Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill Debate

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Department: Home Office
Lord Garnier Portrait Lord Garnier (Con)
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If one wants to learn anything from the speeches made in the House of Commons, I suggest that my noble friends on the Front Bench— and other noble Lords if they have a moment—read those of Sir Robert Buckland and Sir Jeremy Wright, two former law officers. They agree with my remarks of 11 September and find it puzzling that their own Government, a Government who are in favour of producing cogent and cohesive criminal law, have come up with this dog’s dinner.

I have done my best to be accommodating. It is not an accusation that is often levelled at me, but on this occasion, I think that it can be, justly. I have done my best to meet some of the Government’s less organised thinking. As I said at the outset, as a matter of principle. I cannot understand why there should be an exemption for anyone from the proposed criminal law, just as there is not under the Bribery Act and the Criminal Finances Act. However, to make life easier for the Government, on the last occasion I suggested that microbusinesses should be exempted from the failure to prevent fraud offences provision. I abandoned my provisions relating to the failure to prevent money laundering. The Government did not find that attractive, even though I tried to explain my abandoning of the principle on the basis that just as we have an age limit for criminal responsibility—10—we could perhaps also, by a rather clumsy analogy, exempt microbusinesses from criminal responsibility under the failure to prevent provision. That did not seem to go down very well with the Government—certainly not with Mr Kit Malthouse.

I have now moved a little further towards the Government. You may say, “Well, that’s a bit wet. If you’ve got any principles, why not stick to them?” Well, okay, accuse me of being wet, but I am doing my best to help the Government get out of an unnecessarily sticky hole. I have amended my proposal so that rather than microbusinesses being exempted, “small” businesses should be exempted—I define a small business on page 5 of the amendment paper, which states that, for the purposes of this provision,

“a relevant body is a ‘small organisation’ only if the body satisfied two or more of the following conditions in the financial year of the body … that precedes the year of the fraud offence”.

Those conditions are that the turnover of the business should be

“Not more than £10.2 million”,

the balance sheet should be

“Not more than £5.1 million”

and the number of employees should be “Not more than 50”.

In speaking against my own case, I rather wish that I had not put that down, but I have because I am trying to assist my noble friend on the Front Bench in getting his Bill enacted before the end of this Session.

I repeat that the criminal law should be uniform. Defences to the criminal law should be uniform. We should not have exemptions based on the size of the business. The Theft Act applies to all suspects—I am seeing whether my noble friend still enjoys my old joke about the six feet six burglar—regardless of whether they are six feet six or five feet six. We do not exempt people on the basis that they are small people or do not fit a particular height, so why are we doing it here? I have yet to find out. I am afraid that unless the Government move a little closer to me, I will invite your Lordships to join me in the Division Lobby.

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.

--- Later in debate ---
Moved by
Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks
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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—

161D: After Clause 187, insert the following new Clause—
“Civil recovery of proceeds of crime: costs of proceedings
Civil recovery: costs of proceedings
After section 316 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 insert—
“316A 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) When assessing what order to make in relation to the costs of proceedings, the court should take into account—
(a) the merits of the case,
(b) whether the enforcement authority acted reasonably in bringing proceedings,
(c) whether costs were reasonably incurred by any party to the proceedings, and
(d) the impact of any order on—
(i) the enforcement authority, and its ability to carry out its enforcement functions, and
(ii) any other party to the proceedings.”””
Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I will not amplify what has already been said. I am grateful to all noble Lords, including the Minister, for engaging in this debate. He said that it was not a bad amendment, which was kind of him; I would say that it is an amendment that this House, for the reasons that I have already given, should welcome. It is an improvement to the Bill and I beg to test the opinion of the House.