Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill [Lords] DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
John BercowMain Page: John Bercow (Speaker) - Buckingham)
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(2 years, 3 months ago)Commons Chamber
Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
This group contains new clauses and amendments regarding three related issues that I will discuss in turn: imposing sanctions for gross human rights violations, or what is now popularly known as the Magnitsky amendment; Scottish limited partnerships, which are of deep concern, particularly for the Scottish National party; and public registers of beneficial ownership in the overseas territories. In two of those areas, the Government are taking action to tackle abuses and tighten up standards: through Government amendments on Magnitsky and through a consultation document on Scottish limited partnerships.
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Anything that helps us is important because we need to keep our society free of covert and malign influence. I was in the States last week, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and I am working with Congressmen there and in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, so that we can combine best practice. That is important because a counter-propaganda Bill is going through the United States Congress—do we need that here, etc.?
If I see information of this kind, I have a choice: I can disregard it and become complicit or, if it is genuine, I can put it in the public domain. It might be that Committees will wish to have access to this information, and I suspect that those who have it will provide it to any of the six Committees investigating Russia, if they wish to do so. It might be that Mr Chandler can provide a satisfactory explanation or argue that these relationships, if they existed, are now historical or have been misrepresented in the documents. I do not use privilege lightly, Mr Speaker. He might wish to offer evidence, written or oral, to any of those six Committees, whose work I am supporting, in a modest way, as secretary to the Russia steering group. I look forward to his response— I am quite sure there will be one.
I will be writing to the Prime Minister in the coming weeks to suggest further measures to strengthen our democracy and electoral system. The struggle of our generation is how we deal with authoritarian states and their actors, official or proxy, who use free and open societies to damage those free and open societies. We need to do something about it. Increasingly, Members now see that covert malign influence from authoritarian states, most commonly our friends in the Kremlin but also elsewhere, is a real and present danger to our nation, to our financial system—hence this debate—and to the transparency of our democracy and electoral system, not to mention the Kremlin’s ability to conduct acts of violence and murder on our soil. We have a duty to speak up and to use this House for the public good. That is what I am doing now.
Having listened to various hon. Members refer to the excellent briefing by Transparency International UK, I should declare an interest, as I am married to its director of policy—the briefings really are excellent.
Turning first to the Magnitsky amendments, I welcome Government amendments 10 and 13, which reflect the Prime Minister’s commitment of 14 March. After Second Reading, many of us felt rather less confident than previously that they would be forthcoming, so I am glad that the Government have brought them forward, given that the issue has been raised repeatedly. I am particularly reassured by the Minister’s confirmation that the lists of people sanctioned will be put in the public domain for anybody to see. I agree with others that that is a very important deterrent.
The importance of human rights and the part that our country plays in upholding them internationally cannot be overstated—they are vital. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) set out the horrendous case of Sergei Magnitsky and the horrendous lengths to which oligarchs will go to protect their ill-gotten gains. I was reminded, on the wider issue of corruption, that we are talking about not just numbers on spreadsheets, but people’s lives—this is literally a life and death matter. I recall planning a visit to Russia to investigate human rights abuses in Chechnya. We had to postpone the visit because the individual we had been organising it with, Natalya Estemirova, who was from a human rights organisation, was assassinated.
That followed the murder of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and last October we were shocked by the murder in Malta of the investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia. These people were murdered for investigating and exposing corruption and human rights abuses. I was particularly pleased to see the launch of the Daphne project in tribute to Daphne, with 45 reporters from 15 countries carrying on her work so that her stories will live on. One of the most powerful ways to send a message to anyone who would seek to silence those trying to uncover corruption is to make sure that what they were uncovering is finally exposed.
The Minister mentioned the consultation that was launched yesterday on Scottish limited partnerships. The very real problems that have arisen under those partnerships have been in the public domain for more than 18 months, and given that we as a country have been trying to lead on this in recent years, we need to be moving with much more alacrity. The hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) made an incredibly important point about enforcement. We need to ramp up Companies House’s ability to investigate, and that requires resources. Very good people there are trying to do a very good job, but given that 17,000 Scottish limited partnerships were registered to just 10 addresses, there are questions to be asked about how risk-based investigation and digital tools could be improved.
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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As you know, at the conclusion of the debate on the amendments, I informed you that I wished to raise a point of order. I intervened on several occasions in the debate and I should have made it clear—as I would had you called me to speak—that I have on occasions practised in some of the Caribbean countries that formed the basis of our discussion in my capacity as a member of the Bar. I have done that for more than 20 years and I have a familiarity with those jurisdictions as a result.
The other matter I wish to raise is that before the commencement of the debate you informed us that you were not able to select the Government amendments. Can you clarify whether it was open to you to select those amendments, because you mentioned also that they had been submitted late? So that there should be no misunderstanding, especially outside the House, will you confirm that it would have been open to you, even though they were submitted late?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance. New clause 6 has just passed in a spirit of cross-party co-operation. I find it interesting that the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) spoke so vigorously against the new clause. What can we do to ensure that Members who speak so vigorously against an amendment put their money—as we know, the DUP have rather a lot of it—where their mouth is, proverbially speaking?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I made the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) aware, as is the convention, that I intended to raise a point of order about the fact that he spoke very passionately in favour of the Cayman Islands when he has clearly, according to his own entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, done a lot of work on their behalf. That seems to have given him the opportunity to respond in advance to my point of order. Can you advise me, Mr Speaker, whether, on drawing the attention of the House to a particular entry, it makes any difference if a contribution is an intervention or at the start of a grandiose speech?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Today is the 311th anniversary of the signing of the Act of Union between England, Wales and Scotland. May I seek the Chair’s advice on how we might mark this momentous occasion?
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
It is my privilege to address the second group of amendments, but before I do I would just like to acknowledge, as the hon. Member for Salisbury, the good will from across the House in light of the events of 4 March. With respect to the previous debate, I would like to acknowledge the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and, in particular, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas, who has done so much to come up with an outcome, which we have just expressed, that will mean a great deal to my constituents in Salisbury.
New clauses 2 and 13 aim to improve the quality of information on our company register. The Government believe that they would do so at a significant cost to UK business and would require considerable consequential change to the UK company law system for the measure to function. Companies House is taking active steps to improve the quality of data on the register. It has already increased its resourcing to support these investigations and more is being sought. Since the start of March, the first tranche of cases of non-compliance with beneficial ownership registration requirements were passed from Companies House to the Insolvency Service. The cases will form the basis of the first prosecutions for non-compliance with such requirements and should be prosecuted shortly.
New clause 18 and amendments 27 and 28, which were tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), allow for action to be taken against so-called brass-plate companies that breach sanctions. The reason that brass-plate companies have not been prosecuted or wound up relates to the challenges of collecting evidence of their activities, not a lack of legal powers. I look forward to hearing what he has to say, but the amendments do not provide any enhanced ability to take action against such companies. We continue to explore with partners across Government whether we could do more to address this issue, so I hope that in due course, hon. Members will agree to withdraw this set of amendments.
I now turn to amendment 19, to which new clause 5 has a similar purpose. These proposals seek to clarify the interaction of powers in the Bill with the provisions of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. New clause 7 seeks to constrain the powers of future Governments to amend the Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing and Transfer of Funds (Information on the Payer) Regulations 2017. However, the powers in the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill are necessary to ensure a functioning statute book immediately after the UK ceases to be a member of the EU.
Amendment 30 seeks to amend the Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1980 to give the Law Society of Scotland greater powers to conduct its role as an anti-money laundering supervisor. The Government strongly support all supervisors having adequate powers to effectively monitor and take measures to ensure compliance from their members and to use proportionate and dissuasive sanctions when their members do not comply with the rules. The Law Society of Scotland has raised with Treasury officials the issues that it would like to amend in legislation. They are looking closely at this issue and will continue to work with the Law Society of Scotland to address it. I therefore respectfully ask the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) not to press that amendment, but no doubt we will have a discussion in due course.
New clause 8, on beneficial ownership, seeks to set down in legislation an obligation to implement, within 12 months of the Bill getting Royal Assent, our commitment to establishing a public register of company beneficial ownership of overseas companies that own or buy property in the UK. The UK was the first country in the G20 to establish a public register of company beneficial ownership, and Transparency International concluded that we are one of just three G20 countries with a “very strong” legal framework around beneficial ownership.
Let me be clear to the House that the Government are committed to establishing this register and to bringing increased transparency to UK property ownership. The Government committed in January to publishing a draft Bill before the summer recess, and we recently published our response to the call for evidence. We will legislate early in the next parliamentary Session to establish the register by 2021. We will be the first country to establish the register and it is important to get it right.
New clause 12 would require HMRC’s register of trusts that generate UK tax consequences to be published. Information held on the register is accessible to law enforcement agencies and allows them to readily draw together information on trusts, including offshore trusts, when they generate a UK tax consequence. However, trusts, unlike companies, do not have any independent legal personality in their own right. They are frequently established for legitimate and highly personal reasons, such as protecting assets for children or vulnerable adults. Placing this information into the public domain would infringe the privacy rights of trust beneficial owners and needlessly publicise the financial affairs of vulnerable people for whom trusts are established. I therefore ask Members not to press those amendments.
New clause 11 seeks to create a corporate criminal offence of failure to prevent money laundering, which is not necessary because of reforms to the anti-money laundering regime already in place. The proposed offence is substantively available in respect of firms regulated for anti-money laundering purposes by the Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing and Transfer of Funds (Information on the Payer) Regulations 2017, which require regulated firms to have policies, controls and procedures to mitigate and manage risks of money laundering and terrorist financing. Failure to comply with these requirements is already a criminal offence.