Lord Cromwell debates involving the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy during the 2019 Parliament

Mon 14th Mar 2022
Wed 9th Mar 2022

Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill

Lord Cromwell Excerpts
Lord Coaker Portrait Lord Coaker (Lab)
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I thank the Minister for the way in which he has engaged with his officials to try to address some of the concerns which have been raised.

I will also pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, about something which concerns all noble Lords about this Bill: it is going through on an emergency process because we face an emergency, yet not all of it concerns emergency legislation. Of course, the sanctions part is, but many of the other parts of the Bill about overseas entities have been on the stocks for years—as the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, said. Yet the Government have failed to act before now and it is only in the face of this emergency that they have done so. While that is to be welcomed, in some respects, it affects many of the things on which we would want to vote and would want to discuss in great detail, and many of the amendments which your Lordships have quite rightly brought forward which would improve the Bill. On the basis of not tying up this House or preventing this legislation from passing, in the face of the current national emergency, the Bill will go forward in a way which is not as good as it could be. I think that this is a feeling which is generally held across the House. It is certainly how we feel. Of course, we will support the Government in putting this legislation through—but that is not to say that we do not have very serious concerns about aspects of it.

Many noble Lords on Labour Benches and other Benches have raised these issues. Therefore, I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, that the Government need to recognise that the amendments being put forward—even though most, if not all, of them will be withdrawn—seek to do so from a position of needing to strengthen this Bill; it is about time we got hold of a problem which has been identified by many different reports over a number of years. As the noble Lords, Lord Agnew and Lord Clement-Jones, pointed out, transparency is everything. As we go through parts of this legislation and we see exemptions, and parts of the Bill where full disclosure is not to be statutory or guaranteed, one wonders whether it goes as far as it could.

The amendments tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Agnew of Oulton and Lord Clement-Jones, deal with related issues around nominees. We hope that the Minister can offer a full response to the points made by both noble Lords, because they are really important. A lay person reading this would be concerned about the fact that it provides a way to circumvent the regulations.

I thank the Minister for the clarification he made around government Amendments 45 and 47. I am sorry to detain noble Lords, but I briefly remind the House that this is a public document. What if you are not an accountant or someone trained in financial matters? This is the Government’s explanatory statement on government Amendment 45. The Minister has clarified it for me, but many people would think that there is something concerning about the amendment when it says:

“This amendment means that the required information about trusts will be unavailable for inspection on the public register.”


That is the Government’s only explanation of an amendment which they are passing. The Minister has just outlined this.

Similarly, government Amendment 46 states:

“This amendment excludes information about trusts from the definition of ‘protected’ date of birth and residential address information.”


I am sure that there are proper explanations for that. However, sometimes Governments need to be careful. I know the amendment was drafted in haste, but there must have been a better way of doing it.

I accept that there will be many valid reasons for excluding certain trusts from the public register—for example, if one has been established to benefit a child later in life. However, if we had proper time to debate this, an amendment surely could have been brought forward—I would have brought one forward—saying that the exemption could be tied to a specific criterion, rather than being drawn in such a general nature, as it has been. This is another example of the sorts of ways many of us would wish to see this legislation tightened.

We will not stand in the way of these amendments but, as we go forward, I hope that the Minister can give further thought to the very real concerns which have been raised by noble Lords.

Lord Cromwell Portrait Lord Cromwell (CB)
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I will just underline one point that the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, made. At Second Reading we got the impression that there was quite a limited list of items that were going to go into the second economic crime Bill. Can we have an assurance at this opening stage from the Minister that he will remain open-minded as to the shopping list of items—if I may use the phrase—which will need to be included, some of which may be revisiting what we have done today but others of which will be entirely new? Can he assure us that it is not a short shopping list?

Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack (Con)
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I just make a very brief point to my noble friend. Because of migraine, I was unable to take part in Second Reading; I had to go home. I was going to make the point then that, if ever a Bill needed continuous post-legislative scrutiny, it is this one. Can my noble friend give an assurance that he will try to set up a special sort of post-legislative scrutiny to look continuously at how the Bill comes into force, what effect it has and where it fails?

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Lord Eatwell Portrait Lord Eatwell (Lab)
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My Lords, I will make a couple of observations on the amendments put forward by my noble friends Lord Sikka and Lady Chapman, and the noble Lords, Lord Fox and Lord Agnew. These observations are based on my experience as chairman of the Jersey Financial Services Commission. The Bill as drafted is significantly weaker than the requirements for registration in Jersey. For example, on the point made by my noble friend Lord Sikka, under the Control of Borrowing (Jersey) Order, any interest can be required to be registered without one of these numerical levels.

Secondly, with respect to the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lady Chapman and others, in Jersey, the requirement is that a change of beneficial ownership be registered within 21 days. This 12-month period is really foolish. It provides an open door to misbehaviour.

I support my noble friends Lord Sikka and Lady Chapman and friends in the amendments they have put forward. We should be able to achieve at least the level of seriousness achieved in Jersey.

Lord Cromwell Portrait Lord Cromwell (CB)
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My Lords, there is clearly a great deal we can learn from Jersey and I am very happy to follow the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell.

I will speak to Amendment 24, to which I have added my name, and will also make a couple of comments on Amendment 53—there may be a slight sense of déjà vu, as my noble friend Lord Vaux has done the same.

In relation to Amendment 24, on page 3 of his very helpful all-Peers letter of 11 March, the Minister explains that Companies House would not know if a legal entity registered abroad was compliant with the 14-day rule. Likewise, this would not be visible to a third party, whereas that third party could be confident that, if an annual date had passed, the register would be up to date.

I am not convinced that that is so clear-cut or indeed helpful. This approach means that, for up to 12 months, an entity could keep hidden its change in ownership structure. Only at that point would it be in breach if it had not disclosed the change—or possibly multiple changes. Assuming—which may be a bold assumption given some of the entities—that the entity indeed complied with a 12-month date to reveal changes, this would still leave the third party in the dark for up to 12 months and the entity under no obligation to register the changes and having that as a defence. In short, it is possible for entities to game the system by carefully timing their changes. Twelve months, or even one month, can be a long time in business.

This also makes it possible for an entity to waste the time and resources of the acquirer and the regulatory and enforcement agencies if, for example, it becomes subject to sanctions based on its ownership but can claim, at a time to suit itself, that the affected owner or owners actually no longer own it. A 14-day limit greatly tightens the ability of both the registrar and any third party to see, at least in the case of compliant entities, any registered changes in as close to real time as is practicable.

Where entities are not compliant and fail to declare changes in this timely way, should this emerge in due course, it should give the third-party acquirer grounds for withdrawal and the authorities grounds for pursuit. This does leave an obligation on the registrar to ensure that entries are kept up to date, but that is a technological and resourcing issue perhaps better addressed in other amendments. For these reasons, I added my name to Amendment 24 and support it. I urge the Minister to rethink the 14-day requirement.

I shall now make a few comments on Amendment 53. In paragraph 4 on page 2 of the same letter, in relation to the purpose of the Bill, the Minister acknowledges that there will be those who seek to exploit opportunities to avoid it—he also referred to this earlier today. I raised at Second Reading the issue that there are enablers whose approach to reporting suspicions is light-touch or simply to turn a blind eye. I also advocated the idea put forward very eloquently by my noble friend Lord Vaux a few moments ago of having a named senior official on the hook. Simply saying that existing regulations cover this is to deny the evidence that there are entities and enablers in the area addressed by this Bill that have been skirting round existing regulations too easily by claiming ignorance or that suspicion was only mild. I think this may be more specifically reflected in the reference in paragraph 5 on page 5 of the Minister’s letter of 11 March, which says in relation to verification of information that:

“We expect that this will include a role for professionals regulated in the UK by the Money Laundering Regulations.”


This amendment, by including suspicion rather than certain knowledge, covers the loophole by which enablers can claim not to have had certain knowledge even if they should have had reasonable suspicion. This makes it considerably more difficult for enablers and others to look the other way and strengthens the hand of those seeking to hold them better to account. I support this amendment.

Lord Clement-Jones Portrait Lord Clement-Jones (LD)
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My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 53. I thank the noble Lords, Lord Cromwell and Lord Vaux, for their support, although I understand that they would like to see this tweaked to go further. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, for his supportive comments.

The Bill needs to be comprehensively amended to close the loopholes that currently allow professional enablers to undermine the effectiveness of, and even circumvent, the checks aimed at detecting, disrupting and deterring economic crime. One of the key ways this can be done is by imposing a positive duty on professional enablers to disclose knowledge or reasonable suspicion that misleading, false or deceptive information has been provided to the registrar of overseas entities.

As I set out on Second Reading, professional enablers, such as lawyers, accountants and bankers, are the gatekeepers of economic crime and the Government need to adopt a comprehensive strategy towards them. Given the nature of their work, there is an inherently high risk that these professionals may unwittingly enable economic crime, but there are also enablers that specialise in services aimed at concealing the source of wealth or ownership so as to frustrate the objectives of the law.

This poses a particularly acute challenge in the context of the Bill’s attempt to tighten the checks around the beneficial ownership of property by overseas entities. The UK’s 2017 national risk assessment of money laundering and terrorist financing revealed that 50% of suspicious activity reports related to the legal sector in 2016 were linked to the property market, illustrating that real estate transactions are especially susceptible to money laundering.

As the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, very eloquently deconstructed, the Minister prayed in aid regulation by the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales on Second Reading. Does the Minister really believe that these regulators are the way to tackle these professional enablers? The current model for supervising professional enablers is fragmented and weak. In the legal and accountancy sectors alone, there are 22 different professional body supervisors, or PBSs. In its 2021 report, the Office for Professional Body Anti-Money Laundering Supervision found that the vast majority—some 81%—of these legal and accounting PBSs do not implement an effective risk-based approach to supervising their members as required by the money laundering regulations. Where is the evidence that they can do the kind of job needed to root out corrupt behaviour in sanctions avoidance or as envisaged by this Bill?

In summary, it is critical that the Bill addresses the heightened risk that professional enablers, particularly conveyancers and lawyers, will frustrate the objectives of the register of overseas entities. Beyond this modest amendment, urgent reform is needed—I hope it will take place in the second Bill—to ensure that there is effective, comprehensive supervision of professional enablers. This should be fully addressed when we come to the second economic crime Bill.

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Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
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I think it refers to rights of control—the actual percentage shareholding of the company—but if I am incorrect on that, I will certainly write to the noble Lord.

When the PSC regime was in development, significant analysis, including consultation, considered the question of thresholds. The threshold of more than 25% reflects the level of control a person needs in voting rights, under UK company law, to be able to block special resolutions of a company. It was considered that 25% represented the optimum opportunity to understand who is in a position to exert significant influence and control over a company. Collecting information on legal ownership below that threshold would be much less likely to do this. Removing the threshold altogether would have the effect of essentially creating a register of shareholders rather than a register of beneficial ownership, which—I hope noble Lords will agree—is not appropriate for the purposes of the Bill and the transparency involved in this register. Maybe the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, likes going through thousands of register entries, but I am not sure it would be helpful to most people.

For entirely legitimate entities, there could be hundreds or thousands of shareholders. For instance, think of a large foreign company that owns property in the UK. I am really not sure whether it would be tremendously helpful to have literally thousands of individual shareholders on the list of a property’s beneficial owners. For example, in the case of public limited companies with highly dispersed ownership, where shares can be bought and sold frequently and instantly, removing the 25% threshold would make the requirements of the register disproportionately difficult to comply with, as entities must first send a notice to those that they believe are their beneficial owners, and then allow time for potential beneficial owners to respond.

We are mindful of the risk that an individual wishing to disguise their beneficial ownership might, for example, deliberately reduce their shareholding. We have considered this, and so have made provision that means that anyone, regardless of their shareholding or voting rights, who exerts or has the right to exert significant influence or control over an entity is captured within the meaning of “beneficial owner”. This includes anyone who holds the right to appoint or remove a majority of the board’s directors. Perhaps that takes account of the point the noble Lord made earlier.

I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, cannot be with us today. I thank her and other noble Lords for Amendments 23 and 24. In particular, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, for his engagement and for the points he has made. I am very happy to meet the noble Lord to discuss these matters further.

These amendments would require overseas entities to update the register not just annually but when there has been a change in beneficial ownership. I know this matter has been exercising a number of noble Lords. It was also raised in 2018, during pre-legislative scrutiny of the then draft registration of overseas entities Bill. At the time, the scrutiny committee accepted fully in its report that this requirement would be difficult to enforce without active investigation. This would also create great uncertainty for third parties transacting with the overseas entities. This is the key reason why we have adopted the 12-month threshold.

A change in beneficial ownership is not necessarily foreseeable and would not be knowable to any third parties, including Companies House, without detailed investigation. As I said, there are about 30,000 of these overseas entities. As such, a requirement for an overseas entity to update its information when there is such a change means that, at any point in time, it could be compliant one moment and then not compliant the next. Our problem is that we think this creates significant legal uncertainty for any third parties engaging with the entity and seeking to purchase the property from it.

Lord Cromwell Portrait Lord Cromwell (CB)
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Can the Minister help me and explain why they would be non-compliant if they had two weeks within which to register it? As long as they did it within two weeks, they would be fine.

Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
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Yes, but they would have to be tabling notices to any potential beneficial owners in order to update the register. We think that if we have a yearly update, any third party transacting with that entity would then have sufficient legal certainty to be able to proceed. The point is not that the entity might not register the change of ownership but that the third party, and indeed Companies House, have no way of knowing whether it has. Therefore, a third party could engage in a transaction thinking that the original entity is compliant and then discover afterwards that it has not updated its register and is non-compliant, and therefore potentially lose its money and be unable to proceed with the transaction because it cannot register the property. On balance, we think the better option is to have a yearly update cycle, but I realise that this is a point of debate and I am happy to discuss it further. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, is engaged in this.

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Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
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Indeed it would be helpful, and that is why we have the transparency of the register in the first place. Returning to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, it would indeed be possible for them to update it, and it is of course perfectly possible that the advisers of the third party buying that property would wish to say to the entity that they wanted it to update the register in terms of formal ownership before they could advise their clients to proceed with the transaction, which is a point that the noble Lord made to me. That is different in terms of due diligence of the third party’s financial legal advisers, but in terms of the legal requirements, we think that it is best to leave it at 12 months. However, maybe we could have further discussions on this before we get to the second Bill.

To summarise, a change in beneficial ownership is not necessarily foreseeable and would not be knowable to any third parties, including Companies House, without detailed investigation. As such, a requirement for an overseas entity to update its information when there is such a change means that it could be compliant one moment and non-compliant the next, at any point in time. Our point is that this would create significant legal uncertainty for any third parties engaged with the entity.

I remind noble Lords that the key sanction for non-compliance with the new register—apart from the criminal penalties for non-compliance—which interferes with existing property rights is effectively to make it impossible for the buyer to then register title, if purchasing from a non-compliant entity. Of course, if they have transacted with an overseas company in a different jurisdiction, it might be very difficult for them to then take appropriate legal action to recover any sums that they have paid. This is not about providing a free “get out of jail” card for the overseas entity; it is genuinely about protecting the rights of third parties that wish to transact with them.

As the noble Lord, Lord Vaux, pointed out, the onus is on the buyer and their agents to ensure that they do not transact with a non-compliant entity. In order to protect the buyer, who is likely to be an innocent third party, it follows that there must be absolute legal certainty in every case as to whether the overseas entity doing the selling is compliant. An annual update with a transparent end date for the update period will give third parties transacting with the overseas entity the certainty that they need. The annual update already requires an overseas entity—

Lord Cromwell Portrait Lord Cromwell (CB)
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I do not wish to be argumentative with the Minister—well, perhaps I do—but can he confirm in respect of the third party buying the company that that company will be compliant even if, say, 11.5 months ago, they changed their ownership because they will not have had to register?

Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan (Con)
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Yes, that provides the required legal certainty to the third party that is buying it, at the expense of, perhaps, a certain amount of transparency for that 11.5-month period. So, yes, I accept that.

The annual update already requires an overseas entity to provide information about its current beneficial owners, as well as any changes since its last update. This latter information was added as a result of the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, providing a complete picture of an overseas entity’s beneficial owners. For these reasons we do not believe a change in the updating period is necessary or desirable, and I therefore encourage noble Lords not to press their amendments.

Turning to government Amendments 49, 50, 51 and 52, the Government have listened to the concerns raised about the need to deal effectively with anyone seeking to file false or misleading information or those who know or suspect that they may be filing false information, and we have taken on board those concerns. I thank all noble Lords who raised these concerns with me. They made the point that the evidential threshold to prove intent or recklessness is too high in the clauses as drafted. I have therefore tabled these government amendments to ensure that those who provide false or misleading information “without reasonable excuse”—in other words, a lower legal barrier—can be prosecuted and are subject on conviction to an unlimited fine. This will catch those who seek to facilitate and enable money launderers and the corrupt.

Furthermore, we have amended the threshold for what, under our amendments, constitutes an aggravated offence. This removes the reference to the word “recklessly”, which caused a lot of concern in the other place and to the noble Lord, Lord Fox, and others in this place. It also retains the potential for imprisonment and an unlimited fine if convicted of the aggravated offence of knowingly filing false, misleading or deceptive information. I hope this addresses the concerns.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for Amendment 53, which would create a criminal offence of failing to disclose to the registrar certain information when a professional knows or suspects, or has reasonable grounds for knowing or suspecting, that misleading, false, or otherwise deceptive information was provided to them in their professional capacity. Again, I understand the noble Lord’s motive for proposing this new clause, but I hope that he will agree that his aims can be met by the existing provisions in the legislation regarding offences for the provision of false information, as developed in the way I have just set out by the Government’s amendments to lower the threshold needed for prosecution. We are confident that this will ensure that enforcement agencies have sufficient capacity to tackle those who seek to subvert the integrity of the register through the provision of misleading information.

I also take this opportunity to reassure the noble Lord—

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Lord Agnew of Oulton Portrait Lord Agnew of Oulton (Con)
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I support the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer. I accept that it is unlikely to go into this Bill, but I very much hope that it will go into mark 2.

I do not share the somewhat Panglossian view of my noble friend the Minister that this whole crime issue is a tiny issue. There is a wall of bad money out there trying to get in, and we have been far too complacent. The Transparency International report of 2018 looked at the BVI and found over 1,100 companies involved in 200 major frauds to the value of tens of billions of pounds. This was just one territory.

Whistleblowers are a vital source of information and intelligence. The noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, is right in saying that we do not recognise them nearly enough in this country. I will not go on further, save to ask the Minister replying that she will take back this issue and ensure that it is plumbed into the next Bill.

Lord Cromwell Portrait Lord Cromwell (CB)
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I rise briefly, in part to support this whistleblower amendment. I have asked questions on this in the House before. They are very poorly treated—this is just a fact. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, that we need to do better, but I also agree with her that it probably does not fit into this Bill. The noble Baroness has been a tireless advocate for an office for the whistleblower, and such a facility needs to be brought forward rather than permanently left to wither on the vine, as has been the case.

When I asked a question about whistleblowers before, a Member of the House, who was sitting behind me and is no longer with us, said, “Don’t you mean snitches?”. That is exactly the kind of culture we face. I hope that the Government, broader than this Bill, will look seriously at an office for whistleblowers.

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
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My Lords, in some ways, the amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer—she has done the House a service in tabling them—go to the heart of some of the issues that we have with the Bill as a House. It is that tension between recognising that the Bill is inadequate in many ways and recognising its necessity and why we are passing it today.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, because her speech tonight was very powerful in setting out the reasons why such measures are essential. From what she was saying and in listening to the Minister earlier, and given the impact that these measures could have on the implementation of the measures in the Bill, it seems to me important that the Government look at this as a matter of urgency. There are huge merits to her arguments and it would be useful to know what the Minister can say on behalf of the Government.

It has been clear over a number of years that there is a multitude of undesirable activities that have come to light only because of the bravery of whistleblowers. The process started by this Bill—to be continued, as we have heard, by the second economic crime Bill—will, we hope, result in a lot more information coming forward. If that is the case, we should recognise that those who bring forward information of wrongdoing are performing a public service, and we rely on them to do that. No one should be in the position that they fear giving evidence because of reprisals or because they think no one is going to take them seriously and nothing will be done about it. Both are equally bad.

We accept not only that the registrar’s office should have a mechanism for receiving and processing the information but, on the point the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, raised, the importance of doing everything possible to protect the individuals who have raised concerns. Without that protection, we are not going to get the people we need coming forward or they will do so at huge detriment to themselves. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us what the Government are doing on this. We have heard previously that this is something they are looking at and that something will come forward, but we need something a little more concrete, given the importance of this to this Bill.

The noble Lord the Minister spoke earlier about the measures that will be in the second economic crime Bill. I think we really needed a commitment not only that something like this will be considered for that Bill—we are happy to have discussions about how that could be done—but that it will come forward not just in the next Session but early in the next Session. To delay anything undermines the very purpose of being here tonight, to see through legislation which is now an emergency but need not have been an emergency. As the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, mentioned earlier, many of these things have been known about and talked about, but they have not come to fruition. Tonight there is an opportunity to say that we recognise the inadequacy of the Bill but also the necessity of it. I hope we will hear a very positive response from the Minister that there will be something to address this in the next Bill and that this will come very early in the next Session.

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Lord Pannick Portrait Lord Pannick (CB)
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My Lords, I share the concerns expressed about the need for rigorous verification. I note that Clause 16 confers a broad power on the Secretary of State to make regulations in this field. Is the Minister able to assure the Committee that those regulations will impose a rigorous form of verification and requirements along the lines of those that have been proposed?

Lord Cromwell Portrait Lord Cromwell (CB)
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Before the Minister tries to answer that, we need to recognise delivering what the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, wants would be absolutely transformative to Companies House. There is no tinkering at the edges here; this would be a massive transformational change and, unless we get that, this amendment will not deliver what is being asked of it.

Lord Vaux of Harrowden Portrait Lord Vaux of Harrowden (CB)
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I will quickly add to the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. Clause 16 sets out the regulations must

“make provision … about the information that must be verified … about the person by whom the information must be verified … requiring a statement, evidence or other information to be delivered to the registrar for the purposes of sections”

et cetera. Perhaps the Minister could enlighten us as to what he has in mind there.

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Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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My Lords, as we move on to the final group, I rise to move my Amendments 91 and 96. I was sorry that the short notice prevented me speaking at Second Reading, and as the Bill may have implications for trade and investment, I declare my interest as the chair of the UK-ASEAN Business Council.

Today we are rightly focused on Russia, and are full of sympathy and horror for all that is happening in Ukraine. This Bill has been accelerated and we all want to speed it on its way. I am well known for taking a contrarian view to try to tease out important issues as part of the vital role of scrutiny by the House of Lords. For example, on the Covid legislation, I emphasised the importance of perverse effects and cost benefit, and I think I was right to worry about the adverse impact on health problems other than Covid, such as cancer, and the harm to children’s education, and on the social agonies of the pandemic. Happily, that is behind us thanks to the Government’s brilliant record on vaccination.

As my noble friends the two Ministers said in their very helpful recent letter, the economic crime Bill is novel, particularly in relation to property rights, and largely unprecedented in other countries. In most respects, it will also apply very widely and way beyond Russia, as the Minister made clear. It is concern about that which is behind my amendments.

There are three aspects. First, while a good deal is on the face of the Bill, there are also wide-ranging regulation-making powers, so I propose that any such regulations should be subject to an impact assessment before being laid. The object of this is to ensure that they are properly thought through and to minimise red tape, bearing in mind that the Bill extends beyond the current crisis. I am very grateful for the three impact assessments that have been produced by BEIS, the Home Office and HM Treasury. Helpfully, the BEIS impact assessment discusses on page 36 a Malaysian investment—Battersea power station. Fortunately, it concludes—presumably with its knowledge and agreement—that the new rules would not have resulted in new information being made available or any substantive compliance costs relative to the value of the investment.

However, with my practical mien and business experience, I know how easy it is to get the detail wrong in legislation and regulation of the kind we are debating. The money laundering regulations are a good example. The compliance costs on the honest, including, but not confined to, the rules on politically exposed persons—such as affect some noble Lords—are often burdensome. The bureaucracy involved is also bad for the UK economy without, apparently as we have heard, actually catching the bad guys. So I believe we must stick to the discipline of impact assessments which requires us to balance these matters and do our best to get the rules right, simple and clear across the wide areas covered by this Bill. We also need proper enforcement, probably by investment in tough public sector experts, not external lawyers.

Secondly, I am seeking assurances on the use of sunset clauses. To those noble Lords who are remainers, I refer them to some good practise by the EU—the five-year reviews in single market legislation. These reviews were uncomfortable for incumbents, both the civil servants or the large or dominant external players, but they were good for new thinking and for new entrants. My amendment asks for a specific end date to regulations. But, of course, it is possible to vary the timescale and provide for extensions, as was done with the Covid regulations.

My final area of concern, articulated in Amendment 96, is that there should be a review of all the provisions we are putting so rapidly into law in this Bill and the regulations and guidance made under it. That would take place a year after its passage or at some other suitable period, allowing for the economic crime Bill part 2. It would cover, first, its effectiveness in achieving the objectives set out in the Explanatory Notes; secondly, its impact on parties involved, including small business, whose investments in the UK might dry up needlessly; and, finally, enforcement, especially enforcement by Companies House. I share the concerns expressed by others on the need for accuracy, resourcing and effective enforcement, and I look forward very much to hearing from the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, and my noble friend Lord Agnew of Oulton.

I have no wish to delay the Bill. Indeed, I am proud to have played a part as the Minister responsible for the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015, which contained the domestic provisions on beneficial ownership discussed here in this very House. I also worked on the groundwork for David Cameron’s commitment to a register for foreign companies which own or buy property in the UK. The importance of getting this on to the statute book quickly has been underlined today by Ukraine’s tragic circumstances. I beg to move.

Lord Cromwell Portrait Lord Cromwell (CB)
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My Lords, I recognise that we are on the home straight. On Amendment 91, the House needs to be clear whether we are having a sunset clause or not. My understanding from the outset from talking to Ministers is that we are not, and that this is going to be a permanent piece of legislation. In fact, throughout the two days we have debated this, we have been talking up having ECB 2—something I coined, which I am glad everyone has adopted—to fill in the gaps and be the unspecified bag at Christmas in which we are all going to find our favourite toys, but we shall see.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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Just for clarification, my proposal is for sunset regulation within the regulations, not within the Bill itself—which will, of course, be entirely permanent.

Lord Cromwell Portrait Lord Cromwell (CB)
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My mistake; I struggle with joined-up writing.

Since I get only bite of the cherry and have an amendment coming up in my name, I will tackle both Amendments 93 and 95 on resources. It is widely acknowledged and was highlighted emphatically by speakers at Second Reading that the resourcing of those responsible for the difficult work of identifying, investigating and prosecuting those covered by the Bill are currently inadequate. In the Minister’s letter of 11 March, which I referred to earlier, page 6 refers to an overall package of £400 million and the creation of a kleptocracy cell in the National Crime Agency and says that the NCA has “surged additional officers”. I am aware that the NCA has obtained fewer than five prosecutions for economic crime offences in the last five years and has seen its budget cut, despite calls for increases. The number of investigators at the proceeds of crime centre has declined, despite Parliament raising concerns. I simply do not know whether the resourcing now referred to is sufficient, but I am told that a figure of £1.7 billion is a more realistic amount to get this job done.

Amendment 95, to which I have added my name, calls for an annual review of the suitability of funding arrangements for enforcement agencies. A theme of our debates has been the need to revisit what we have discussed and agreed to here. It is pure vanity to pass legislation that cannot be enforced and resourced effectively. This amendment will be useful in making sure that a proper focus on resourcing is maintained. I therefore support Amendment 95 or, if it is preferred, Amendment 93, which has much the same effect.

Turning finally to Amendment 94 in my name, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, for adding his name to it. We have heard an awful lot about enablers during our debate, which draws a pantomime hiss that used to be reserved for lawyers, accountants and bankers—but, unfortunately, we all fall into that category of enablers now.

A number of speakers, myself included, raised the issue of SLAPPs, or lawfare, at Second Reading. As is appropriate at this stage, I do not propose to rehearse in detail what was said then. Nevertheless, it is a well-established fact that UK law firms and others—some, anyway—undertake deliberate intimidation tactics known as lawfare to prevent journalists and others bringing matters of public interest to light.

It is further well known that this has ensured that information in the public interest is regularly neutered or hidden. The rule of law requires equality before the law, but this behaviour goes well beyond any reasonable approach to a defence of reputation. It is the dark side of our legal system, where inequality of arms means that the wealthy can—at times, using ill-gotten gains—out-resource those on whom we as a society rely to find out the truth and shine a light into dark places.

The Defamation Act 2013 sought to introduce some protective measures, but this is a complex area of law that not only is costly but carries the risk of liability for the other party’s costs. It is this prospect of bankruptcy or insolvency that is primarily used to intimidate journalists and other organisations. Furthermore, such a defendant against a claim may be unable even to obtain a legal representative willing to take on the risk of cost recovery from the other side. Even what are known as “trials of preliminary issue” regularly run up costs of £25,000 or more, and a full trial will often cost well above £500,000. Even if successful, the defendant will be faced with the irrecoverable portion of their costs, which can also be very substantial—and we should remember that this does not take into account all the work, time, disturbance and anxiety before a court action even arises.

We must not allow the Bill’s purpose—tackling dirty money and illicit practices of the sort that it covers—to be undermined by allowing the wealthy to abuse our legal system in order to intimidate and muzzle the free press in this way. Amendment 94 would require the Government to assess how the Bill might be frustrated, have its impact blunted and its implementation thwarted by such conduct, and it would require the Government to share their findings with Parliament.

The Bill is operating in a very compressed timeline, and I am grateful to the Minister for his email exchange with me over the weekend on this issue. I note that the Deputy Prime Minister announced on Friday the launch of an urgent call for evidence in this area, and I have the Minister’s assurance that this call for evidence will not be just a listening exercise but that:

“Where action is needed, we will take it quickly and effectively”.


The origin of the Bill’s arrival here is the Russian invasion of Ukraine. An immediate step by the Putin regime has been to shut down the channels of free communication and free media within Russia. Surely we must ensure that we do not allow the same regime to do the same in the UK. I therefore invite the Minister to confirm on the record the Government’s commitment to this, not just as a one-off inquiry but on a regular basis, as foreseen in Amendment 94. I also ask him to confirm that the action he has referred to will include specific provision for it in ECB 2. I beg to move.

Lord Thomas of Gresford Portrait Lord Thomas of Gresford (LD)
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It is a real pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cromwell. I spoke at length on this matter last Wednesday and I do not propose to speak on it again. Three things have happened since then. The Lord Chancellor has called for evidence, as the noble Lord pointed out. My Private Member’s Bill, which I referred to, seems to have reached its final form, and I hope it will be progressed quickly. I very much hope that this problem is properly dealt with in a very short time, and I await the Minister’s response.

Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill

Lord Cromwell Excerpts
Lord Cromwell Portrait Lord Cromwell (CB)
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My Lords, although it does not say so on the Bill, it was perfectly clear before we even started, and has become manifestly clear throughout, that this Bill is largely about Russia. For that reason, I declare my interest as a director of the Britain-Russia Centre and British East-West Centre, an NGO set up in 1959 during the height of the Cold War. All noble Lords will agree that our disagreement is with the regime and particularly the man who leads it; it is not with the people of Russia, who suffer under that totalitarian system. We need to remember that, because many Russians are fed up with being referred to as “mafiosi” just because of their nationality.

As has been eloquently said by many, this Bill has been long awaited. It has been rapidly adapted in the light of current concerns about Russia and Ukraine, so it inevitably has gaps and shortcomings. We are told that ECB 1, if I may call it that, is going to be followed soon by ECB 2. I hope so, and that, in winding up, the Minister will assure us that the issues addressed today and by the NGOs, and the wider set of issues that have been identified, will be picked up in ECB 2 rather than it having a narrow focus.

I would like to spend what remains of my time—so many good points have already been made that I am skipping through my remarks—on the theme that compliance begins at home. The right reverend Prelate made a point about ethics; if he will forgive me for saying so, the only way is ethics.

Enablers such as law firms, accountancy firms and, if we are in a confessional mood, banks—I am a former banker—working with international clients whose source of wealth is opaque, have many questions to answer. The temptation of substantial new fee-earning opportunities has led some firms to take an accommodating, light-touch approach to anti-money laundering regulations—just within the letter of the rules, although sometimes not even that, and largely on a self-regulating, self-reporting basis: what we might call “marking your own homework”. Some enablers, as part of their onboarding process, actually coach clients in how to answer. They are tactical in what they ask—and do not ask—of clients, or accept pretty modest levels of proof, or even provide clients with services to mask their wealth and ownerships, or distance themselves from a rather disreputable hinterland.

I had hoped that the unexplained wealth orders that feature in the Bill would address this, and perhaps interim freezing orders, which do not seem to have been touched on tonight, might address some of the issues about the short notice required. But they appear to be directly almost exclusively at PEPs, politically exposed people, and those involved in serious and organised crime, which is not really defined in the Bill. I am not sure what “unserious and disorganised” crime would look like.

In asking Ministers about this narrow scope, I was told that existing anti-money laundering requirements on lawyers, banks and so on already require them to determine a client’s source of wealth and that they cannot take on clients who do not meet those requirements. “There’s no such word as can’t” is a weary old adage for anyone like me who had an old-fashioned upbringing. There are firms that can—and some of them do. Working in a private bank, it used to baffle me how we never took on Russian clients because it was just impossible to get them through all the tests, and yet I knew people who worked in other banks that were eagerly taking them on. I could not understand how they were doing it, but I think I know now.

For the past 25 years, I have worked with countries across the former Soviet Union, particularly Russia. Subsequently, for a period of about nine years, I worked in the private banking world, which bears out some of the points I have just made. For some, an occasional fine is just the cost of doing business. I do not know the full details but I noticed that, on Monday, the FT reported that an ex-partner of a leading firm was fined a mere £17,500 for lack of adequate due diligence in Russian transactions. That is a derisory amount.

The Bill needs to be strengthened in this area in two ways. First—this was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Vaux—we want a named, senior-level sign-off by an enabler firm’s management to confirm that all wealth has been properly explained and evidenced, in compliance with the regulations. Given the existing rules, that may sound like belt and braces to some, but my goodness, that simple addition is needed. There is nothing like having a senior person sign off and remain on the hook. Could this perhaps be introduced as a modest but vital amendment to either this Bill or its successor, which, we are told, is imminent?

Secondly—this has been touched on by other noble Lords—with responsibility must come transparency. I am in no doubt that, unless there is properly resourced enforcement, abuse, rule-bending and blind eye-turning will continue. The National Crime Agency and others are almost on their knees from being understaffed; they are struggling and underresourced, as many noble Lords have said. Resourcing was also raised via amendments in the other place; I hope that this issue will be taken up by the Government to ensure that compliance is not only said to be done but regularly, independently and forensically checked. I would be grateful for the Minister’s commitment to that in winding up.

Finally, I want to touch on one aspect of the enablers’ work that has become a stain on the reputation of the UK. Many noble Lords have touched on this, notably the noble Lord, Lord Thomas—I look forward to supporting his Private Member’s Bill if we get the chance. Some call it strategic litigation against public participation. If you have a lisp, as I do, that is extremely difficult to say. I prefer to call it what it is: lawfare. It is the deliberate use of UK legal firms to intimidate and overwhelm authors, publishers, journalists and others who seek to bring into the light matters of public interest concerning the origins of unexplained wealth. Everyone has the right to defend their reputation robustly but what we have here goes way beyond that.

Examples abound but let me cite just one tactic. No matter how hard they have sought to engage with the parties they are reporting on, a journalist finds both themselves and their publisher receiving, at the last moment before publication, voluminous—there is sometimes truckloads of it—complex and menacing correspondence from heavy-hitting law firms threating ruinous legal action. Being on the receiving end is not only extremely intimidating; it also requires delay and specialist work that few can afford. It is indeed a brave journalist or publisher who, faced with this inequality of arms, still proceeds. Many, of course, do not. I also highlight—I do not think that we have touched on this tonight—that there are cases where human rights defenders, for example, working in other countries have, as a means of intimidating them, been sued or threatened with being sued in the UK courts.

UK firms have been systematically involved in these practices for far too long. I understand that there is a consultation going on; Dominic Raab’s work was mentioned earlier and I look forward to seeing the results. There are lessons that I believe we could learn, for example, from Australia’s model litigant principles in this area, which I will not elucidate now.

In closing, I ask the Minister: is he able to confirm, or at least offer some guidance on, whether the Government recognise the problem that I have highlighted, which arises directly from UK firms taking on wealthy clients of the sort that this Bill seeks to address? Will the Government, in ECB 2, include appropriate curative measures?