I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
First, may I, through you, Madam Deputy Speaker, apologise to the House on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, as she is unavoidably detained on departmental business pertaining to national security and has therefore asked me to open this debate?
Both terrorism and serious and organised crime pose a real and present threat to the UK. Those involved in terrorist activities endanger our domestic security and overseas interests. Terrorism may be the greatest threat we face, but serious criminality arguably causes the greatest harm, costing the UK at least £24 billion annually, causing loss of life, and depriving people of their security and prosperity. Right hon. and hon. Members must not doubt the scale of this problem, as it damages our economy and our communities. It also has impacts on real people, whether we are talking about a grandparent being scammed out of their life savings; the trade of weapons that enable the type of marauding firearms attacks we have seen in Paris; the smuggling of illegal drugs that blight our high streets and local neighbourhoods; or the organised trafficking of young women and children.
Those crimes have a corrosive impact on the most vulnerable in society—they ruin the lives of real people—but this is part of a truly global issue. As David Cameron has said, international corruption is
“one of the greatest enemies of progress in our time”
“cancer at the heart of so many of the world’s problems”.
Financial profit is at the heart of almost all forms of serious and organised crime. The UK drugs trade alone is estimated to generate £4 billion of revenue, and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs estimates that more than £10 billion was lost to tax evasion and criminal attacks against the tax system in 2014-15 alone.
I agree entirely with that comment from the former Prime Minister and with the thrust of the Bill. One great concern of Christian Aid is that the Bill does not extend to or legislate for the Crown dependencies or overseas territories. Will the Minister respond to that at this early stage?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. The Bill does extend some of the offences and powers it contains to cover an extra-territorial extent, which will go a considerable way to getting to the bottom of money laundering, whether that be carried out here or elsewhere around the world. It also goes some way to dealing with people who evade tax overseas. Just because they are not evading our tax but are robbing another country, it does not mean that we would not still like to take action against those individuals. The Bill goes some way on that.
I will make some progress and Members will doubtless be able to make their points throughout the debate.
Many of the criminals who profit from such activities live in plain sight, untouched by law enforcement agencies. They reap the benefits by money laundering—moving, hiding and using the proceeds of their crimes to fund their lifestyles and enable further criminality. It is estimated that the annual amount of money laundered globally amounts to $1.6 trillion, while the National Crime Agency assesses that many billions of pounds are laundered into or through the UK as a result of international corruption.
We should be rightly proud of the UK’s status as a global financial centre. This is one of the best places in the world in which to do business, but we must recognise that the size of our financial sector and open economy and the attractiveness of the London property market to overseas investors make this country unusually exposed to the risks of international money laundering. That is why this Government are taking action—to combat money laundering, terrorist finance and corruption—here and overseas. We are sending a clear message that we will not stand for money laundering or the funding of terrorism through the UK.
I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way. I agree with the content of his remarks, but I wish to pursue further the issue that has been raised by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson). Does the Minister agree that transparency is absolutely key to trying to tackle some of the corruption and money laundering that take place? If he does agree, why is he not using this Bill to ensure that the overseas territories and Crown dependencies, which come under our jurisdiction, publish publicly available registers of beneficial ownership?
Yes, I absolutely agree that transparency is one of the steps along the path of tackling both corruption and money laundering. That is why, at the anti-corruption summit in May, the Prime Minister basically reaffirmed that commitment. Even before that, we had worked with the overseas territories and Crown dependencies to ensure that, hopefully by the end of this year or into next year, there will be transparency, registers, of which a considerable number will be public, and automatic information exchange between our tax authorities and those of our dependencies. In that way, we will be able to have access to information about people hiding tax from us, and our law enforcement agencies will then be able to set about tackling the matter.
This Bill is part of that process. A key element of that approach will be ensuring that we work with the private sector to make the UK a more hostile place for those seeking to move, hide or use the proceeds of crime.
Prosecuting corporations for failing to prevent economic crimes was expected to be a core part of this legislation as it appeared during the consultation phase. It seems that, despite Government indications that they would include provisions to hold to account corporations that let their staff facilitate tax evasion and other economic crimes, those provisions are not part of the Bill. Will the Minister explain why he has chosen not to include such eminently sensible precautions?
Yes, but I will come to that part of the Bill later on. It is certainly our intention to prosecute those corporations, or the corporate body, that allow their companies to facilitate tax evasion. Under the current system, an individual can be prosecuted for evading tax, and someone within a company can be prosecuted if they facilitate that evasion. At the moment, it is very, very hard to prosecute the corporate body. We are intending to make that change in our Bill. If the hon. Lady reads the Bill, she will see how we will do that. We will go after not only the corporate body here in the UK, but overseas companies. Being an overseas company will not be an excuse, and we will go after them in the same extra-territorial way that we do with the Bribery Act 2010.
I congratulate the Minister on his appointment to the Home Office.
In evidence to Parliament earlier this year, the private sector made it very clear that it is trying to co-operate with the Government. There were 381,000 suspicious activity reports made under the ELMER system, only 20,000 of which could be looked into. What support is he giving the National Crime Agency to allow it to have a better system to deal with those reports?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention and for his kind comments about my appointment.
First, we will remove those barriers to information sharing. Often some of the regulators or the bodies that we deal with say that they would like to pass on more to us, but feel that they are not protected from sharing wider information. We will remove those barriers so that the National Crime Agency can see the full chain of a financial instruction. We will also empower the NCA with a stronger disclosure order so that it can force people—it can go and apply for an order—to release documentation or to comply with questions about a particular transaction. Such an order currently exists in the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, but it only covers fraud. We will now do the same for money laundering. We will also extend the time limit for a suspicious activity report. At the moment, there is a one-off extension of up to 31 days, but we would like to see that extended to six months, which means that the NCA will have much longer for its investigations.
I thank the Minister for his very full answer, but the real problem is that the system is old. The ELMER system needs to be replaced and renewed. Will he give the National Crime Agency the additional resources to pay for the new system to do all the things that he is suggesting? Without a new system, 20,000 simply does not go into 381,000.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that 381,000 referrals is a hefty amount to get through. First, we need to ensure that there is time to get through them. Secondly, what we do not want is what has happened in the past, which is that the private sector makes a suspicious activity report by default. If we can remove those excuses about why it cannot get to the bottom of a transaction before it passes it on, that will ensure that it passes on proper suspicious activities, rather than the ones that it can satisfy itself are not such a problem. In that way, we can cut out some of the referrals that are unnecessarily done.
I thank the Minister for giving way. He is being exceptionally generous.
Does that example not actually illustrate exactly what prosecutors are up against here and the complexity of these cases? Compulsion for transparency will be necessary, as it will put prosecutors on the front foot. Will he look at this matter again—it has already been raised by a number of Members—as the Bill progresses?
Yes, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that that will happen throughout the passage of the Bill and even after. This is part of a longer process. We will make sure that, where we cannot get hold of the information that we need, we will prosecute people who are deliberately trying to evade tax, and also prosecute people who are trying to launder money. That is part of the process. Many of these powers, including the unexplained wealth orders, give us the benefit of the doubt and put it on to us to say, “Actually, we think you’re linked to serious organised crime, or we can show you are. Explain to us where your money is from.” At the very least, that will get over some of those hurdles about not being able to get to the bottom of the information in that process. That is one of the steps that we will take and that I hope the right hon. Gentleman will support as the Bill goes through.
I welcome my hon. Friend to his place as Security Minister. His appointment is much deserved.
May I ask him about seizure and forfeiture powers? Previous legislation in this area has not been entirely successful in ensuring that the assets of criminals are seized. Can the Minister explain to the House why the provisions in this Bill will make a difference? We want to ensure that we grab the money off the criminals so that they cannot carry on with their illegal enterprises.
My hon. Friend is right that, in the past, it has been a challenge. Crafty hoods have been very good at taking their money out of cash and putting it into a range of moveable valuables, such as fast cars, paintings, jewels, or even betting slips, which I know the Scottish Government are quite keen for us to consider. We need to broaden it out and ensure that when they are crafty, we are crafty as well.
This Government have already done more than any other to tackle money laundering and terrorist financing. More assets have been recovered from criminals than ever before, with a record £255 million recovered in 2015-16, and hundreds of millions of pounds more frozen and put beyond the reach of criminals. We set up the Panama papers taskforce to ensure an effective, joined-up approach to those revelations. The London anti-corruption summit in May built capacity with overseas partners.
It is important to note that we are already doing this. In November 2015, the UK returned £28 million to Macau, which were the proceeds of corruption laundered in the UK. That is a concrete example of our giving back money to those countries that have been robbed by crooks who have used Britain to launder the money or to make the money in its jurisdiction. I want to see more of that and to see it go further.
There was a need for legislation and a need to build on the process of the anti-corruption summit and to find out where we were still vulnerable. In October 2015, the Government published the “National risk assessment for money laundering and terrorist financing”, identifying a number of areas where these regimes could be strengthened. Our response to that assessment was the action plan for anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist finance, which was published in April 2016. It represents one of the most significant changes to our anti-money laundering and terrorist finance regime in more than a decade.
The Bill will give effect to key elements of that action plan. It will significantly enhance the capability of UK law enforcement to tackle money laundering and to recover the proceeds of crime. It will strengthen the relationship between public and private sectors and combat the financing of terrorism.
Part 1 contains a number of measures that will amend the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, including the creation of unexplained wealth orders. There are criminals who declare themselves almost penniless, yet control millions of pounds. Law enforcement agencies may suspect that assets are the proceeds of international corruption, but they are unable to freeze or recover them, often because they cannot rely on full co-operation with other jurisdictions to obtain evidence. A court will be able to make an unexplained wealth order to require an individual or organisation suspected of association with serious criminality to explain the origin of assets, where they appear to be disproportionate to their known income. If that person does not respond, this may enable the property to be recovered under existing civil recovery powers.
Part 1 chapter 1 will extend the use of disclosure orders, which allow a law enforcement officer to require someone who has relevant information to answer questions as part of an investigation. Those orders are already in use for civil recovery and confiscation investigations. They will now be available for money laundering cases.
Chapter 2 will enhance the process by which private sector companies report suspected money laundering—the suspicious activity reports, or SARs, regime. Where a company in the regulated sector, such as a bank, accountancy or legal firm, suspects that it may commit a money laundering offence, it is obliged to submit a SAR to the National Crime Agency, seeking consent to proceed. At present, there are occasions where these SARs are incomplete and where further information is needed to inform the NCA’s decision. The Bill will give law enforcement agencies more time to investigate those suspicious transactions that require consent and the NCA extra powers to request further information from companies to help to pursue those investigations and conduct wider analysis.
The Bill will provide a gateway for the sharing of information between regulated companies—subject to appropriate oversight—to help to build a broader intelligence picture of suspected money laundering. This has been piloted through a programme known as the joint money laundering intelligence taskforce. In the 12 months from February 2015, the taskforce led directly to 11 arrests, the restraint of more than £500,000 and the identification of 1,700 bank accounts linked to suspected criminal activity. We want to build on the success of that work, by providing the clearest possible legal certainty that companies can share information for the purposes of preventing and detecting serious crime.
Part 1 chapter 3 will improve the ability of law enforcement agencies to recover the proceeds of crime. Existing legislation contains civil powers to confiscate cash, but criminals hold proceeds in other forms, as I said earlier, and we must adapt. The types of asset covered by the power are listed in the Bill, so that Parliament can properly scrutinise its potential use. We continue to consult operational partners on their requirements, and I expect that we will introduce a Government amendment to extend the list to include gambling slips and tokens, which are often used by organised criminals to launder their ill-gotten cash. I hope that such an amendment will attract cross-party support.
The rest of part 1 will extend existing POCA powers to a number of other organisations, including the Serious Fraud Office, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Financial Conduct Authority. It will make a range of minor and technical amendments to POCA.
The first duty of any Government is to keep their citizens safe. The terrorist threat is real and is growing. If we are to combat that threat, we must cut off the funding streams that enable terrorist-related activity. The 2015 national risk assessment identified two key weaknesses in this area: the raising and moving of terrorist funds through vulnerabilities in the financial sector, including money service businesses and cash couriering; and the abuse of the charitable sector for terrorist purposes. To combat these issues, part 2 will make complementary changes to powers for terrorist finance cases, by mirroring many of the provisions in the Bill, such as those on SARs, disclosure orders and seizure and confiscation powers, so that they are also available for investigations into offences under the Terrorism Act 2000.
Part 3 will deliver on the Conservative manifesto commitment to make
“it a crime if companies fail to put in place measures to stop economic crime, such as tax evasion”.
At present, if an individual evades tax and that is criminally facilitated by those working for a company, the individual taxpayer will have committed a crime and those individuals facilitating it could also be prosecuted, but it is very difficult and often impossible to hold the corporate entity to account. That needs to change. That is why we are creating two new offences of corporate failure to prevent the criminal facilitation of tax evasion—one in relation to UK taxes; another in relation to taxes owed to other countries.
Tax evasion is wrong. It is a crime. It cannot be right that a business operating in the UK can escape criminal liability simply because a tax loss is suffered by another country rather than the UK. The new offence in relation to foreign taxes will be of particular benefit in tackling corporate facilitation of corruption in developing countries. HMRC has conducted two public consultations on these offences, including engagement with the private sector—banks, accountants and legal practices—and everyone is clear of the need to take responsibility for ensuring the highest possible standards of compliance in this area.
As I have said, tax evasion and corruption in the developing world are key contributors to global poverty. Those crimes are frequently facilitated by companies in other jurisdictions. We cannot abdicate our responsibility and leave solving this problem to other countries. The UK’s financial sector should lead on the disruption of tax evasion, money laundering and corruption. This measure will help to do just that.
The Government are committed to reducing the regulatory burden on business, which can make it harder for companies to focus on real risks. The measures in the Bill were developed in close partnership with law enforcement agencies and the regulated sector, including major financial institutions, as well as other key representatives.
Although I support the Bill, does the Minister agree that there is no point in legislating if the agencies tasked with enforcing the legislation simply do not have the resources to do so? For example, since the creation of the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation, as far as I am aware from talking to lawyers who work on white-collar crime practices, there has been no enforcement whatever. All of us who want to support the Bill would like to hear reassurance that there will be the resources to match the good intent.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. In the past few months, I have visited regional organised crime units up and down the country, including in his region, and the NCA, and they all say that their barrier to getting further with some of these problems is not the resource issue; they all say that their barrier has been the ability to find the cash, see the cash and seize it. Those three things are incredibly important. We can put all the resources in the world into our law enforcement agencies, but if they do not have the powers to take back some of the stolen assets, it will not make a difference.
The thing that struck me coming into this job only a few months ago, although I thought I knew a bit about terrorism from my previous life, and what has absolutely shocked me is the weight and strength of organised crime across the United Kingdom. To see its depth, how it affects my community in the north-west and how close it comes to us all really takes my breath away. I am absolutely determined not only that the guys and girls at the top, the Mr Bigs, get sent to jail for as long as possible, but that those people who consider themselves a little removed from it—the facilitators, the white-collar smoothies who launder the money into property and so on—also face their time in court, because they are the people who contribute to the message that there is a permissive society and that it is okay to be associated with crime. They are the people who help the nasties to put a gloss on themselves.
That is what I am determined to do with the Bill. All Members should rest assured that I will use the Bill to try to build momentum in non-legislative areas—in the non-regulated sector. I want to ask the regulators of estate agents and accountants what they are doing to play their part. If we can change the powers here, if their members get into trouble, what are they going to do to hold their members to account? Legislation is only one part of this. I hope that everyone supports the Bill and that the message goes out that there is more to do and that we will make sure that those people who facilitate and think that they live on the edge of the crime know that we are coming after them.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again; he is being incredibly generous. As he says, this is a question not just of laws but of the culture of the organisations. The NCA’s predecessor organisations all seemed to be more culturally bureaucratic. The NCA seems to be more intelligence-led. It seems to have more officials at the top who were intelligence operators in past times. From everything that I have seen, the NCA is far more vigorous at chasing down the intelligence, which is what it really needs to do.
There are several parts to this. The NCA has absolutely got the bit between its teeth, and I see a professional organisation up and down the country determined to tackle the threat that we face. I compliment police forces throughout the country that have put away the old-fashioned territorial boundaries that organised crime often exploited and have been determined to work together. When we visit Police Scotland and regional organised crime units in the north-west and all the other regions, we see police forces all sitting around the same table, working together for their own ends, led by intelligence, deciding on their priorities, sharing capabilities and knuckling down and getting on with it, rather than just focusing on their small areas. The NCA and regional organised crime units have provided the impetus on this, and the results will speak for themselves. I can assure the House that each of the Bill’s provisions will be subject to a set of stringent safeguards and robust oversight, so that they can be used only where it is necessary and proportionate to do so.
We considered carefully the responses to the public consultation on options for legislative proposals to implement the action plan. We published the Government response alongside the Bill earlier this month. I am grateful to everyone who responded to that consultation. There will inevitably be some additional pieces of statutory guidance to underpin the measures in the Bill. We will seek, wherever possible, to make that available to Parliament during the passage of the Bill, to ensure the widest possible consultation on how it will work in practice.
The Bill is only one part of a wider package of measures, as I have said, aimed at strengthening the Government’s response to money laundering and increasing the amount of criminal assets confiscated by the state. Our wider programme includes improving the effectiveness of the supervisory regime for the regulated sector; reforming the SARs regime, including investment in systems and processes; and further increasing our international reach, working with other Governments, overseas territories, Crown dependencies and international organisations to crack down on money laundering, tax evasion and corruption. We must ensure that the Bill and those other projects have the greatest possible impact on money laundering and terrorist finance in this country and abroad.
I welcome the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) to her post as shadow Home Secretary, and I am pleased that she has been able to meet me since her appointment to discuss this Bill. I would be delighted to continue to meet her and her team during the passage of the Bill to make sure that we get it right. Hopefully, we can work to ensure that the whole House agrees to support the Bill to send a message to the crooks, criminals and facilitators that we will not tolerate this any more. I hope that the hon. Lady, her colleagues and Members from the Scottish National party agree that it is in the public interest that the Bill be enacted at the earliest opportunity, hopefully with clear cross-party support.
I also congratulate the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) on her recent election as Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. I am afraid that she is not in the Chamber, but she has a wealth of experience in home affairs, and I look forward to discussing these issues with her and the Select Committee.
The Government are committed to protecting the security and prosperity of our citizens, and the integrity of our world-leading financial system. We must ensure that we can pursue vigorously those who abuse that for illicit means. That is what the Bill will do, and I commend it to the House.
If someone walks around the most expensive neighbourhoods of London—Knightsbridge and South Kensington—they will see house after house dark every night. Some have no lights on because the owners are out, but many more have no lights on because they have been bought as an investment and lie empty most of the time. Some of the most expensive properties in the capital are unoccupied because they have been bought solely for the purpose of laundering dirty money.
In 2016, money laundering is not just happening in accountancy offices or the back rooms of banks. It is happening in plain sight of ordinary Londoners, because we see some of the most expensive domestic properties in the world change hands but remain mysteriously and persistently empty. We welcome the Bill, which has been introduced with the express purpose of providing new powers and safeguards to improve the Government’s capacity to tackle money laundering and terrorist financing and, above all, to recover the proceeds of crime. I want to make it clear that, in principle, the Opposition support the aims of the Bill.
We do so because it is vital to do as much as we can to bear down on illegal activity, including targeting the enablers of illegal activity: lawyers, accountants and estate agents. We support the Bill partly because public opinion, encouraged by the work of the Public Accounts Committee under distinguished past and present leadership, rightly demands that politicians do more to stop tax evasion. We also do so because some of the poorest countries in the world have had their Treasuries denuded by money laundering. If the UK, which is often described as one of the money-laundering centres of the world, could act effectively against money laundering, not just our own tax authorities but the populations of countries in the global south, from which some of this money has been looted, would benefit.
We will wish, however, to ascertain that the provisions of the Bill will actually work and impact in reality on the harms that the Minister set out. We will weigh carefully the civil liberties implications of those provisions. Furthermore, we seek assurances that the Government agencies tasked with implementing the legislation will have all the resources and support that they need.
The issue of resources was raised by the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick). Despite the effective way in which the Minister made his case, he did not answer my question. When will the NCA get a new computer system? When will ELMER be renewed so that the agency can look through SARs? The system is designed for 20,000 complaints, but it is currently dealing 385,000. The agency needs a new computer system to do what the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) want the Bill to achieve.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that important intervention. If the Minister does not give a clear reply to that question on the Floor of the House, I can assure him that we will pursue the issue in Committee.
The Minister said that money is not the main obstacle to pursuing money launderers and criminal actors, but it does not help when agencies such as the NCA experience cuts. The Home Affairs Committee produced an important report in June on the proceeds of crime, and I am indebted to the then Chair and the Committee as a whole for their investigatory work. The Committee pointed out that money laundering takes many complicated forms, ranging from complex financial vehicles and activity in tax havens around the world to property investments in London and high-value jewellery. I share the Select Committee’s astonishment that of over 1 million property transactions last year only 335 were deemed suspicious. I agree with the Select Committee’s conclusion that supervision of the property market has been “totally inadequate” and has
“laid out a welcome mat for launderers”.
The Select Committee report also made the important point that it is all too easy for people who want to launder money to buy property in London, let it out in the capital’s high-value lettings market, then take in clean money in perpetuity.
Overall, the NCA believes that up to £100 billion of criminal funds could be passing through the UK each year in the form of property, luxury cars, art and jewellery. Transparency International estimates that there are hundreds of properties in the UK that are strongly suspected to have been acquired with the proceeds of corruption. Land Registry figures show that UK real estate worth more than £170 billion is held by more than 30,000 tax haven companies. I do not argue that there can never be a legitimate reason for holding UK real estate in a tax haven company, but I believe that, all too often, what we see could well be illicit activity.
As a former tax lawyer, may I point out to the hon. Lady that companies in tax havens own UK property because it was possible to do a stamp duty avoidance scheme called “enveloping” during most of the period in which the Labour Government were in office? Action taken by this Government has put a stop to a lot of that abuse.
I made a point of saying that there can be legitimates reasons for holding UK property in tax haven companies. I remind the hon. Gentleman that it was not every single detail of the activity of the last Labour Government that I supported.
Most owners of those companies hide behind anonymous trusts or nominee directors and shareholders. For instance, in a single 50-storey apartment complex in London, The Tower at St George Wharf in Vauxhall, a stone’s-throw from the House, a quarter of the flats are held through offshore companies. This Bill aims to close a loophole which means that authorities cannot seize property from overseas criminals unless the individuals are first convicted in their country of origin. The orders will apply to property and other assets worth more than £100,000. If the owner fails to demonstrate that a home or piece of jewellery was acquired using legal sources of income, agencies will be able to seize it.
The Opposition support the new law in principle, but stress that for it to be effective agencies must be given the financial and political support to take powerful and wealthy individuals to court. Furthermore, there is some concern, which we will explore in Committee, that the measures may be too widely drawn. Throughout, the sole safeguard for seizure orders is the reasonable suspicion of a police officer on their own authority. This may be too low a bar as a safeguard against the incompetent use or abuse of state powers.
I thank my hon. Friend for her kind comments about the Select Committee’s report published in July. In evidence to the Committee, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe suggested that the criminal law should be amended to ensure that those who had not paid their compensation order should be the subject of a second criminal offence. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is wrong for those who are subject to a compensation order to go to prison, finish their sentence and come out without it being paid? We need to look very carefully at this aspect.
I take the point that my neighbour, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), makes, but often when a criminal is sentenced, along with a compensation order or a proceeds of crime order, he is sentenced to an additional term of imprisonment in the event that he does not pay back the money. Sometimes those extended sentences can be very long—indeed, as long as or even longer than the original sentence.
Far be it from me to bandy words with the many lawyers in the Chamber. I repeat that as the Bill goes through Committee we will seek to examine the question of people flouting compensation orders. Overall, in relation to bearing down on money laundering, we welcome the relevant provisions, including the unexplained wealth orders, the reform to the suspicious activity reports regime, information sharing and the new disclosure orders.
The Bill also deals with tax evasion. In recent years there has been a great deal of public interest and a raft of Government measures on tax avoidance. Arguably, less attention has been paid to tax evasion. There is some blurring between the two terms, but broadly, tax evasion occurs when an individual or corporate entity acts in breach of the law, and tax avoidance occurs when an individual or corporate entity complies with the letter but not the spirit of the law. In recent years Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has produced estimates of the tax gap—that is, the difference between the tax that is collected and that which is theoretically due. Clearly, any such estimate must be speculative, but I draw the attention of the House to the fact that HMRC’s most recent estimate of the gap is £36 billion, which is the equivalent of 6.5% of total tax liabilities. Of that £36 billion that is lost, £5.2 billion is lost to evasion and only £2.2 billion is lost to avoidance.
We welcome the measures to bear down on tax evasion, and we welcome the provision that makes it a criminal offence for corporations to fail to stop their associated persons facilitating tax evasion. We particularly welcome the fact that this will have extra-territorial jurisdiction. However, we regret that in the tax evasion measures in part 3 there is no reference to the British overseas territories and Crown dependencies. That is a startling oversight. There are 14 British overseas territories. Just one of them, the British Virgin Islands, is mentioned no fewer than 113,000 times in the Panama papers. BVI, with a population of just 29,000—fewer than my own constituents in Hackney—is home to 452,000 international businesses. Maybe the 29,000 population is particularly skilled at accountancy and banking, but maybe some of those business entities are shells for tax evasion.
There are three Crown dependencies, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, and it is frequently argued that the British overseas territories and the Crown dependencies are the largest tax evasion network in the world, so the failure to mention them in a Bill which purports to deal with issues surrounding tax evasion is a major omission. We will be seeking amendments as the Bill goes through Committee. It is frequently asserted that it is not possible to legislate for the British overseas territories and the Crown dependencies, but the Ministry of Justice seems to think differently. This is an issue that we will explore.
The Minister referred to the beneficial ownership register that we are encouraging the overseas territories and the Crown dependencies to introduce, but he must be aware that at least some of the overseas territories are boasting that they are in practice evading the Government’s efforts to get them to set up beneficial ownership registers, and many of them are saying that these registers will not be publicly available. The Opposition insist that if this Government are serious about dealing with tax evasion, they must ensure that the overseas territories and Crown dependencies not only set up beneficial ownership registers, but make them publicly available.
We note that there is little distinction in the Bill between corporate or partnership bodies which facilitate tax evasion, and those that do it routinely and as a central part of their business model. We believe that we should look into a new provision specifically criminalising entities and individuals for whom tax evasion is at the heart of their business model, and punishing them more harshly.
I shall not conclude my remarks on tax evasion without mentioning the Labour party’s tax transparency enforcement programme. We want a public inquiry to examine the loss of tax revenue, and increased powers for HMRC, including a specialised tax enforcement unit. We want to force foreign firms to list their owners and beneficiaries, and we want the introduction of a general anti-avoidance principle and the extension of current rules to cover offshore abuses.
The Bill deals with the important issue of terrorist finance. Those of us who have watched with horror terrorist atrocities all over the world, and here in London, know that terrorism is an existential threat to us and our society. We share the Government’s aims in reducing the terrorist threat, not just to us in the UK but to our allies and interests overseas, and agree that one way of doing this is to deprive terrorists of the financial resources required for terrorism-related activity. Globalisation means that we must constantly update our legal instruments. We note the changes that the Bill will make to the law enforcement and intelligence agencies in relation to investigations of offences under the Terrorism Act 2000, but we will examine these proposals because we are anxious that they do not have too harsh a bearing on genuine charities.
Labour Members support the Bill in principle. We will scrutinise its detail with care. We insist that it is vital that agencies such as the National Crime Agency get the money they need for implementation, because otherwise the Bill will be a dead letter. For too long, London has been accused of being a hub for money laundering, with all its terrible effects not only on the take of our Treasury but on the lives and countries of many of the poorest people in the world. We hope that this Bill is the beginning of a process that brings the curtain down on the era when London could be described as a money-laundering hub, instead ensuring that London and the UK set an example internationally about what can be done to bear down on money laundering and tax evasion.
I begin by declaring an interest. I have been instructed in the past, and I am currently instructed, by the Serious Fraud Office in a number of matters that touch on this Bill and some of its predecessor legislation.
I apologise to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench, and to the shadow Home Secretary, the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), for the fact that I might not be able to be here for the wind-ups. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service will forgive me. All being well, however, the debate may run short—if I do not talk too much—in which case I shall be here.
Like the shadow Home Secretary, I broadly support the principle behind the Bill, which I assume is entirely uncontroversial. We all want the criminals whom we hope will be touched by it to be caught and to be prevented from committing such financial crimes. The days when people went into banks with sawn-off shotguns are long over. Criminals are now much more sophisticated: they go round the back with a set of wires, metaphorically, and extract money out of banks and other financial institutions through computer crime, rather than by using violence. We need to keep up with them. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Security said, we have to be craftier than the crafty hoods.
In our enthusiasm to pass the Bill, however, there are one or two matters about which we need to be a little cautious, although I am sure that, during its passage, the Government will think about how to get the detail right. It could be said that many of the points I am going to set out would be better made on Report than on Second Reading, but I might as well make them while I am on my feet.
Unexplained wealth orders, as a matter of principle, are in line with provisions in the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 and similar measures, in that they reverse the burden of proof by making the respondent to the order explain himself, rather than requiring the prosecution or the state to make the case against him. That principle is now accepted in our criminal law, and that will continue as long as there are sufficient protections for the respondent. Under the Bill, the High Court may, on an application made by one of the prosecution authorities or enforcement agencies, make an unexplained wealth order in respect of any property if it is satisfied that each of the requirements for making the order is fulfilled. The order will be made in the High Court and the application will be made to the High Court in relation to a respondent who has a criminal connection, but also to politically exposed persons. We need to be careful that politically exposed persons, who will, as I understand it, be foreigners, are sufficiently protected from the making of an application that could trash their reputation and that, even when that is not acceded to by the High Court judge, none the less still leaves him or her exposed to the allegations made against them. I suppose that, to a lesser extent, the same could be said of a respondent with some form of criminal connection.
It seems to me that the way around that is to do what has been done with deferred prosecution agreements in the Crime and Courts Act 2013. Paragraphs 7 and 8 of schedule 17 to that Act provide a way of dealing with those issues so that reputations cannot be damaged until the necessary time when a particular state of affairs has been proved. In deferred prosecution agreements, the parties—the Serious Fraud Office in this case—apply to the court for a declaration that entering into a deferred prosecution agreement with the respondent is likely to be in the interests of justice and that
“the proposed terms of the DPA are fair, reasonable and proportionate.”
That hearing takes place in private. Once the court is satisfied, and the parties are agreed, that the terms of the order are correct, the judge makes an order that is made public, and also makes public the judgment that he made in the private hearing some days or weeks earlier.
That is a perfectly sensible way of maintaining the interests of doing justice in public, while holding in private the initial hearing in the event of an order not being made, or of it being altered in a way that makes the respondent look a lot less guilty than he might otherwise have looked. That allows a hearing to be heard without damaging an innocent man’s reputation. That is simply a matter of mechanics, and if the Government can spare the time between now and when the Bill leaves the House of Commons, we could achieve the end that we all want, without causing collateral or unintended damage.
I am also a little concerned—perhaps this can be dealt with at a later stage—that clause 1 deals with income as though that were all that needs to be considered. Proposed new section 362B(3) of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 states:
“The High Court must be satisfied that there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the known sources of the respondent’s lawfully obtained income would have been insufficient for the purposes of enabling the respondent to obtain the property.”
Proposed new subsection (6)(d) notes that
“‘known’ sources of the respondent’s income are the sources of income (whether arising from employment, assets or otherwise) that are reasonably ascertainable from available information at the time of the making of the application for the order.”
If “income” simply means money received, I understand that; but if it means income as opposed to capital, we need to make clear that by income we mean not just the interest from capital or a salary, but all that the respondent owns, so that we can capture the distinction between income and capital. A respondent could be capital-rich, but income-poor. We need to avoid a situation where he can get away from the order by saying that his income does not amount to much when we all know, or can anticipate, that his capital is larger. I am sure that plenty of the houses that the shadow Home Secretary spoke about are bought with cash—essentially, they are bought for great lumps of capital—rather than from borrowing.
I am concerned about the Bill’s use of the words “purports to comply”. I appreciate that that expression is to be found in earlier, similar Acts but, to me, purporting to do something means either doing or attempting to do one’s best, or doing something speciously—appearing, falsely, to do something. Albeit that we accept that that expression is used in earlier legislation, we need to be clear that to pretend to do something should not be a defence or an answer to an accusation of failure to comply with an unexplained wealth order.
I turn to the question of enforcement, which has been brought up on several occasions. Let us assume that an unexplained wealth order is made, and let us assume that there is a hearing, initially perhaps ex parte—singlehanded—by the authority. The matter then either comes back for a hearing between both parties, or moves on in some other way. It is all very well making these orders, but that will do no good if we do not have the necessary police officers or investigators to ensure that they are enforced.
I have noticed that in the past with confiscation orders. Very often, the courts make an order, and either the order is never put into action or very little of the amount required from the offender is ever recovered. We need to make sure that this legislation is not simply written in air; it must have real teeth to deter those who think they can get away with this sort of misbehaviour, and to enable the Treasury to recover the ill-gotten gains. I dare say that the same could be said in relation to suspicious activity reports.
Finally on unexplained wealth orders, is there to be any form of appeal system? It strikes me that under proposed new section 362H, an application for an unexplained wealth order may be made without notice, and I have dealt with points about that. Will the procedure be susceptible to any sort of appeal, and if not, why not?
I turn to the “failure to prevent” provisions, which my hon. Friend the Minister mentioned in his opening speech. I heartily approve of this new system for dealing with corporate misconduct. We saw it first in our jurisdiction under section 7 of the Bribery Act 2010. Although there have been only a few cases involving section 7, it strikes me as being a sensible way of dealing with the difficulty that we face, under English law at least, in pinning criminal liability on corporations. In the United States, a corporate body can be held to be criminally liable because it employed the criminal. It is vicariously liable for employing the criminal and his activities are pinned on the company. In this country—certainly in this jurisdiction—we rely on the Victorian principle of the directing mind. Nowadays, in huge international companies that have hundreds of thousands of employees posted right across the world, albeit that the headquarters of the company may be in this jurisdiction, it is extremely difficult to demonstrate that the directing mind of the company knew what the criminal employee was up to. Section 7 of the Bribery Act gets around that.
Although I accept the directing mind principle, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that when employees engage in less than ethical practices—such practices have caused a lot of the problems that we have seen in the UK over the past six or seven years—unless the liability goes to the top of an organisation, the organisation will never develop the protocols and processes required to make sure that those employees are responsible for their actions? Does he accept that point?
What the hon. Gentleman says is perfectly true, but I am not sure whether that constitutes accepting what he says. The point I am trying to get across is that companies can avoid liability in the absence of the “failure to prevent” system under section 7 of the Bribery Act. Individuals can be prosecuted and imprisoned, but the company gets away free. The advantage of section 7 is that it brings the company within the ambit of responsibility.
Yes, the compliance system in banks and financial institutions is nowadays much more sophisticated and vigorously engineered, so that everybody from top to bottom should know what they are supposed to do and not do, and so that such a culture goes right the way through the company. It seems to me that there is no excuse for failing to behave properly, since we should all now know what to do. The compliance world is certainly keen to ensure that employees in banks and so forth know what they are supposed to do.
I want the Government not to limit the “failure to prevent” provisions to section 7 of the Bribery Act and those clauses in this Bill that deal with tax evasion, but to expand the regime to all offences that can sensibly be brought under it, as set out in part 2 of schedule 17 to the Crime and Courts Act 2013. The schedule covers 40 or 50 economic or financial crimes that corporations should be required to prevent. That would put a blanket across a range of criminal financial offences that are not dealt with at the moment, such as fraud, theft, false accounting, the suppression of documents, dishonestly retaining a wrongful credit, the exportation of prohibited or restricted goods and so on. There is a list for the Government to look at. I hope that thought will be given not just to expanding the regime to the evasion of taxation both in this country and abroad, but to some of, if not all, the offences listed in the schedule.
Finally, I want to make a small point, which I suppose comes back to resources. In an online article in “The Brief” from The Times this morning, a senior lawyer at a City firm of solicitors complained that tax officials were failing to use existing tools against tax avoidance schemes while seeking to expand their powers. He said:
“The huge range of swingeing powers HMRC has been given in recent years may have helped its image…but to date they have been little used as an enforcement tool, and some may question whether public time and resources could have been better spent.”
He also said:
“Before granting HMRC yet further powers…parliament should consider very carefully whether such powers are actually needed and ask HMRC to explain why some of the powers it has been granted in recent years have been under-utilised.”
I do not know whether that is pinpoint accurate, but it seems to me that we can do both: we can make better use of the powers provided to HMRC and ensure that it uses them; and we can also widen the ambit of our ability to catch those involved in financial crime and our ability to prevent it by introducing the “failure to prevent” provisions in this Bill in, I hope, an expanded form.
Before I go through my speech, I think I can sum up our position on the Bill very succinctly. The crux is that we support in principle the aims of the Bill. To be truthful, there is not much within the four corners of the Bill that we would dispute. Our problem is not with what is in the Bill but with what is not in the Bill, as I will make clear in my speech.
When I studied the financial system at university in the 1990s, the focus of financial crime and of the Government with regard to it was on anti-money laundering regulations and proceeds of crime legislation, which were specifically geared towards getting at the proceeds of drug traffickers and, quite frankly, bank robbers. For the most part, that has worked. Long gone are the days when criminals could easily legitimise buckets of cash from ill-gotten gains. Thankfully, long gone are the days when the only concern involved in robbing a bank was being caught red-handed. The perception of criminals was that if they could evade capture and did not flash the cash, they could eventually spend the money. In many cases, criminals could be incarcerated for crimes and still look forward to spending loot they had stashed when they were eventually released. Money now needs to be accounted for; banks must consider the sources of funds and be satisfied that they are indeed legitimate. Police now have powers to recoup proceeds of crime even if they have been spent by the criminals, and pass them back to the victims.
In my view, we simply could not believe in the rule of law unless we supported such an evolution in rules and regulation. Fairness and the rule of law should be at the heart of everything we do as a society. It is not fair to anyone to live in a world where criminals are free to generate cash and spend it without fear of repercussion. There simply must be a level playing field for the vast majority of society who play by the rules. The past changes did not merely disincentivise criminals; they drove a police coach and horses right through their plans. There are many famous bank robbers and drug traffickers. We know them; we have watched all the films. I suggest that they simply would not have committed those crimes had we had tougher money laundering regulations then.
The challenges today are very different. We live in an era of evolving financial crime and now face a very different threat from that which we faced a generation ago, when I was at university. It is the threat of grand corruption, particularly in relation to politically exposed people, facilitated for the most part—perhaps unwittingly —by the City of London.
Earlier this year The Guardian revealed through the Panama papers how a powerful member of Gaddafi’s inner circle had built a multimillion-pound portfolio of boutique hotels in Scotland and luxury homes in Mayfair, Marylebone and Hampstead in London. He was head of Libya’s infrastructure fund for a decade and has been accused by Government prosecutors in Tripoli of plundering money meant for schools, hospitals and archaeology. Scottish police have confirmed that they are investigating. Libya has made a request for an asset freeze, but that has not yet been implemented.
These challenges are such that new and tougher legislation is required to give law enforcement the tools to really do something about this problem. We in the Scottish National party support that principle. Although I do not wish to undermine your Office’s consideration of the Bill, Madam Deputy Speaker, I respectfully suggest that the Bill applies to Scotland. There are specific clauses on how the provisions will apply to Scotland.
As far as devolved competencies go, the SNP Scottish Government have demonstrated their commitment to tackling criminal finances and tax avoidance, and boast a successful track record in doing so. In Scotland we have introduced robust anti-avoidance rules on devolved taxes, described by commentators as among the toughest in the world. The SNP Government’s approach to devolved taxes demonstrates that we are deadly serious about tackling tax avoidance in Scotland. For example, the Revenue Scotland and Tax Powers Act 2014 established the Scottish general anti-avoidance rule, which will allow Revenue Scotland to take counter-action against artificial tax avoidance schemes, making it more difficult for people to circumvent the requirement to pay tax.
That said, although we support the broad principle at stake here, we note with interest the clear terms of the most recent Tory manifesto:
“We will continue to lead the world on tax and transparency…We are also making it a crime if companies fail to put in place measures to stop economic crime”
“We will…crack down on tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance”.
Admirable principles, and ones we support, but we have real doubts that the Bill goes far enough to achieve those goals, as I and my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) will make clear as we move through the debate.
Many mechanisms and vehicles are provided for in the Bill. One of the most important, and perhaps the easiest for the public to understand, is the unexplained wealth order. The Bill will enable a court—in Scotland, the Court of Session, upon application by Scottish Ministers—to make an unexplained wealth order. The order will require an individual or organisation to explain the origin of assets if there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that that individual or organisation may be involved in criminality or intend to use that wealth for criminal purposes, and the value of the assets exceeds £100,000.
The order will be available to the court where assets appear disproportionate to known legitimate income—for example, as recently reported, when a taxi driver owns a £1 million fish tank. Failure to provide a response to the order and explain the legitimate source of funds would give rise to a presumption that the property was recoverable, making any subsequent civil recovery action much easier.
As a lawyer, the notion of reversing the burden of proof is not one that sits comfortably with me, but, as in other areas, I consider it to be proportional to the issue at stake. Sound legal principles, such as the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof being on the Crown, should not inadvertently protect criminals, which I suspect may have happened thus far.
Unexplained wealth orders will also help to expose the owners of property. Land Registry figures show UK real estate worth more than £170 billion is held by more than 30,000 tax haven companies. The key to this provision is that a criminal conviction will no longer be necessary before law enforcement can pierce the criminals’ veil that camouflages their wealth. Getting away with the crime itself will no longer protect a criminal’s wealth. The Bill will allow for this power to be applied to foreign politicians and officials, or those associated with them, known as politically exposed persons, helping to tackle the issue of proceeds of grand corruption overseas being laundered in the UK.
I have a couple of specific questions for the Minister relating to unexplained wealth orders. There is a provision relating to interim freezing orders. If an unexplained wealth order is made, one could presume that the respondent would be keen to hotfoot it out of the country with a stash of cash. Freezing orders are available if the court is satisfied that they are necessary. Will the Government consider strengthening this position to ensure that the hotfoot temptation is not available to these criminals? I could imagine the rush to flee—I think we all could. Perhaps an automatic freezing order on the granting of the application for the unexplained wealth order can be considered. Will the £100,000 threshold create a new “out” for grand corruption? Will politically exposed people collaborate with many people to do numerous transactions under £100,000? That should also be considered and we should ensure that the provisions catch those types of activities.
Current legislation does not make it easy to seize criminals’ assets in the form of bank accounts and other value assets, such as precious metals and jewels, or indeed casino chips and high value betting slips. There is evidence, however, that these moveable items are being used increasingly, both domestically and across international borders. The Bill will create new civil powers similar to existing cash seizure and forfeiture schemes in current legislation, which would close that gap. The powers will be exercisable where there is reasonable suspicion that the property is the proceeds of crime or will be used in unlawful conduct.
The SNP’s 2016 manifesto stated:
“We will argue for changes in the law at Westminster to enable the police to seize items of monetary value from criminals, such as high value betting slips and casino chips.”
I was pleased to hear the Minister state that the changes will be included in a forthcoming amendment. I was struggling to conceive how criminals could be caught by the face value vouchers provisions currently in the Bill, so I was grateful for that statement and I thank the Minister for making it.
On corporate failure to prevent tax evasion, the Bill attempts to legislate on what we understand as corporate economic crime. As we heard from the Minister, the Bill will create two new offences. We support the measures as far as they go, but we see this as a huge missed opportunity. For example, nothing in the Bill would criminalise the banks themselves for their employees rigging the LIBOR market. I suspect that when the public begin to understand which corporate crimes are dealt with in the Bill and which ones are not, they may see this as a slight cop-out and a continuation of the status quo that has got us into so much difficulty. It is uncontroversial to hold companies to account for the tax evasion of their employees. It is tax evasion, for goodness’ sake. The public would expect it to be criminally sanctionable as is. What the public want are stronger measures to hold companies, in particular banks, liable for the crimes of their resident rogue bankers. It seems strange that the Government have ducked this issue.
Speaking as someone who has worked for a well-known retail bank—something that I do not advertise as much these days as I used to—I can testify with absolute certainty that until the banks themselves are in the frame they will never, as I claimed in my intervention, develop the risk management and other protocols necessary to make sure that their agents or employees do not commit these crimes. Only when liability goes to the top will we ever begin to solve these issues.
Will the Government consider reacting to what the public understand as corporate crime, and make banks liable for practices that have caused so much economic heartache to so many ordinary people since 2008? Why should the innocent ordinary punter pay for the mistakes of rogue bankers? If we make these bosses liable, we will see a tightening up almost instantly.
As a first step, would the hon. Gentleman encourage the Government to look at the schedule to the 2013 Act, where the economic and financial crimes are set out, to see whether we could get “failure to prevent” provisions added to this Bill on a wider basis? Perhaps the hon. Gentleman and I could then get together to try to persuade the Government to introduce the American vicarious liability system of corporate criminal liability.
I have a great deal of sympathy with both of the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s points. I suggest, however, that the first one is rather a half-house measure that does not go far enough. It will not pin criminal liability on the banks. On the second point about vicarious liability, it is interesting to note that the United States is often considered as the free market monster of the entire world, yet the US feels comfortable with criminalising banks for the actions of their rogue employees. I suggest that we should do the same in the UK.
It is a joy as a non-lawyer to be skewered between two barristers in this place, but may I point out to the hon. Gentleman that one reason why the Bill imposes an unlimited fine for a conviction of corporate facilitating of tax evasion is that we believe it will change behaviour. It is one thing to fine a company for a capped fee, but we need to change the attitude not only of the bosses but of the shareholders—and massive fines make a difference. If that is coupled with our provision to increase the powers of the Financial Conduct Authority, we hope that both will help to change behaviour.
I agree with the Minister, but my point is that under the Bill, corporate economic crime extends only to tax evasion and not beyond it. Within the four corners of the Bill, there is relatively little to disagree with, but it does not go beyond tax evasion, which I think is a huge omission.
SNP Members can support other parts of the Bill without much hesitation—for example, the expansion of the suspicious activity reports regime, information sharing disclosure orders and combating terrorism. We support all those measures in principle. Notwithstanding our in principle support, we do not think it goes far enough, as I have said.
I shall shortly go through some of the issues that we think are missing from the Bill. Before I do so, however, I wish to make a small point about the time we have had to consider this Bill and its contents. We do not agree that the Scottish Government were given adequate time to scrutinise them. The Bill has been instructed and drafted with high speed, admirable though that may be, but with limited consultation. Only in the last fortnight were we shown draft clauses that related to unexplained wealth orders and mobile items of value—and even then, they were tagged “in confidence”. That said, we welcome the move to extend to Scotland the powers for wealth orders and disclosure orders, as requested by the Scottish Government.
For these reasons, the Scottish Government have not had the chance—and neither have I—to consider the Bill in sufficient detail, to consult Scottish stakeholders properly or to provide the Minister and the Government with some detailed advice. The Scottish Government will do so in due course. In addition, we are already aware of concerns among some Scottish stakeholders, particularly the civil recovery unit, that their advice has not been fully listened to and acted upon by the Home Office, and that the current approach adopted in the draft seizure and forfeiture powers provisions may not be the most effective available. I would encourage the Minister to continue his dialogue with the Scottish Government. He demonstrated yesterday evening that that is ongoing, for which I thank him.
So what is missing? It remains the case for us that the most notable aspect of the Bill is what is not in it. The headline objective of the Tory manifesto in this context was to deal with tax evasion, but, as has already been pointed out, the Bill makes absolutely no mention of the United Kingdom overseas territories and Crown dependencies. Given the aforementioned statement of intent in the Tory manifesto and the problems highlighted by the Panama papers—and the public reaction to the Panama papers—that omission seems very odd and very peculiar indeed.
The OECD estimates that tax havens may be costing developing countries a sum up to three times the size of the global aid budget. Does my hon. Friend agree with me, and with the charity Christian Aid, that the most effective way in which the Government could tackle corruption and counter the financing of terrorism would be to set a deadline by which the overseas territories and Crown dependencies would have to adopt the same level of transparency as the rest of the UK, and does he agree that the Bill constitutes a missed opportunity for them to do so?
Unsurprisingly, I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. and learned Friend. I should like the Minister to consider whether there is any way in which we could compel the overseas territories and Crown dependencies to publish registers of beneficial ownership, which would provide much needed transparency in what is turning out to be a bottleneck in the fight against tax evasion.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a precedent? The Government have repeatedly legislated in respect of overseas territories—for example, on issues relating to corruption, abolishing the death penalty, pirate radio, and the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
Again unsurprisingly, I agree with my hon. and learned Friend. Where there is a political will, there will be a way. If the Government were inclined to legislate in relation to the overseas territories and Crown dependencies, I have no doubt that that could be done, but the omission indicates to me that there was not the necessary political will.
We do not believe that the Bill will tackle tax avoidance appropriately. Avoidance has increased under the Conservative Government. Last year the UK tax gap was a staggering £36 billion, and, despite the positive rhetoric emanating from the Tory Front Bench, it has increased by £2 billion on last year. More needs to be done in the Bill to achieve everyone’s stated aims.
Why does the Bill not address the tax code? The UK has one of the most complex tax codes in the world, which has clearly led to opportunities both to create new loopholes and to exploit existing ones. We therefore call on the Treasury to convene a commission, and to report back within two years following a comprehensive consultation on the simplification of the tax code. By opening the door to a simplified tax system, the Government could boost tax yield, encourage compliance, and avoid exploitative loopholes such as the Mayfair loophole and employee benefit trusts.
Changes are one thing, but they could become meaningless if we do not allocate the resources that are necessary to ensure that the Bill and subsequent measures have real effects. We think that the Government’s decision to close 137 HMRC offices will be completely counterproductive in relation to the laudable aims of the Bill. Those resources are needed to boost compliance, not to mention the human cost that has been incurred by families, employees, communities and local businesses.
Let me make one final point to the Minister, which will be expanded later by my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, and which we discussed yesterday evening. My request is for the wholly reserved issue of Scottish limited partnerships to be dealt with in the Bill, which it is not at present.
It is the view of the Scottish Government that a legislative consent motion will be required to give effect to the provisions covering seizure and forfeiture powers and unexplained wealth orders, and some of the minor and technical changes in the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. The motion will also include the specific provisions on civil recovery and criminal confiscation that the Scottish Government require to be included in the Bill.
We will not trigger a Division this evening, but we want to reiterate very firmly that the Bill does not go nearly far enough in dealing with what I think is a real and tangible outcry from the public, given what has happened over the last five, six or seven years. If we are serious about creating and maintaining confidence in the banking system—which has completely evaporated—we need to tackle this issue head on, and do more than we are doing in the Bill.
I rise to support the Bill—not to complain about what is not in it, but to praise the Government and agree with them on what they have put in this bold Bill.
I should declare I am a barrister and have represented a number of police forces across the country. That experience has taught me two things. The first is a genuine admiration for the men and women of our fantastic police service for their dedication to the task of keeping us safe. Thanks to their excellent work, led by Chief Superintendent Glenn Tunstall, Kingston is now the safest borough in London. However, as I learned at our recent police awards, even in London’s safest borough, there are humbling examples of everyday heroism and compassion by our police officers. We do not hear enough about them, but we are truly grateful.
I pledged at the election to do what I could to give the police the tools they need to do their job. That leads me on to the second thing my experience with the police has taught me: there are a number of powers in this Bill that the police have been, and still are, hamstrung without —where they are powerless to act in the face of wrongdoing.
Before talking about those powers, I want to make a broader point. I am proud to serve as a London MP, representing those who live and work in the best city in the world. London is the world’s financial services capital and I know the Government are working as hard as they can to ensure that that remains the case after Britain’s exit from the EU. But over the last few years there have been reports that London is becoming the capital of something rather more insidious—money laundering.
Following the global financial crisis, property in London has become one of the safest investments in the world. Rich criminals and money launderers are attracted to it in the same way as people who make their money legitimately. Put shortly, Londoners want this stain removed from their city. The Bill will help to do that.
It is not just London: the National Crime Agency assesses that billions of pounds in proceeds of international corruption are laundered into or through the UK every year. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs estimates that £4.4 billion was lost to the Exchequer last year alone due to tax evasion in the UK. Globally, laundered money is estimated to amount to 2.7% of GDP, or $1.6 trillion. To put that in perspective, there are only nine countries in the world with GDPs greater than that.
As the leading nation in the world for soft power, and as a nation that is trying to lead the global debate on anti-corruption, we need to ensure that our house is in order. The Bill is part of the Government’s wider efforts to ensure that that is the case. I want to touch on a few aspects of the Bill.
The first is unexplained wealth orders. We have seen many cases in the press where individuals suspected of grave criminal offences are living lavish lifestyles well beyond what any legitimate income they could evidence could possibly support. It is insulting to the many hard-working people in the UK who play by the rules and go to work day in, day out to earn an honest living to support themselves and their families to see this happening. It creates a feeling of impunity in the upper echelons of criminality.
Unexplained wealth orders will require those suspected of being involved in, or associated with serious criminality to explain the origin of assets of over £100,000 that appear disproportionate to their known income. A failure to provide a response, or a satisfactory response, could lead to a presumption that the property in question is recoverable in civil proceedings.
Unexplained wealth orders will have to be made by a High Court judge on application by a relevant law enforcement officer. Even with those protections, as might be expected of a lawyer, I ask the Minister to give a little more assurance about the nature of the protections in place, given that the measure does reverse the burden of proof that normally rests on the Crown. I am sure that he will be able to provide that reassurance, and I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) that that appears to be proportionate in this case, given the severity of the situation that law enforcement officers face.
Secondly, on enhanced forfeiture powers, I have spent many mornings in magistrates courts up and down the country making applications under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. I have some familiarity with this area. The current powers under the POCA apply to cash. The police may seize it when they have reasonable grounds to suspect that it is the proceeds of crime. They may then apply to the magistrates court to forfeit that cash. A classic example is a shoebox found in a house containing some drugs and rolls of cash. However, the provisions apply to cash alone. The more sophisticated criminals do not have rolls of cash and a little bit of cannabis or cocaine in a shoebox. They have their money in bank accounts and in high-value items of personal property, which are much harder to trace and much easier to move around, domestically and internationally. Such items include precious metals and jewels—and indeed betting slips. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway for drawing those to the Government’s attention. His information appears to be being acted on. The seizure and forfeiture provisions in the Bill extend the cash seizure powers in POCA to bank accounts and high value-items. That will mean that the law and the police’s powers are keeping up with the ways in which crimes are being committed. That is a welcome move.
I now turn to part 3 and the new offence of corporate failure to prevent tax evasion. This is another manifesto commitment that the Government are delivering on today. It is already the case that a taxpayer who fraudulently evades a responsibility to pay tax commits a criminal offence. A person such as a banker, accountant or tax adviser who knowingly assists a taxpayer to fraudulently evade a responsibility to pay tax is committing a criminal offence, but the company employing that banker, accountant, tax adviser or other professional who criminally facilitates tax evasion does not commit any offence. The company is outside the reach of the law. The Bill aims to bring those companies within the reach of the law, not to duplicate the criminal liability of their employee or agent but to criminalise a failure by the company to prevent those acting on its behalf from facilitating tax evasion. It will criminalise the company for allowing an atmosphere to be created in which that tax evasion is possible.
That might seem draconian, but it is absolutely necessary. Companies will have a defence, much as they do under health and safety legislation, if they can show that they had reasonable prevention procedures in place. The new offence will be the stick that will drive up companies’ efforts to ensure that their internal procedures do the utmost to prevent their employees from facilitating tax evasion. It will drive up standards in the whole sector, and that is long overdue.
I hope that this provision will have the same effect that health and safety legislation has had, with companies taking the lead in rooting out bad practice to avoid being liable themselves for incidents caused by their employees. Some businesses might dismiss this as red tape, but if it is red tape, it is important red tape that is focused on the aim that it is trying to achieve. It is important to ensure the integrity of our world-leading financial services sector in London, and these measures have been welcomed by many in the industry, including the chief executive of the British Bankers Association, even though I do not necessarily support the utterances he made earlier this week.
I have touched on just a few of the provisions in the Bill. It also contains many tidying-up provisions that are extensions of existing laws and that are based on feedback given to the Government by the police and law enforcement agencies on the deficiencies in their current powers. That approach is to be warmly welcomed, because when it comes to the fast-moving world of criminality that our police are trying to prevent and detect, we in this House must be fleet of foot. I believe that the Government are achieving that today. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will welcome the aims of the Bill unreservedly, and I hope that by the time it has been through its Committee stage, all its clauses will have been accepted.
This speech represents two firsts: I am the first non-lawyer to speak from the Back Benches; and I think I am the first to acknowledge the role played both by our former Prime Minister and by the right hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles), who was the anti-corruption tsar, in providing leadership on anti-corruption. They should both be acknowledged today as their work led to what we are considering. I agree with everyone who has spoken today that the Bill is extremely important. Whether from the National Crime Agency or HMRC, the estimates of the billions of pounds that are laundered through the UK or lost to public services because HMRC is unable to collect them make this an important measure. I fear, however, that the rhetoric that many have been given to this afternoon does not reflect the reality, so I hope that the Minister will able to respond to the points that I raise.
Others have mentioned the omission of tax havens, and the failure to take action on the overseas territories and Crown dependencies, which act as key jurisdictions in support of tax evasion, tax avoidance and corruption, is a grave error. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that during the Bill’s proceedings and see whether we can introduce some amendments. The Government’s failure to mention such territories makes them complicit in facilitating the very corruption that they say they want to tackle through the Bill.
I agree with my right hon. Friend and previous speakers that, were something done about the overseas territories and Crown dependencies, that would give the Government more credibility. They have committed to report annually on tax avoidance in some of these overseas tax havens—for want of a better term. Does she agree that, if they are going to negotiate with other Governments to get them on board, they should do something about the overseas territories?
Indeed. I would also add that the Brexit provisions might also lead to increased activity through the overseas territories and tax havens, so there are several dangers.
A number of Members have mentioned the evidence that backs up the importance of the Bill, but I want to point out two or three facts that have not yet been raised. The World Bank reviewed 213 corruption cases from a 30-year period between 1980 and 2010. Shell entities were involved in 70% of them, and UK Crown dependencies and overseas territories were second after the US on the list of those who provided shell entities. That is clear evidence of the importance of the role played by the Crown dependencies and overseas territories. Do we always have to wait for another leak to understand that? We will keep on getting them—the Mossack Fonseca leaks and the Panama papers will be just one in a stream. If we look at the information we garnered from the leaks, over 200,000 corporate entities were exposed, more than half of which were registered in the British Virgin Islands. I ask the Minister to consider that.
I also came across the African Progress Panel, which found that citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo were deprived of some £1.35 billion—twice their health and education budgets combined—due to the sale of mining contracts to five anonymous BVI companies. Those assets were sold at about one sixth of their commercial value, enabling the secretive offshore companies to sell them on and secure profits of more than 500% of the original moneys they paid. Again, desperately needed resources were lost to the poorest countries in the world.
If we are really to tackle the corruption, evasion and avoidance that occur in jurisdictions over which we have ultimate control, we must have the transparency that a number of Members have asked for this afternoon.
I have listened carefully to what the right hon. Lady said. Will she not concede that since the lead-up to the London anti-corruption summit in May, the Crown dependencies and overseas territories have agreed to establish a central register of beneficial ownership and a data-sharing system with the UK enforcement agencies that will give us access to those data almost in real time, and that that goes a long way to meeting some of her concerns? I recognise that the Scottish National party would like this to be public as well as shared with our law enforcement agencies, but it still goes some way on this issue. On the other side, the unexplained wealth orders for politically exposed persons will allow us to grab the money should they put it in this country and live in the nice houses that they sometimes seem to live in.
In my view, and indeed the British Government’s view, publicising those registers of ownership is crucial. We decided to do that for ourselves, so why are we not using our powers to enforce it on the Crown dependencies and overseas territories? There are multiple reasons why we have decided to do it for ourselves, and I shall mention two of them. First, for many of the poorer countries, getting their agencies up to speed so that they can pursue people and know what questions to ask is tough, and public registers make it much easier for those people to be interrogated. Civil society should interrogate them, and the registers make it much more likely that the type of activity that I mentioned in the DRC is revealed.
Secondly, we are talking about a very reactive response; if a register can be interrogated only by the international agencies that are allowed to have access, people will have to know that there is something they are after before being able to discover whether or not there is information about beneficial ownership that is relevant to a criminal activity or to aggressive tax avoidance and so on. Such an approach presupposes a degree of intensive resources and knowledge that will not necessarily be in place. Although one of course welcomes the creation of these registers, having them made public is central to making them work.
The Minister should listen not to my words on this, but to those of the former Prime Minister, who was absolutely clear, year on year, when talking about these issues, that the openness and transparency of these registers was what mattered. In 2013, he said to the Crown dependencies and overseas territories that they had to rip aside the “cloak of secrecy” by creating a public register of beneficial ownership. In April 2014, he wrote to the overseas territories, saying that
“beneficial ownership and public access to a central register is key to improving the transparency of company ownership and vital to meeting the urgent challenges of illicit finance and tax evasion.”
He also expressed his hope that overseas territories would follow suit to
“consult on a public registry and look closely at what we are doing in the UK.”
On a trip to the Caribbean in September 2015, he said:
“Some of the British Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories are making progress in this direction. And others, frankly, are not moving anywhere near fast enough. I say to them all today, including those in this region”—
“if we want to break the business model of stealing money and hiding it in places where it can’t be seen: transparency is the answer.”
When we established our own public register here in the UK, David Cameron said that
“there are also many wider benefits to making this information available to everyone. It’s better for businesses here, who’ll be better able to identify who really owns the companies they’re trading with. It’s better for developing countries, who’ll have easy access to all this data without having to submit endless requests for each line of inquiry. And it’s better for us all to have an open system which everyone has access to, because the more eyes that look at this information the more accurate it will be.”
I simply say to the Minister that I really do agree, in this instance, with the former Prime Minister and I hope the current Government will listen carefully to his wise words.
The right hon. Lady is, as one would expect, making a very powerful speech. Does she agree that the Government can be comforted by the thought that extending this transparency to the tax havens would be a very popular move with the public, as YouGov polling shows that more than two thirds of people think that the Government should take such action? Research published by Oxfam shows that there are high levels of support for extending this transparency across the political spectrum.
I, too, have seen that survey. Any action that the Minister takes will be warmly welcomed by the public across the whole of the United Kingdom—by people of all ages and all genders. This is a really important bit of work, and I hope that the Minister will take it seriously.
I am concerned about the action taken so far. I am concerned that in December 2015 when we had the Overseas Territories Joint Ministerial Council, the Government failed to persuade those territories to implement public registers. I am concerned that, in March 2015, the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands refused to meet Ministers from the Foreign Office and the Treasury. I am concerned that they failed to meet the Financial Secretary’s request that they adopt registers by November 2015. I am concerned that—as I understand it—they have ignored letters from UK Ministers. I am deeply concerned that tax is not even on the agenda for the forthcoming meeting of the Overseas Territories Joint Ministerial Council. I hope that the Minister can address that point. We do have the powers, and, as was mentioned in a previous intervention, we have used them before. The Government must act.
If the Minister could at least tell us that he will set a timeline, at the end of which, if matters cannot be resolved in a collective and collaborative way with the overseas territories and the Crown dependencies, the Government will use their power. That would go a long way to settling some of our concerns today. I hope that he can at least consider that as a possibility for taking the matter forward.
May I briefly comment on some of the other provisions in what is a warmly welcomed bit of legislation? On the unexplained wealth orders, it is particularly welcome that they will be applicable no matter where in the world the offence takes place. May I ask the Minister two questions? If the money comes from an overseas territory —a developing country, for example—will there be a notification to that country of the setting of an unexplained wealth order? Again, our enforcement agencies will be more capable than some others in pursuing laundered money.
I can get an exact answer to the right hon. Lady’s question. Just around that, though, we have started to sign memorandums of understanding with a number of countries—we signed one in August with Nigeria—to help them recover their assets, without barriers between here and there, and to assist them, both in their country and here, with tackling crime. Once they find their assets, we will get them back to them as soon as we can.
I am grateful to the Minister for providing that information. Will he explain why the orders do not apply to politically exposed people inside the European economic area? Will he look again at that issue, because there may occasionally be a relevant instance where that is important?
I wish to raise two other issues. One arises from a debate held in the House on March 2012, initiated by the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), on what is known as the Magnitsky-style amendment. The argument there arose from the horrific and brutal killing of Sergei Magnitsky—a Russian lawyer who was tortured and murdered because he uncovered a huge $230 million tax fraud in Russia. Allegedly, $30 million of that found its way laundered into the UK, according to evidence given to the Home Affairs Committee.
The hon. Gentleman proposed something similar to an amendment enacted in America—he and I would support such an amendment during the proceedings on the Bill—that would have ensured that foreign individuals involved in corruption and human rights abuses had their assets frozen, be denied right of entry to this country and be publicly named and shamed. Again, although that is slightly different to other provisions in the Bill, I think that there is strong cross-party support for introducing a Magnitsky-style amendment into UK legislation.
I hope that the Minister will look favourably on such an amendment. I have looked at the details, and a particularly disturbing aspect is how many UK banks were involved in laundering the alleged $30 million into the UK, according to evidence given to the Home Affairs Committee. They include Barclays, HSBC, NatWest, Bank of Scotland, RBS, Citibank, Bank of America, Lloyds TSB and the Bank of Tokyo. I hope that, from that horrific tragedy, we can introduce an important change in our legislation.
Finally, I want to talk about the corporate failure to prevent tax evasion, which other hon. Members have spoken about. I welcome the Bill as the first attempt to place responsibility for tax evasion not just on individuals but on corporations. However, this is a very small first step towards making those who are responsible for devising, advising and facilitating evasion and avoidance accountable for their actions.
Before we go over the top on saying what a great change the Bill represents, we should realise that it will apply only where a criminal offence has been successfully prosecuted against an individual or where an individual adviser has committed an offence when working for a corporation. It does not cover negligence by the corporation. It will not make the corporation responsible for the crimes of its staff. It does not cover aggressive tax avoidance. Unlike my Front-Bench colleague, I think that that is where the important bit of action must be taken if we are to ensure that we get the resources into coffers according to people’s wealth and their profits and incomes.
The Bill simply asks that reasonable procedures are in place, which is a risk-based and proportionate exercise, so it does not represent a fail-safe procedure. As I think through some of the instances we heard about during my time chairing the Public Accounts Committee, where we felt that corporations were misbehaving, I do not think that it would cover PricewaterhouseCoopers and all the stuff that it was doing in Luxembourg, where it was clearly selling schemes in an industrial way that had no other purpose than to avoid tax. We had a discussion earlier today about Heathrow. I do not think that it would cover Heathrow, which has managed to avoid paying a heck of a lot of tax on massive billion-pound profits that it has made. I do not think that it would cover Google. I do not think that it would cover—this is really important—the fact that when we interviewed advisers about the tax advice they give to corporations and individuals, they said that they would give advice so long as there was a 50% chance that it was not challenged by HMRC. The reverse of that is that there is a 50% chance that it will be challenged by HMRC, but given the size of the task and HMRC’s limited resources, it takes a long time to catch up with such schemes and does not have the resources that some of the big accountancy firms, advisers, banks and lawyers et al. have. That will be caught not by the first welcome but small measures that are being taken.
From all the work that we did in the PAC, the only thing that I can think would be caught is probably HSBC’s actions. The non-executive director, Rona Fairhead, gave evidence to us, sought to blame the whistleblower in that instance for being a thief—I thought that that was pretty awful—and blamed the front-line staff for doing what was obviously expected of them by the organisation for which they worked. She, as a non-executive director earning £500,000 a year at HSBC, felt that she did not have any responsibility to ensure corporate governance. The measure might catch that sort of instance, but it is very limited, and as we examine the Bill, I would welcome opportunities to extend that important first step in ensuring corporate liability as well as individual liability and accountability for actions that have been taken. I warmly welcome the Bill and I hope that the Minister can take the further steps that I have suggested.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge). I would also like to put on record the fact that I must be the second non-lawyer to speak in the debate.
I support the Bill, especially its provisions on countering terrorist financing. In November last year, shortly after the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, I wrote to the then Prime Minister, the former right hon. Member for Witney, to raise my concerns about overseas funding received by religious or educational establishments in this country that radicalise and promote extremist values—basic criminality—whether they network through individuals, mosques, schools or community groups. I argued that if an organisation is unwilling to agree to a set of tolerant principles that society considers acceptable, it is not unreasonable to prevent it from receiving dubious funding from overseas. I am not so naive as to overlook the accusation that that approach could itself be seen as intolerant, but we have accepted that there are rules to which the funders of political parties and unions must adhere, so why not the funders of other important institutions? Extremism is a symptom of criminal ideology, and we must cut off any finance that helps to spread an ideology that promotes criminality, extremism and violence.
The Bill builds on the Government’s action plan for anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist finance by putting into law one of its main principles: more information sharing between the private and public sectors. It goes without saying that we cannot disrupt terrorist financing unless we know about it, and I welcome the fact that that is fully recognised in the Bill through concrete measures to deal with the problem. Measures to introduce a disclosure order regime under terrorism legislation offer new opportunities to uncover illicit financing of terrorist or extremist behaviour and the promotion of criminality. We have seen the benefits of the work of accredited financial investigators in proceeds of crime investigations, and it is right that those benefits should be extended to counter-terrorism investigations with the extension of powers to AFIs in the Bill.
We need to go further with provisions that are not appropriate for inclusion in this Bill but would, in my view, strengthen its provisions. Perhaps I may be so bold as to make a suggestion. The vast majority of churches are registered as charities, which means that their finances are transparent. I would suggest that a formal register of mosques in the United Kingdom would make it far easier to investigate their financial affairs and their recruitment of imams, especially if those people come from overseas. That would help us to understand the strand of Islam that they wish to promote, and it would flush out sources of financing that promote the intolerant ideas that put us at risk of harm from criminals who use those ideas to justify their actions.
The Islam that came to this country with the communities that settled here after the second world war is not the Islam that is being exported by Daesh today. With many of our communities and mosques feeling that they are under siege from that foreign death cult, it is our duty to protect those communities and show that we stand by them in countering extremism. As a member of the Home Affairs Committee, I have seen all the evidence that I need to justify our hard-headed response to the threat of terrorism and criminal extremism. I hope that the Government will consider such a step when the appropriate vehicle arises.
As of June this year, some 165 people were in custody for terrorism-related offences, and domestic extremism and separatism, but there are still individuals and organisations based overseas that have a mission to spread insidious intolerance and violence, which requires funding that travels across borders. As terrorist groups organise and reorganise, they need access to well-funded diverse networks, and they are becoming increasingly complex and sophisticated. Technology and the proliferation of financial instruments challenge the authorities’ ability to accurately trace and counter the flow of funds, but one thing remains the same: the objectives of terrorists. They seek to divide our communities, spread fear and hate, and undermine the good work of community leaders who do everything they can, often in the face of unhelpful opposition, to make sure that their communities are safe.
By enhancing our ability to counter the financing of terrorism, we are taking another step in preventing the spread of organised crime and terrorism. The Bill offers the Government’s support to leaders and communities, makes us all safer, undermines the financial management of terror groups and co-ordinates legal measures to combat them. I therefore warmly welcome it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) on a rather succinct speech. There are many things that divide us in this House, but the subjects that she was talking about bring us together.
It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), formerly a formidable Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, of which I am now a member. I know that her studs have been felt by many a civil servant and many in the private sector. A lot of people are pleased that she is no longer the Chair of that Committee, but I am not one of them.
For too long, law enforcement agencies have had to fight organised crime and terrorism with one arm effectively tied behind their back. It is simply not possible to counter organised crime and terrorism as effectively as is necessary without the power to investigate properly, and to confiscate criminal property and the proceeds of crime. Like many other speakers in the debate, I broadly support in principle most of the Bill’s measures. It is right that those who have gained assets in suspicious circumstances should be asked to explain where those assets came from. Where it is found that they have been involved in crime, and that those assets are the proceeds of crime, law enforcement should be able to confiscate and seize assets beyond cash. That is the only way to ensure that justice is done and for the proceeds of crime to be returned to the system and used for the public good.
Information sharing between banks is key to the investigation of financial crimes, so I am pleased that the Bill includes measures to improve that. Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether the banks have made any response. When I have talked about the sharing of data, they have been reticent, citing reasons of competition. I hope that concern has been overcome and that the Bill will provide good law.
Following the shocking revelations earlier this year in the so-called Panama papers, I am pleased that the Government are fulfilling their commitment to be tough on the middlemen involved in tax evasion and other financial crimes. Corporations and their employees who are involved in facilitating tax evasion and other financial crimes in the UK and internationally must be held to account. I welcome the fact that investigations into terrorist financing are covered by the Bill. If we are to clamp down on violent extremism, it is vital that such groups do not have access to the resources that they need to commission their acts of evil.
I believe, however, that some elements of the Bill are vulnerable to being undermined. Although its measures would apply in the United Kingdom, it does not appear that they would extend to British overseas territories and Crown dominions. This problem must be addressed, otherwise there is a risk that the Bill and law enforcement agencies’ ability to investigate crime will be weakened. In particular, British overseas territories such as the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands have lamentable policies on transparency. I know that the former Prime Minister was desperate to change the situation and pay tribute to his work in that respect. Those islands literally harbour money, as they are the registered home of some of the largest and most valuable super-yachts in the world. Anybody can walk across any harbour in Spain or Italy, or see at sea, the Russian oligarchs’ huge super-yachts that are registered to the Cayman Islands. One has to ask why a Russian oligarch finds the Cayman Islands such an attractive place to register his rather large boat.
It could be the weather, although I wonder whether the reason is something a little more sinister.
These islands have not agreed a timetable for introducing public, or at least central, registers of beneficial ownership of trusts and other companies, which are often used to launder money and hide assets. If the Government indeed intend to use the Bill to tackle money laundering and corruption, to recover the proceeds of crime, and to counter terrorist finance, their aim might be undermined as, by moving money between secret trusts and offshore companies, some of the most serious and organised criminals, including those who commission acts of terrorism, could still operate.
While the need to tackle organised crime and terrorism is important from a domestic standpoint, it is also important that we play our part in tackling international corruption. A review by the World Bank found that in more than 70% of 213 serious corruption cases, secret company ownerships were relied on to facilitate the corruption. The UK, alongside our overseas territories and Crown dominions, provided the second largest number of those companies. That situation demands urgent action.
It is sometimes hard for us to understand the serious effects of corruption, as corruption is largely under control in mainland Britain and Northern Ireland and is swiftly dealt with whenever it emerges. In developing countries, however, the misuse of public funds has a devastating impact. The Africa Progress Panel found that $1.35 billion had been stolen from the citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo due to the sale of mining contracts for just one sixth of their commercial value. Those contracts were sold to five anonymous companies based in the British Virgin Islands. To give some perspective on the scale of that loss to the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, $1.35 billion equals twice the country’s health and education budgets combined. That devastating loss is another sad chapter in the country’s long and tragic history of corruption, murder, death and executions, with many women, girls and children having become victims of a tyrant.
It might be unwise, for constitutional reasons, for the UK Government to use the Bill to force British overseas territories and Crown dominions to introduce more transparency, but it is clear that they must take action. Earlier this year, the former Prime Minister laid out a welcome commitment to transparency and urged all British overseas territories and Crown dominions to make changes. We can all agree that that was an important step forward, but the momentum has been falling away and more action must be taken. Real people are losing out every single day as a result of international corruption, organised crime and, yes, terrorism. If the Government are serious about countering that, and meeting our duty not only to ourselves but to others around the world, they must now stop dragging their feet on this very important issue.
As I said, I welcome the principle behind the Bill, but I fear that it will not do the job that is intended. I look to the Government and the Opposition to table amendments that would improve it. The Government are not covering all the bases, especially with regard to British overseas territories and Crown dominions, and I fear that that could lead to some of the Bill’s measures being circumvented. The Government must match their words with actions and commit to putting far more pressure on British overseas territories to embrace transparency. Only once transparency has been achieved will the Bill be able to meet its aims of ensuring that UK-based and international criminals and terrorists are stripped of their resources, and that our citizens are safe, wherever they live.
I had not been in a debate with the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) until this morning, and now we have the pleasure of two in one day.
It is very strange to stand here and talk about the Criminal Finances Bill, because I think that a lot of the things under discussion are totally alien and completely baffling to many of my constituents. Many of them will be thinking, “Why aren’t we doing this stuff already? Why has it taken so long for Governments to get around to addressing the issues?” That is particularly true of unexplained wealth orders, which, for the avoidance of doubt, I support. It is a good idea to introduce them, but I am sure that many people are wondering why that has not happened before.
Most of my constituents will only ever pay tax through pay-as-you-earn. None of the taxes under discussion, such as corporation tax and inheritance tax, apply to them, so they will not know quite how complex the UK tax code is, or that a van is needed to transport it, as is regularly mentioned in this Chamber. I am aware that repetition is allowed—in fact, it is positively encouraged—in this place.
The fact that the tax code is so complex means that it is very easy for people to find and exploit loopholes in it. I appreciate the Bill’s measures to close at least some of them, but there are some glaring omissions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) has said—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) will mention this, too, because I may have read his speech—Scottish limited partnerships are still missing from the measures. We have brought up the issue and it has been widely reported by The Herald. I think that people in Scotland who have read those articles will be clear that the UK Government need to fix that and that they can do so relatively easily because of the high percentage of SLPs that are being used for financing crime.
The right hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier) mentioned the Victorian principles behind some aspects of finance and tax law. That is a big problem. A lot of the laws have evolved over a number of years and there has never been a wholesale review. The approach has been not “Let’s take it all apart and start again,” but “Let’s tinker by adding a little bit and taking away a little bit.”
When some of the tax powers were devolved, Scotland was, in some ways, in a much better position, because we could start with a much cleaner slate. Our general anti-avoidance rule was said by Isobel d’Inverno, convenor of the tax law sub-committee of the Law Society of Scotland, to be
“much fiercer than the UK one.”
It has also been widely commented that the Scottish Government are in a positon to have a much stronger law and stronger rule, and that that has been beneficial for us to administer the devolved taxes.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway has said, we are calling for a moratorium on the closure of HMRC offices. If it is a massive priority for the UK to ensure that tax loopholes are closed and that criminals do not exploit the tax system, particularly through tax evasion, it is bizarre that offices are being closed, rather than more staff being taken on and more resources being spent on ensuring that such exploitation does not happen. I would appreciate it if the UK Government would reconsider, again, the loss of those important offices and dedicated staff. That is key.
What the Government are doing and the way in which the current system is set up do not encourage people to have confidence in the economic system. It is much like the House of Commons, which is set up in a very traditional way with Standing Orders that were written hundreds of years ago. They do not encourage transparency or confidence in the system, because they allow some people to have too much power. The tax law and the tax codes have much the same problem. Some of them are far too old, and they have been tinkered with rather than changed wholesale. They encourage and allow some people who are in receipt of millions of pounds to continue to have millions of pounds without paying appropriate tax on it, whereas the people at the bottom cannot do so. One of the problems with the system is that nobody has confidence in it. Criminals have worked out how to get around it, and they continue to do so. The people at the bottom of the pile, who are not involved in those tax affairs and who do not see the criminal proceeds, do not have confidence in the system either.
The Government have a real job of work to do if they are to ensure that Bills such as this restore confidence in our tax and regulatory systems. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway talked about the free market economy in America and some of the moves that that country has made. If we were to introduce similar financial regulation for banking and property ownership, not only in and around London but for those who own vast swathes of land in the Scottish highlands, we would inspire confidence among the general public.
The right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) mentioned the recent YouGov poll, and they talked about public confidence in these measures and public concern about tax evasion, particularly in the Crown dependencies. Because such tax evasion has been widely reported in the news, the public are really concerned about it. Their concern is increased by the fact that the Government have not used the Bill to introduce a public beneficial ownership register, and they have not given Parliament a timetable for introducing such a register. The quicker the Government can publish such a timetable, the better for the confidence of the general public in the tax system. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway has said, we are generally supportive of some of the measures in the Bill, but it does not go far enough to inspire public confidence in the measures that the Government are taking.
Many people in the Chamber consider much of the Bill to be praiseworthy. It struck me that all the critical speeches this afternoon—spanning all parties represented by the Members who have spoken—have been about what is not in the Bill, rather than what is in it. I wondered who would put the Bill in the context of the challenge that we face, and I think the Minister did that best in his opening remarks. He said of the extent of the criminality that he discovered on becoming a Minister that
“it…takes my breath away.”
The extent to which the Bill will deal with such criminality does not quite take the breath away.
I would like to comment on three areas that have been mentioned, the first of which is the permissive culture of banks. The best critique of that culture has come not from me or from anybody who is currently in the Chamber, but from the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) on 24 May this year. When talking about this forthcoming Bill, he commented:
“we in this country are very bad at dealing with white-collar crime, and there is growing awareness of that. If someone wishes to rob a bank, they go to the LIBOR market; they do not put on a balaclava and pick up a shotgun—that is much less profitable.”
He very succinctly drew out the problem of how the culture in banks has created a context in which it is easier to commit grand crimes in them than it is for the old-fashioned external robber to do so. He went on:
“London is still the money-laundering capital of the world. For an African despot or a serious international criminal, London is the best place to put their money, because they can trust the bankers to look after it and not to steal it from them.”
“I hope we will also impose a duty on those at the head of the institutions involved to ensure that they take positive steps to stop those working for them encouraging such activities.”—[Official Report, 24 May 2016; Vol. 611, c. 450.]
I doubt whether anybody in this debate would disagree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s words in May, but I do not think that his optimism about the Bill is reflected by the reality of what we now face.
On banking, I suggest that the Minister look at two things. The right hon. Member for Barking, who is no longer in her place, gave the example of what happened in HSBC, where someone was willing to speak up but was then pilloried by senior management. One thing I would suggest to the Minister that needs doing is to strengthen protection for whistleblowing in the banking and financial sector. If we could find a mechanism to encourage people to speak up about criminality or bad practice, that in itself would be a useful measure. Many people have commented that the crisis in the banking sector in 2008 was not predominantly because of the details of regulation, but predominantly because of the culture at the top level. It was caused by group-think on the boards of banks, and by the over-confidence of individual chief executives who were immune to considering anything other than a dash for cash. The other thing I would suggest to the Minister is that it would be useful for a requirement for proper cultural analysis to be built into the banking sector.
The second area on which I want to comment has already been hinted at by my hon. Friends the Members for Dumfries and Galloway and for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), but no one else has talked about it in this debate thus far. It is the topic of Scottish limited partnerships. This may be new to some hon. Members, so I hope they will allow me to give a few examples. Scottish limited partnerships are not a new phenomenon. They are not a devolved matter; they are a matter for this House. Although they were created by Asquith in the Budget of 1907—even I do not remember it—from 2008 they began to be used much more extensively for criminal behaviour. Since 2008, the use of SLPs has risen by approximately 40% year on year.
Scottish limited partnerships have been at the heart of some of the major corruption scandals in the world. For example, they have been named in major corruption scandals involving the former Soviet Union, particularly Ukraine, where they are still openly marketed as off-the-peg zero-tax offshore companies. Elsewhere, one Scottish limited partnership is at the moment at the heart of a $1 billion digital bootlegging case in the United States. The International Monetary Fund has warned that the risk posed by SLPs to the fight against money laundering and organised crime is something to which attention needs to be given. Other Scottish limited partnerships are involved in pornographic and even in paedophilia websites. Indeed, the span of criminal activity through these financial vehicles seems to know absolutely no bounds.
Closer to home, The Herald newspaper, which has done extraordinary work in this area, revealed barely six days ago that the tax haven bank owned by Lord Ashcroft is being used, without his permission, as a base to set up dozens of firms utilising SLP loopholes linked to a known fraudster. Indeed, two Belize companies have been falsely using the address of the HQ of Lord Ashcroft’s bank for at least six years. Those secret Belizean businesses, Sherbrook Assets and Whitmoore Solutions, have formed at least 70 other Scottish entities, most of them registered, I am sorry to say, to a convicted fraudster who lives in Fife in Scotland, Anzelika Young. The Bill should be ensuring that every SLP, along with any similar financial vehicle elsewhere in the UK, is exposed to rigorous due diligence at the very least.
During proceedings on the recent Finance Bill, I attempted to add a very simple new clause calling on the Government to investigate SLPs. They chose to vote that new clause down. When, subsequently, yet more criminal activity came to light, on 26 September I wrote to the Chancellor—I have a copy of the letter with me—seeking a meeting about this major international criminal activity. As of last week, when I was yet again chasing this up, the only response I have had—this is after a month, showing the Government’s lack of concern about international criminal activity—is that they are still considering how to respond to my request for a meeting. It is quite inappropriate for a Member of this House seeking a meeting about a major criminal activity to have to wait a month for any response.
I am particularly grateful to the Minister for that clarity. Indeed, in coming to the Dispatch Box at that moment he confirmed what I was about to say in my closing line on the issue of SLPs. Given how he has discussed this matter with those of us on the Opposition Benches who are interested in it, and his understandable and quite appropriate concern about the matters raised, I was going to suggest that the Prime Minister could appoint him the formal tutor for all Treasury Ministers, in addition to his role as Minister for Security; I am sure they would learn a great deal from the appropriate way he deals with matters. I commend that new appointment to the House. I speak in jest, but surely there is an issue here, as some of the Treasury Ministers who have been turning a blind eye for months need to learn that these are matters of great concern and importance, and deserve to be treated as such.
The third area I will briefly mention—and it will be very brief, as many Members have already commented on it—is what has been happening post Panama papers on Crown dependencies and the like. The clear view expressed in this debate is that the Bill does not yet go far enough, particularly on the much needed transparency and openness on beneficial ownership. If the Minister would be willing to think about how we might, in a collegiate way across the House, begin to address that issue and some of the others raised today, he will win himself many friends indeed.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) and listen very carefully to the important points he has had to make. I am glad he has had his meeting with the Minister and that promises have been made which I am sure he will ensure will be fulfilled.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, because one of the most important reports the Home Affairs Committee produced this year was that on the proceeds of crime. I am sorry to have missed the speech by the hon. Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani), who is a member of the Committee, but I am sure she spoke brilliantly about the conclusions of that report. I am grateful to the shadow Home Secretary for mentioning it and for the points she made concerning the practicalities and the issues it revealed.
The Minister did not mention the report, but I am sure he has read it. I am sure he has taken on board some of the points the Committee made. When seeking to legislate, it is important to first see where the problems are and where gaps exist, to listen to all those with experience—when we conducted the inquiry we did not just go to the usual suspects; many members of the private sector also gave evidence—and try to come to a conclusion that will provide the basis for sound legislation.
The Minister, who is newly appointed to his position in the Home Office, will have a pretty easy ride in respect of today’s proceedings, because I understand that there will be no vote. There is general support throughout the House for the measures the Government are proposing. They are the right measures and they are sound measures. They are designed to deal with the issues of criminality and terrorism. On those two issues, he will always find a House united. However, I hope he does not take that support as carte blanche to get the proposed legislation through in its entirety. I hope Members will table amendments in Committee based on the important points they have made today. I hope the hon. Members for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) and for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) and others will table amendments relating to the important measures they have put forward. In advance of her speech, I want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq), who will be making her maiden Opposition Front-Bench speech on this important subject. More importantly, she will not be dividing the House, for which I think we are all very grateful.
The Bill identifies three priorities, which I will compare in turn to the findings of the Select Committee report published earlier this year. Robert Barrington, the director of Transparency International, says that every year over £100 billion might be laundered through the United Kingdom. That is equivalent to the GDP of Ukraine. A lot of that money goes through London, but as we are reminded by our colleagues from north of the border, other great financial centres, such as Edinburgh, are also used. Colleagues from Northern Ireland—we were having our own little debate as the main debate was going on—pointed out the particular difficulties they face, as Dublin is sometimes used by money launderers as an entry point to the EU. All those great financial centres are being used in this way, which is why it is right that action is taken, and taken immediately.
The Committee was shocked to find that poor supervision and enforcement in the London property investment market are making a safe haven for laundering and the proceeds of crime, a point made by the shadow Home Secretary. As we found out from the regulators themselves, it is far too easy for this to happen in a financial centre like London, which we believe—Edinburgh is, of course, respected—to be the greatest financial centre in the world. It is therefore essential to look at the markets here, how regulation operates, and try to deal with it in a constructive and positive way.
The hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) is not in his place, but he raised what I thought was a very important point about the necessity for resources. The Committee found that the private sector was using suspicious activity reports as a box-ticking exercise, sending in their information because it was their duty to do so. I was heartened by what the Minister said about the Government’s wish to cut through red tape so that information is sent on as quickly as possible.
Only 335 of the 1.2 million property transactions were deemed to be suspicious in 2015. The estate agents and their regulators were saying themselves that it was not possible to deal with all the complaints because there were so many of them.
We—Committees of this House, Members of Parliament —have made the point over a number of years that the assets and finances available to our law enforcement agencies cannot compare with the level of criminality in existence. Let us look at the budgets of the three main organisations dealing with this issue: the National Crime Agency has a budget of £450 million; the Financial Conduct Authority has a budget of £500 million; and the Serious Fraud Office has a budget of £45 million. However, the amount of criminal assets recovered has been very poor—only £155 million was recovered in 2014-15.
In defence of those three agencies, whose assets total about £1 billion a year, they say that it is not just about the recovery of assets—they are involved in other areas and they are part of other operations, which mean that the contribution that they make is not fully assessed. However, if we just compare like for like, we will see quite a difference between what the budgets are and what is recovered.
I pay tribute to Lynne Owens, who has done a tremendous job as head of the NCA. The creation of the National Crime Agency was one of the legacies of the previous Home Secretary, now the Prime Minister. In fact, I am on record as saying that we had something of a revolution in policing in the six years when the Prime Minister was the Home Secretary. The whole of the Home Office was shaken up and new organisations and institutions came into existence. She stayed Home Secretary longer than any other Home Secretary since the last century. We cannot expect Home Secretaries to stay for ever—as with Chairs of Home Affairs Select Committees, there is always an end to the fun of doing these jobs. The fact remains that there are aspects that have not fully settled down, and one of them is the ability to give organisations the resources they need in order to finish the job.
Lynne Owens is doing a terrific job, as is her organisation, but I am extremely worried about the computer system that exists to do the very things that the Government want to do. I assume that the Policing Minister will be winding up this debate. When he does, he will, I hope, have the answer to the question I posed to the Minister for Security—the question has been posed over months and years—about when the ELMER system is going to be renewed. It is all very well saying that we want more information coming in but, if we look at the figures, we know that they just do not add up. This is an old and creaking system, designed to manage only 20,000 suspicious activity reports. On the basis of the last available figures, there were 381,882 suspicious activity reports, so how is a system designed to deal with 20,000 supposed to deal with 381,882?
The Minister seemed to be saying that people are ticking boxes and sending in information and they do not need to send in that information, but I do not think that we should expect the private sector to be involved in becoming officers of the law. It is similar to what we have seen over the last five years with landlords becoming immigration officers, as have people working for airlines when they check passports and tickets. Despite what immigration Ministers have said over a number of years, we do not have 100% immigration checks on exit. The airlines check, but no immigration officer checks a passport or a ticket on departure from our airports, which is very sad. That is a different story. My issue is that we cannot get staff in the private sector to act as enforcement officers; they are not trained to do so. That is why we need a new computer system.
When we asked the then Home Secretary—the present Prime Minister—about that, she had no answer to the question of who was going to pay the bill. Would the money come from the budget of the National Crime Agency? Would it come from the Home Office budget? That, I think, is crucial to ensuring that this legislation is properly resourced. Are we going to give the NCA and the Serious Fraud Office the equipment that will enable them to deal with these issues productively? I hope that the Minister will tell us when the new ELMER system will be established, because that is a fundamental issue when it comes to suspicious activity reports.
Another aspect of the Bill is the granting of powers allowing banks to close accounts. I believe that the threshold is too low, and that the Minister must look at that, although it is really a Treasury issue. A number of my constituents have come to me—I know that this applies to other Members as well—and expressed concern after being told that their banks have closed their accounts. They are never given an explanation. Unfortunately, that has happened to too many members of the south Asian diaspora community, and, indeed, the African community. The Somali community was so concerned that representations were made to Treasury Ministers that, just because they happened to be Somali, their bank accounts had been closed. On Friday, I met someone from the Yemeni community who had been told that his bank account had been shut down in 28 days. He had been given no explanation, because banks are private organisations.
Obviously we do not want people to be told “By the way, we are closing your bank account because you are a terrorist” if inquiries are ongoing, but certain explanations need to be given. We need to be sure that the powers that we are granting are appropriate to the agencies to which we are granting them.
May I take up the issue of money laundering and the NCA? When I was a lawyer, one would do an ID check and then the information would be put in the bottom drawer, never to be seen again. If one were at all concerned, one would just do a “tipping off” and dump it on the authorities as a box-ticking exercise. There is no qualitative method of processing such information. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there should be such a method?
I think that, when it comes to the hon. Gentleman, it is probably a case of “once a lawyer, always a lawyer”. He is absolutely right. Training should be given to those who are involved in these activities, and in each organisation there should be a compliance officer who has received the necessary training. I do not know what kind of law the hon. Gentleman practised, but we would not expect every single lawyer to be trained to deal with issues such as SARs. We would expect a compliance officer in a big firm of solicitors to be able to do that, because there would not be the time to train everyone. However, I do not believe that that would cut the figure of 381,000 to 20,000. Faced with a third of a million SARs, even the best-trained lawyer—and I would put the hon. Gentleman among, probably, the best that one could find—would not be able to lower that figure. So as well as giving the private sector more responsibility to check, we need to ensure that the equipment is fit for purpose.
Let me commend the suggestion made to the inquiry by the outgoing Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe. I pay tribute to the excellent work that he did as commissioner. The hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) will remember that, when she was a member of the Home Affairs Committee—before she was poached by the Policing Minister to become his Parliamentary Private Sector; we used to train them well in the Select Committee— Sir Bernard came up with a suggestion that was very important in relation to those who were involved in criminal activity. I raised this point with the shadow Home Secretary, and I am grateful to her for saying that she would consider it. I hope that the Policing Minister will also consider it, because when it comes from someone as distinguished as the Metropolitan Police Commissioner it is worth looking at again.
Those Mr Bigs or Mrs Bigs who serve their sentence and come out of prison and still have not paid their compensation order are at an advantage. I agree with my constituency neighbour, the right hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier), that we probably should not keep them in prison indefinitely, but there needs to be some sanction for them to pay up.
One of the issues that arose was that compensation orders were given for assets that probably did not exist. They sound like fabulous figures in court—“This criminal involved in mass criminal activity has millions and millions of pounds”—but actually they do not have those kinds of assets. We need to be realistic about what we are going to recover when we issue the compensation orders. However, there needs to be a penalty. We need to ensure that something is done so these people have to pay up before they come out of jail, otherwise they will simply use a sentence as an opportunity to be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure and come out and have access to that money.
Finally, Mr Deputy Speaker—or should I say very finally? [Interruption.] I did not realise we were short of time; I thought this debate was ending at 7 o’clock.
Mr Deputy Speaker, after all these years how can you believe a Member when they say, “Finally”—how can you assume they are about to finish their speech? But this is very finally, in honour of you, Mr Deputy Speaker: when the Policing Minister replies, I want him to address the issue of the police funding formula.
We have been waiting for a long time for the new police funding formula to be decided upon. Every Member of this House has a constabulary. That includes you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and Lancashire was very vocal last year: its Chief Constable Finnigan said he was running out of money and the reserves were going to run out.
All the constabularies have been waiting for the Policing Minister to announce the arrival of the police funding formula. His predecessor told the House he could not give us the formula because Sara Thornton, head of the Association of Chief Police Officers, now at the National Police Chiefs’ Council, was doing her analysis and we could not have a police funding formula until she had completed her work. I understand that that is not the case and that there is no reason why we cannot have the police funding formula.
Why do we need that to deal with the issues raised in the Bill? It is because it is not all about the City of London. This kind of activity happens all over the country and if we expect local police officers in Leicestershire, Lancashire, Kent, Sussex and throughout the country to be able to plan to deal with this issue, we need the formula. Therefore, I hope that, as well as telling us about ELMER, the Minister will give us the co-ordinates and the new date for the announcement of the police funding formula.
This is the first time that I have spoken from the Dispatch Box and I am pleased to find it accommodates even people of Rupa size.
I am pleased to be responding for the Opposition on the Criminal Finances Bill, which touches on issues that have been catapulted into the public eye with both the Panama papers scandal and the anti-corruption summit held here in May under the previous Prime Minister—how long ago that all seems now.
We have had a good debate today, which has strayed into the murky underworld of illicit finance, terrorism and international aid as well as home affairs, and we have had contributions from my right hon. Friends the Members for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) and for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans), the right hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier) and the hon. Members for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) and for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) among others.
This Bill seeks to tackle money laundering and corruption, to recover the proceeds of crime and to counteract terrorist financing, all measures Labour supports. This seems like good news in a year in which that has been in short supply on many fronts, but we must temper our reasons to be cheerful by identifying certain omissions and sounding some notes of caution.
First, the green ticks. We welcome the eye-catching unexplained wealth orders, which would force individuals with assets way above their means to account for those possessions, which can now include jewellery and art work as well as property. The new seizure and forfeiture powers will mean that such assets can be frozen and possession of them can be taken. As a London MP, I am all too aware of genuine Londoners who want to get a foot on the property ladder, but the transactions involving the ill-gotten gains of gangsters are messing things up for those people and creating an over-heated property market.
We also commend the fact that the investigatory powers are being extended to politically exposed persons. A thumbs up, too, for the new offence of failure to prevent the facilitation of tax evasion being applied to corporations and regulatory bodies. We also applaud the improved data sharing between the private and public sectors, and the Government’s extension of disclosure orders to money laundering investigations, bringing them into line with corruption and fraud investigations. Also to be commended are the strengthened suspicious activity reports. The period of investigation used to be 31 days. I think that there will now be six extension periods, adding up to 186 extra days. We live in an age when terrorism is probably the biggest threat of our time, so we also welcome the extension of powers to include terrorists’ property and finances.
So, what’s not to like? We acknowledge the steps being taken to tighten the net on corrupt practice, and we shall not seek to divide the House this evening, but more could be done to end the status of the UK as a magnet for dirty money. There should be no safe havens, particularly in our own back yard, where the proceeds of international corruption often turn up. Taken as a package along with its overseas territories and Crown dependencies, the UK constitutes the most secretive tax jurisdiction in the world. That is not a record to be proud of. Good work has been done in the reports produced by the Public Accounts Committee and the Home Affairs Committee, when they were chaired by my right hon. Friends the Members for Barking and for Leicester East, but not all their suggestions have been taken up. Many Members on both sides of the House have flagged up the fact that action must be taken on our overseas territories and Crown dependencies, and we argue that they need public registers of beneficial ownership. The British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands are among the worst offenders, and we administer them. We assert that this is the most gaping hole of all.
A trick has been missed. Applying transparency to those opaque corporate structures is a key part of the solution, but the Bill does not go there. We know that 75% of the corruption cases investigated by the Met police’s proceeds of corruption unit involve companies in secrecy jurisdictions, and that 78% of the companies involved are registered in the UK’s overseas territories or Crown dependencies. We need full transparency, but the Bill does not go far enough. A measure on the failure to prevent economic crime was trumpeted in May 2016, but it is missing from the Bill. Without some degree of transparency in company ownership, we cannot be completely aware of the scale of the problem or the damage that is being done. Kenya, Nigeria and Afghanistan have all conceded this point.
It has been pointed out that the people interpreting the rules need resources, and the weaponry that we use for crime-fighting could do with an update. The National Crime Agency will have more work to do, so the Bill will have cost implications in that regard. The agency is the successor to several bodies that have been merged. Notwithstanding the one-off cash injection that it received in the spending review, it needs consistency in its funding rather than just receiving one-off blockbuster sums. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East eloquently made the point that there were serious question marks over the IT system designed to support the suspicious activity reports regime. It was originally designed to deal with some 20,000 cases, but, as he said, it is currently processing 381,882 of them. It is creaking at the seams. A new system was promised—I think its name is ELMER—and I again ask the Minister to tell us when we can expect it.
I can assure my hon. Friend that I would never want to reduce her time. I congratulate her on making an excellent maiden Front-Bench speech.
The delay in ELMER, and in the new system that the Government will want to put in place as technology moves on, will lead to more criminal activity. The quicker this is done, the better.
I reassure the hon. Lady that she is quite safe in giving way during a winding-up speech. She has plenty of time. Indeed, she has until 10 minutes to 7, but she will know that the House would prefer that she does not take quite that long.
I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to my right hon. Friend for his intervention. I will resist the temptation to sing, rap or recite poetry and will finish well before 10 minutes to 7.
My right hon. Friend makes a good point. We cannot fight modern cyber-wars with catapults. Technology changes and we need to upgrade this wholly inadequate system. We were told that that was happening; we want to know when.
New powers for the Serious Fraud Office are all well and good, but it needs officers with the right training. Since it was set up in 2009, it seems as though the public purse has been used to train officers in financial crime, yet we are simultaneously powerless to prevent them from falling prey to private sector poaching, so something needs to be done. There was to be a working group on the recruitment and retention of investigators—what became of that? Are some of those deficiencies to be plugged at a later stage?
At the moment, 27 separate bodies are responsible for asset recovery—people who investigate SARs—and they are often in the private sector and sometimes funded by the groups they regulate, so there is a mismatch. It would not be a bad idea to have an overall SAR tsar or tsarina to get some coherence. What progress is being made on the anti-corruption strategy due by the end of the year? I understand that a joint ministerial council will meet at the Foreign Office next week. Will tax issues be on the agenda? If the Minister does not know, will he have a word with his friends in the Foreign Office to find out? If it is not on the agenda, can I politely suggest that it be added urgently?
What are the Government doing to ensure transparency in our overseas territories and Crown dependencies? What is the plan? My right hon. Friend the Member for Barking suggested that the Government could at least set a timetable to allow them time to adjust. In the meantime, will the Government give them every support to transition their business? They have propped up this business model for a long time and they need to move away from facilitating corruption. Without action in our tax havens, the small bits of good news in the Bill will be overshadowed by the Government’s failure to act. The Government should be able to persuade their own territories to follow their lead. Members on both sides of the House paid tribute to the former Prime Minister and his ambitions in this area.
We need to get away from the idea that not paying tax, whether by avoidance or evasion, is a victimless crime. Countries in the developing world lose three times as much to tax havens through illicit funds and re-laundering than they gain in aid. It adds up to a trillion pounds a year and we are pumping aid into these places at the same time—it makes no sense. Given our straitened circumstances, we should be justifying every pound spent, but HMRC estimates the tax gap to be £36 billion, including £5.2 billion owed to our Exchequer from tax evasion. My right hon. Friend the Member for Barking quoted the same figures, but other interest groups say that they are conservative estimates. By definition, secret transactions and hidden money mean that we do not really know the true extent. For that £5.2 billion, we could get 42,000 full-time doctors or 54,054 nurses a year. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East pointed out, we have a poor record of recovering costs, and these things do not pay for themselves.
The practices that this Bill seeks to tackle expose the dark side of globalisation, its links to terrorism, and the way global financial cross-border crime, terrorism and all these things can be done nowadays at the click of a mouse, meaning that illicit funds can fuel a golden age of money laundering. That is entirely possible and we do not want it to happen. We do not want illicit funds to finance terrorist operations, aided and abetted by financial secrecy jurisdictions of our own.
Governments can hold all the summits they like and people can orate good intentions, but warm words need to be matched with action. This Bill is a case of “could do better” on the Government’s report card, and I urge them to work together with us. In Committee, we will be pressing the Government on some of the issues outlined today—and more. When the opportunity for reform presents itself, the Government will surely not want to go down as having bottled it. We will not oppose this Bill on Second Reading, and we look forward to contributing constructively to its passage through Parliament.
I thank right hon. and hon. Members for this informed and valuable debate. We have heard strong and important contributions, and there has been support from both sides of the House for the principles behind the Bill. We will have interesting and strong discussions in Committee.
As my hon. Friend the Minister for Security emphasised at the start of the debate, there can be no doubt about the seriousness of the threats of terrorism and organised crime, or about the scale of the challenge that we face in combating them. As of July last year, about 5,800 organised crime groups were operating in the UK. Fraud due to organised crime is thought to cost this country about £9 billion, and the social and economic costs of illegal drug supplies are estimated to be some £10.7 billion a year. As has been said, these are not faceless, victimless crimes; they have an impact on people we know and those who live in our constituencies.
As we have heard, the UK is a fantastic place to do business, and the Government want to maintain that. We want to send out a clear message across the country that we are open for business, but if we are to maintain our position, we must ensure that this is one of the cleanest and safest places to invest. We need to send a message to those who would seek to corrupt legitimate trade.
I am grateful to all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, and I particularly welcome the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) to her Front-Bench role. I also welcome the hon. Members for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless) and for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) to their roles. I was pleased to hear that the Minister for Security has had the opportunity to discuss the Bill with the official Opposition and Scottish National party Members prior to the debate—indeed, some of the paperwork was shared some two months ago—and I know that we will continue that conversation during the passage of the Bill.
It is clear that Members on both sides of the House want to contribute to make sure that we end up with a robust, strong system of which this country will be proud. Almost without exception, hon. Members who have spoken have understood the importance of these powers and been supportive of the Bill. Of course, it is right that on such issues as money laundering and terrorist finance, the House should present a united front, as it is doing on the principle behind the Bill. I welcome the fact that in our consultation on the Bill, a diverse group of stakeholders—ranging from the major banks, which have been mentioned today, to law enforcement investigators, prosecutors and civil society groups—have given an overwhelmingly positive response to its provisions.
I apologise that I was not able to contribute to the debate itself. I am afraid that I am a veteran of the consideration of the Bill that became the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. Although I accept that there is a great deal of unity regarding some of this Bill’s provisions, the real issue is how enforceable those provisions are. It is important that the Bill is scrutinised very carefully in Committee because there is a danger that although we will put on to the statute book a lot of new laws, some of which might be regarded as rather draconian, they will not be properly enforced by the police, or will be ruled out by the judiciary when matters come to court. That is the one caveat I would set out, although it is right to say that these powers are important, especially the new ones in relation to counter-terrorism, which were not envisaged at the time of the 2002 Act.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point, particularly by outlining the importance of the Bill’s Committee stage to ensure that Members have a chance to have an input into the debate, as indeed they have had this afternoon. He should have great faith in my hon. Friend the Minister for Security, who is determined to work with colleagues to ensure that the Bill is robust. The Bill gives a clear message to those who want to try to usurp our system that that will not continue—we will not allow it. Although we are a country that is open for business, we are also a country that believes in fairness and that will ensure that fairness prevails.
A couple of core issues have been raised by a number of Members, particularly about the overseas territories. We heard speeches from the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), and the former Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz). We have agreed that UK law enforcement and tax authorities will have, in real time, unrestricted and secure access to things such as the beneficial ownership initiative, and information about corporate and legal entities incorporated in the overseas territories and the Crown dependencies.
The right hon. Lady outlined the excellent work of David Cameron and the strong message that he gave when he was Prime Minister. This is something that the current Prime Minister is determined to continue. We will ensure that there is an end to people usurping the law. It is important that we work closely with our colleagues around the world to ensure that we have a strong and robust system. We have taken a lead on this. Those territories have agreed that they must commit to new global standards in tax transparency so that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs can investigate any untoward activity. As a result, later this year, HMRC will have new data on billions of pounds of accounts held in the overseas territories by UK taxpayers. This is a big step forward. I know that we as a Government are determined to ensure that we stamp out that kind of behaviour.
Funding was mentioned by a number of Members, including the right hon. Member for Leicester East. The NCA’s funding has increased from £448 million to nearly £478 million over the past year and police budgets have been protected. Funding for HMRC has also increased—up to £3.6 billion, with the £241 million input that was mentioned earlier.
I can be clear that we are determined to ensure that the police and the NCA have the resources that they need to be able to look at all this in the round, including IT issues. The right hon. Gentleman suggested that I use the debate to discuss the police funding formula, but he will have to excuse me for resisting that temptation for now. Over the past few weeks, I have written to all chief constables and police and crime commissioners to ask them to come to talk to me as we seek to deliver our election manifesto commitment of a fair funding formula for police, which we will do.
In response to comments about the overseas territories and Crown dependencies, I am pleased to announce that the British Virgin Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands have just—conveniently, as I am here at the Dispatch Box this afternoon—committed themselves to the initiative on beneficial ownership, which many hon. Members have spoken about today. All the overseas territories have now agreed to have central registries, which will be accessible to law enforcement authorities. We will continue to push for all countries to introduce public registers. This is good news, and we will continue to work on it.
As I said just before the hon. Gentleman intervened, we will continue to push for all countries to introduce public registers. This is a step in the right direction. I welcome it, and we acknowledge that we want to continue to work on this. Another issue raised by his good self, as well as the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) and others, was about Scottish limited partnerships. I hope that they will take into account the fact that my hon. Friend the Minister for Security intervened to say that we want to work on that with colleagues across Parliament. We have very much taken those points on board.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier) and my hon. Friends the Members for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) and for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) spoke passionately and made incisive contributions. In particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden outlined the Bill’s importance given the part that it will play in ensuring that we fight the funding of extremism. We have discussed the Bill’s vital importance in protecting the UK’s position and status as a global financial centre and in ensuring that criminals cannot benefit from the proceeds of their crimes. I expect and hope that right hon. and hon. Members will want to give in-depth scrutiny to the Bill, as they have suggested this afternoon, as we move on to clause-by-clause examination in Committee, and I look forward to a lively debate on its provisions.
I am proud that, by comparison to most European countries, we are positioned high in the league table for having a strong and independent judiciary, as well as a determined law enforcement environment. If we are to maintain our record and position, we always need to stay one step ahead of those who seek to undermine our attempts, especially in such a fast-moving global environment. That is why the Bill is so important, why it is reassuring that it has received principled, cross-party support in the House, as that sends a clear message, and why we must ensure that law enforcement agencies have the powers they need to combat the ability of criminals to launder the proceeds of their crimes, as well as to tackle terrorism financing and to bring more offenders to justice. I hope that the House will agree that that is in the public interest and that the Bill should be passed at the earliest opportunity with clear, continued cross-party support. On that basis, I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Criminal Finances Bill (PROGRAMME)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Criminal Finances Bill:
(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.
Proceedings in Public Bill Committee
(2) Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Thursday 24 November 2016.
(3) The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.
Proceedings on Consideration and up to and including Third Reading
(4) Proceedings on Consideration and any proceedings in legislative grand committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which proceedings on Consideration are commenced.
(5) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
(6) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on Consideration and up to and including Third Reading.
(7) Any other proceedings on the Bill (including any proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments or on any further messages from the Lords) may be programmed.—(Andrew Griffiths.)
Question agreed to.
Criminal Finances Bill (MONEY)
Queen’s recommendation signified.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Criminal Finances Bill, it is expedient to authorise—
(1) the payment out of money provided by Parliament of—
(a) any expenditure incurred under or by virtue of the Act by a Minister of the Crown or a government department; and
(b) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable under any other Act out of money so provided; and
(2) the payment of sums into the Consolidated Fund.—(Mel Stride.)
Question agreed to.