Debates between Lord Faulks and Lord Agnew of Oulton during the 2019 Parliament

Wed 18th Oct 2023
Tue 9th May 2023

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill

Debate between Lord Faulks and Lord Agnew of Oulton
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.

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill

Debate between Lord Faulks and Lord Agnew of Oulton
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.

Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill

Debate between Lord Faulks and Lord Agnew of Oulton
Lord Faulks Portrait Lord Faulks (Non-Afl)
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I want briefly to add to that. I am sure that the Serious Fraud Office is full of capable and conscientious men and women who go about their jobs with enthusiasm. However, they are often pitted against rather formidable adversaries in terms of lawyers and the resources that are available to those lawyers to defend people who are the potential targets of the Serious Fraud Office.

It may be that one of the problems with the Serious Fraud Office is the career structure. The American equivalent often engages lawyers with very considerable abilities who are at a relatively stage in their practice. They may not be paid particularly well when they do it, but it is a feather in their cap. In other words, the Serious Fraud Office’s equivalent in America often has extremely high-quality lawyers. I wonder whether thought has been given to restructuring our whole approach to those who prosecute these matters so that we can somehow incentivise the very best people to get engaged in this business to render the playing field a lot more level than it currently is.

Lord Agnew of Oulton Portrait Lord Agnew of Oulton (Con)
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My Lords, I rise to support the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, in particular Amendment 106B. He is becoming quite an expert on an area that has troubled me for 18 months or so.

The figure of £37 billion used in Amendment 95 is only a small part of the story. The National Audit Office talks about a separate £30 billion bottom-end estimate of losses to fraud in the public sector, so this is a huge issue; that is why I have tried to put as much effort into it as I can. The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, made the point that it is a hotchpotch landscape. There are 22 economic crime-fighting agencies scattered across the whole landscape. They do not join up or talk to each other. They have different remits and different legislation to use to effect any kind of outcome.

A report of the kind that the noble Lord suggests would bring real clarity to this. It would explain to people what is going on. It would not cost very much; indeed, as usual, it would save money because there is, I am sure, a great deal of duplication going on in the system. I urge my noble friend the Minister not to respond today, because it is so hard to respond on the hoof to these sorts of things, but to take this away and write to us to explain what is against the logic of a single reporting point once a year for all the agencies involved in economic crime.