Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill

Lord Macdonald of River Glaven Excerpts
Lord Macdonald of River Glaven Portrait Lord Macdonald of River Glaven (CB)
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My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, mentioned Alexander Litvinenko, and I should like to do so too. I was serving as Director of Public Prosecutions when he was murdered in London, dying of radiation poisoning in University College Hospital, a stone’s throw from here. Those of us charged with investigating and assessing this crime were left in no doubt at all that there had been Russian state involvement in its conception, planning and commission, most likely at the very highest levels. We believe that this was a state execution, carried out in the most public way possible, on the streets of our capital city, of a man under the protection of the British state.

I recall having a conversation at the time with the head of my counterterrorism division, in which we agreed that from this moment, everything had changed. If the Russian dictator was prepared to do this, where in future would the line be drawn? Perhaps we felt, “nowhere”. Nothing that has happened since then—Syria, Salisbury and a multitude of other provocations and crimes—has changed that view. In a real sense we may conclude that the invasion of Ukraine was inevitable; it was an outcome hiding in plain sight, and one which we, frankly, did too little to anticipate or prevent. Clearly, though, this also a watershed and time for us to reassess the way we have responded—or failed to respond—over the years to Putin, to his enablers and to their Russian money.

I support the Bill so far as it goes but I believe that it must presage a much broader and deeper rebalancing and retooling of our defences against the violence of the Russian regime and the financial corruption it brings in its wake. That corruption, in the form of looted funds, has found a home in London. We all know that. We all know that London has been the playground and piggy bank of choice for oligarchs, including those who owe their wealth to Putin and give him their public fealty. Beyond them, of course, are those who are less connected to the dictator but who, for the sake of their riches, agree not to challenge him and pay court at the Kremlin in a more surreptitious but equally shameful form of support.

It seems that we all now agree that the unfettered ability of these people to conceal their property and wealth in the United Kingdom beyond any sensible scrutiny is contrary to our national interest—good. Particularly welcome in this Bill, therefore, are the provisions in Part 1 around the transparency of property ownership. They are long overdue and urgent but we cannot delay. Six months is too long; it would defeat the very purpose of the Bill. Transparency of ownership is the most basic anti-corruption tool, and the Government have resisted it for far too long. It is beyond time for us to discover which parts of our cities and countryside these people own but we will not discover anything unless we move quickly and—as the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, said—unless verification is effective.

Let me turn to the question of lawyers, which has occasioned much comment, including in the other place. I start by confessing that, as a criminal lawyer, I have represented many men and women over the years whom I would not invite home for tea. However, in matters of litigation, it is equality of arms that is the real problem. Oligarchs are rich; they can afford the very best advice. The risk is that, in doing so, they can out-gun enforcement bodies, not because their cases have merit but because they are rich. This is not necessarily to criticise their lawyers; it is to criticise the system for having no solution to this conundrum.

Having run the main prosecuting authority for five years, I know how pressing this problem can be. A single case lost against the richest of opponents can take a huge chunk out of your budget in costs orders. This has been a critical issue in the area of unexplained wealth orders. Frankly, it has helped to hobble them. Going for one is simply too financially risky: if you lose it, it costs you a small fortune. That is one reason why there have been so few, but it is not the only reason. I absolutely promise the Minister that, without properly funded enforcement agencies, we will make no progress—costs orders or no costs orders. This reform is toothless on its own. The NCA needs to be funded to conduct this work. It needs to employ the right people and it needs to have confidence that the Government will back it in doing so by putting their money where their mouth is.

Finally, let me deal with the question of our adoption of sanctions measures imposed by allied states with due process-compliant justice systems, dealt with in Part 3 of the Bill. I have heard many civil liberties lawyers complain about this proposed provision but I have no difficulty with it at all. We are talking, in essence, about the Five Eyes countries: the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the European Union. These are democratic societies and long-standing allies of the United Kingdom—our very closest allies—and each is demonstrably attached to the rule of law. In a moment of exceptional international crisis in which we all stand together, this is a proportionate—indeed, laudable—proposal.

From Alexander Litvinenko to Salisbury, the shelling of Kharkiv and the destruction today of a children’s hospital, the Putin regime has proved itself to be utterly contemptuous of the law. In the face of this, we must use ours more intelligently. I am glad that the Government have brought forward this Bill—it has my support—but Ministers should be under no illusions: there is much more left to do.