Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Debate

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Department: Home Office
Moved by
85: After Clause 180, insert the following new Clause—
“Duty to disclose funds and economic resources
After section 16 of the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018, insert—
“16A Duty to disclose funds and economic resources(1) Any regulations made under section 1 must, for the purposes of preventing an offence under those regulations, make provision requiring designated persons—(a) to report to the Treasury or another competent authority, within three months after such regulations are made or within three months from the date of designation, whichever is the latest, the funds or economic resources that—(i) are currently held, owned or controlled by them within the United Kingdom, and(ii) were held, owned or controlled by them within the United Kingdom six months prior to the date of designation, and(b) to cooperate with the Treasury or other competent authority in any verification of such information.(2) A failure to comply with a requirement in subsection (1) may be considered as participation in activities the object or effect of which is (whether directly or indirectly) to circumvent such requirement.(3) Where a designated person has been convicted of an offence by virtue of subsection (2), a court proceeding under section 6, 92 or 156 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (confiscation orders) must consider such person as benefitting by the value of any assets concealed through such criminal conduct.(4) Assets concealed as a result of a failure to comply with a requirement in subsection (1) constitute recoverable property for purposes of Part 5 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.(5) Regulations under subsection (1) may also be made in relation to a person who is subject to an International Criminal Court warrant for an offence that would constitute an economic crime in the United Kingdom.””Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment says that sanctions regulations must, for the purposes of preventing an offence under those regulations, require designated persons to disclose all assets they own or control in the UK. Failure to disclose such assets is defined as a form of sanctions evasion, which is already criminalized under UK law, and which could result in asset recovery under the Proceeds of Crime Act.
Lord Alton of Liverpool Portrait Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
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My Lords, I apologise for not being able to speak at Second Reading, but I was overseas—I had been invited to speak at the National Assembly in Seoul—and, relevant to this amendment, among the subjects which we discussed was the hacking of cryptocurrency, cybercrime, human rights violations and the failure to apply proper sanctions. North Korea—I declare a non-financial interest as the co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for North Korea—has produced the original playbook for many of the evasive actions that have been taken by other authoritarian regimes in the world.

In moving Amendment 85, I will try to explain its genesis and why we need to strengthen the sanctions regime. Although it stands alone on the Marshalled List, it is not unconnected to the important issues raised in Committee thus far, especially in relation to amendments debated on Tuesday on anti-money laundering measures and strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs. On Tuesday, the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, was right to say that the House is fortunate to have the insights and collective wisdom of noble Lords in ensuring that the Bill has what he called “proper teeth”. Amendment 85, which bears the names also of the noble Lords, Lord Coaker and Lord Fox, and my noble friend Lord Stevens of Birmingham, enjoys support from across the House. Significantly, it also enjoys support from all sides in another place. It is designed to give the sanctions regime proper teeth and to deal with dirty money.

I should say that I have skin in the game as someone sanctioned by authoritarian regimes—a distinction I share with the right honourable Sir Iain Duncan Smith MP. He suggested that I meet Dame Margaret Hodge MP, former chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, who served on the Standing Committee in another place on this Bill. She and Margot Mollat from her office have been tireless in their efforts to build a non-partisan alliance championing greater accountability and countering malign forces which manipulate and enjoy our British freedoms while collaborating in the denial of those same freedoms to millions of people elsewhere.

Subsequently, I met Helen Taylor, senior legal researcher at Spotlight on Corruption, and her colleagues, and Maria Nizzero, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute’s Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies. I draw attention to her important paper, How to Seize a Billion: Exploring Mechanisms to Recover the Proceeds of Kleptocracy, recently published in the New Law Journal. I have also previously met Bill Browder, author of Red Notice, and Evgenia Kara-Murza, the wife of Vladimir Kara-Murza, a British citizen and champion of democracy in Russia who only last week was sentenced to 25 years in jail on so-called charges of treason. In a book published last year, I also detailed our state’s failures to hold to account those responsible for international crimes—notably genocide—and the way in which we persist in doing business as usual with the actors who perpetrate many of those crimes.

Yesterday, I was grateful to the Minister for providing the opportunity to discuss Amendment 85 with him and to explore some of the issues that inevitably arise—everything from proportionality, touched on in the previous group, and capacity for enforcement to European Union requirements on mandatory disclosure. He was accompanied by the able Corrie Monaghan from the Bill team. I was glad to learn from her about the continuing work going on across departments to address the issues raised in the amendment and the Government’s willingness to consider what more might be done. I know that the Minister will try to plug some gaps through Amendment 91A and bring clarity, although I think he himself would say that it does not specifically do anything new.

My Amendment 85 seeks to go further than that by requiring disclosure and enabling asset recovery under the Proceeds of Crime Act where there has been deliberate concealment rather than disclosure. This Committee is well aware that Russia’s illegal and tragic invasion of Ukraine on 24 February last year exposed the uncomfortable reality that our country has been welcoming Russian money and at times facilitating the concealment of illicit funds, earning us the infamous nickname of “Londongrad”. The Minister knows that; I recognise and applaud the Government’s introduction of two welcome pieces of legislation aimed at combating economic crime and enforcing transparency. Their swift legislative action in the form of the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act and this Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill are a good beginning but, as the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, said on the previous group, we must go further.

Amendment 85 would allow the seizure of assets when deliberate attempts had been made to escape the enforcement of sanctions. I should add that, in addition to these important legislative efforts, the Government have imposed sanctions on nearly 1,500 individuals, including 120 oligarchs with a net worth of over £140 billion. However, to put that in perspective, the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation—OFSI—reports that, in total, just £18 billion of assets associated with Russia’s regime have been frozen since the beginning of the war—compare that with the net worth of £140 billion.

In the meantime, the oligarchs have found increasingly sophisticated ways to weaken our sanctions response: moving assets just before sanctions hit; exploiting loopholes to put assets out of reach; and concealing assets to hinder the enforcement of sanctions. Oligarchs such as Abramovich, for example, were able to bypass the sanctions by handing over their wealth and companies to family members just a few weeks before the sanctions hit. Just before the war began, Abramovich restructured at least $4 billion of his personal wealth and transferred it to his children, who are now the owners of trusts, luxury yachts, private jets and mansions—all out of reach of UK sanctions. Had Amendment 85 been in place, these funds, which by contrast amount to more than the UK’s present commitment in military aid to Ukraine, would not have escaped freezing orders and could potentially have been seized.

I give the Committee another example. Mikhail Fridman’s personal assistant, Nigina Zairova, took control of several entities previously owned by that sanctioned oligarch, including a £65 million mansion in Highgate. She was belatedly sanctioned, but the costs of constantly being one step behind are clear. Recent investigations by Transparency International UK found that luxury homes worth £700 million previously linked to sanctioned oligarchs were not flagged as restricted on the UK property register. I would love to hear from the Minister, when he comes to reply, what is being done about that and what the current position is when it comes to properties on that register.

This is not just about the war in Ukraine. The Minister and I share a passion for and love of Hong Kong. I am a patron of Hong Kong Watch. At an event last night, I pointed out that at least five Hong Kong officials and six legislators who are complicit in the ongoing human rights crackdown currently own property in the UK. I strongly welcomed the Magnitsky sanctions—named for Bill Browder’s lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who was tortured to death in pre-trial detention in 2009—but the failure to use targeted sanctions against those responsible for the destruction of Hong Kong’s freedom underlines the case for parliamentary accountability and oversight of the sanctions regime. I find it extraordinary that no Select Committee of either House, or Joint Committee of both Houses, even meeting in camera is able to discuss the nature of the Magnitsky sanctions, including why they are so random and often arbitrary—some are included, and some are not.

Indeed, we even provide red-carpet treatment for officials such as Christopher Hui, who met not just one but three United Kingdom Ministers last week, while his regime has denied Hong Kong BNOs access to more than £2.2 billion of pension savings. A letter signed by 110 parliamentarians, including the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, who is co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong, of which I am an officer, urged the Government to undertake an audit of UK assets of Hong Kong and Chinese officials linked to human rights violations. No response has been received and no action has been taken. I hope that, with his customary diligence and commitment, which I applaud, the Minister will attend to that and help us to get a response.

Assets are clearly slipping through the cracks of our sanctions regime, but we do not currently have any legislative tools to seize assets that remain concealed. Amendment 85 proposes a minor but significant change to our current legislation that would put us on the front foot in pursuing sanctioned assets. The amendment has what the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, described on Tuesday as “teeth”, and would help us seize concealed assets by expanding the scope of sanctions evasion—evasion is, of course, already a criminal offence in the UK. By extending the definition of what constitutes evasion, we can increase the pressure on those who seek to conceal their assets here.

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Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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The noble Lord has strayed into an area with which I am not familiar. I shall have to write to him.

Lord Alton of Liverpool Portrait Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
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My Lords, I think that the whole Committee would be interested to see the reply that the noble Lord receives from the Minister on that point.

I thank all noble Lords who participated in this short debate, including the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and the noble Lords, Lord Faulks and Lord Coaker, and thank the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, and the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, for their brief but helpful interventions. I thank her especially for her personal remarks.

On Tuesday, some noble Lords will have seen sitting with me in the strangers’ area at the back of our proceedings a young man called Sebastian Lai. His father, Jimmy Lai, is incarcerated in a prison in Hong Kong. He had confiscated from him Apple Daily. He was a journalist, media owner and the leading voice for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. Imagine how that family feel as their father, a British citizen, languishes in a jail in Hong Kong—likely, at the age of 75, to die there—knowing that some of those responsible for what has happened to him and who have brought about his incarceration in what is, and I use the word deliberately, a complete corruption of the once illustrious legal system in Hong Kong, have properties, portfolios and massive assets in the United Kingdom. It is high time that we took this issue even more seriously than we have hitherto.

I was not saying this for purely rhetorical reasons earlier—I mean it when I say that I know that the Minister is passionate about people such as Jimmy Lai and the terrible things that have happened in Hong Kong. I was pleased that he did not rule out the possibility that we might be able to overcome some of the issues, particularly around proportionality, which he raised and which we discussed yesterday—and maybe the need for other safeguards, perhaps to deal with the issue that the noble Lord just raised. I hope that, therefore, he will agree to a meeting with some of the legal team that I have met from Spotlight on Corruption, RUSI and the others to which I referred earlier. Sanctions must not just be about virtue signalling—they have to be real and have the teeth to which we have referred in today’s debate.

I am grateful that the noble Lord has not ruled out doing more, but I hope that what more we do will be truly effective and that we will pause and consider further action between now and Report. Perhaps a meeting could even be arranged in the margins of this Committee, where we can discuss this together, for those who are genuinely interested in finding a solution. Perhaps we could invite some of the Members from another place who are so interested in this issue, too. I know that the Committee has a lot of other business to attend to. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 85 withdrawn.