expensive lawyers and have significant resources to enable them to do so. This modest amendment tries to do a little to restore that balance. I would have liked the enforcement agencies to have had complete protection against costs orders in the event that they lost a recovery claim, but in the course of ping-pong I have had to compromise somewhat, hence the form of the current amendment before your Lordships’ House.

The amendment does not prevent a judge from doing what is fair on costs in any particular case, but it is a nudge towards him or her to take into account the reasonableness of the agency bringing proceedings at all and the potential impact on its ability to carry out its functions if left with a substantial costs order. I struggle to understand the Government’s objection to this amendment and its predecessors; they seem, with respect, to be adopting a somewhat tender approach to fraudsters.

There is a clear precedent for this sort of amendment: when your Lordships’ House introduced a provision concerning the much-underused unexplained wealth orders. If it loses a case, the enforcement authority will have to pay costs only if it has acted unreasonably. As to the objection that it offends the “loser pays” principle, that is a misconceived argument. Judges regularly, in ordinary cases, make orders that each side bear their own costs, or make issue-based costs orders, or other orders which reflect the justice of the individual case. Parliament has legislated in ways that depart from this so-called principle: for example, QOCS—that is Qualified One-Way Costs Shifting—in personal injury litigation; or by Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act; or in relation to unexplained wealth orders. This amendment is intended to reduce the possibility of an agency saying to itself, “We cannot afford the risk to the budget if we lose a case, even when we’ve got good evidence to bring it”.

Spotlight on Corruption suggests that a number of cases are in the pipeline which bear costs risks. These are said to include over 60 cases being reviewed by one agency, and close to £1 billion in assets frozen by an enforcement body.

Another advantage to this amendment is that those defendants or respondents to an application who defend these cases will know that, even if their legal strategy prevails, they may not recover their costs. This may mean that they are keener to reach a compromise.

The amendment has the support of all those bodies that are concerned with anti-corruption. Incidentally, it also has the support of Bill Browder, who regards it as one of the most significant potential improvements to the Bill. Let us please not kick this into touch and have yet another report, which is the Government’s suggestion. If necessary, I will move Motion B1 and test the opinion of the House.

Lord Agnew of Oulton Portrait Lord Agnew of Oulton (Con)
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My Lords, I support both Motion A1 and Motion B1. I turn first to my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier’s Motion and offer three reasons why I believe the Minister is completely wrong.

First, the smallest SMEs include some of the most unscrupulous enablers. Take estate agents, for example: they are a conduit of bad money into this country from all over the world. The gaps that the Minister is proposing to leave in the Bill will ensure that this continues. I have seen one case, for which I had to sign an NDA, of an individual who spent £150 million buying property but is apparently allowed to take only $12,000 a year out of the country. How did he manage that? That is a perfectly good example and no doubt we will hear more like it.

Secondly, on this set of rules, I offer the Minister an example. We do not say to the manufacturers of small cars that they do not need seat belts and that for some reason they are exempted. That would be an absolute nonsense and the same applies here. He mentioned costs—£300 million and £40 million—but they are entirely specious. We have seen no proper analysis of these figures; they are just waved around as a convenient excuse not to do something.

My last reason is that these smaller businesses need to be most alert to fraud. A failure to prevent helps them to make sure that their own systems are able to face these risks. We know that 40% of crime in this country is economic crime, but we deploy less than 1% of our resources on dealing with it. Surely smaller businesses should be equipped to know when they are dealing with crooks. I will have to support my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier if the matter is put to a vote.

In relation to the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, we again pursued this relentlessly for six months. Bill Browder said to me on several occasions that, if this Bill is to go through, we must make sure that we have some cost capping in it. It is a war of very unequal proportions. We know that the agencies have small budgets and that they have to go cap in hand to the Treasury if they need more money, which is never given. They even have to return the costs they recover to the Treasury. All this is doing is sending a message to these bad actors that, if they take on this kind of behaviour, they will have significant risks. We have amended this on several occasions to give more discretion to the courts to ensure that, if an agency overreacts and behaves rapaciously or capriciously against individuals, those individuals are not penalised.

If we are serious about dealing with the tidal wave of economic crime that is coming to this country, the Minister will give us the assurance that this is being dealt with. If not, I will have to support the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, in his Division.

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, we have heard two different reasons for the proposed Motion from the noble Lord, Lord Faulks. He said that it was to give the courts a gentle nudge, but my noble friend Lord Agnew said that it would give fraudsters a significant warning that they might not get their costs. The same words cannot do both. The problem lies in the amendment being entirely unnecessary.

The previous version of the amendment said:

“The court should normally make an order that any costs of proceedings … are payable by an enforcement authority … unless it would not be in the interests of justice”.

We now have a list of factors—proposed new paragraphs (a) to (d)—but a court would always take those factors into account in its general discretion to make an appropriate costs order in a particular case.

My concern with this list is that it appears to be exhaustive and therefore does not include, for example, the result of the case or the effect on the successful party of not getting the legal costs which he has expended. I declare an interest as a lawyer, although not an expensive one in the category identified by the noble Lord. I therefore respectfully suggest that this amendment is entirely unnecessary. It reduces the discretion that we generally give the courts on matters of costs and omits factors that the courts should take into account in particular cases when considering costs. Therefore, I suggest that the House leaves this well alone and does not accept the amendment.