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Sanctions: Assets Seizure

Volume 711: debated on Tuesday 22 March 2022

4. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on seizing the assets of sanctioned Russian oligarchs. (906197)

12. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on seizing the assets of sanctioned Russian oligarchs. (906206)

19. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on seizing the assets of sanctioned Russian oligarchs. (906213)

I am pleased to report that the Ministry of Justice is working closely with colleagues across Government to look at how we can go further to crack down on illicit money in British property, including considering temporary asset seizures beyond the freezing regime that we already have in place. I am not yet in a position to present the details of this to the House. It is a complex issue involving important policy and legal considerations. What I can say is that unlike the Putin regime, the Government will always preserve the rule of law and act against kleptocratic wealth.

When concerns about Russian interference in UK politics were raised by the Intelligence and Security Committee a couple of years ago, the Prime Minister laughed them off, saying that they were driven by “Islington remainers” unable to accept Brexit. What confidence should we have that the Government are taking the threat seriously, particularly given the slow approach to sanctioning oligarchs that saw Putin’s cronies handed two weeks to rush their wealth out of the UK before the rules came into force?

Everybody can be incredibly confident that the UK has acted swiftly to execute the biggest package of sanctions ever imposed against a G20 nation. Let us be clear that the UK has designated more than 1,000 individuals, entities and subsidiaries under the Russia sanctions regime since the invasion, including President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov. More than 3 million Russian companies are barred from raising money on UK capital markets. We will also target more than 500 members of the Duma and Federation Council. That makes up the largest and most severe package of economic sanctions Russia has ever seen.

Given the rushed nature of legislation as the Government play catch up with EU states, for example, there have been reports that further measures will be required to close remaining loopholes exploited by oligarchs. What discussions have taken place around that, and will the Minister confirm that further legislation should be expected in this coming year?

The hon. Gentleman is right that we need to legislate effectively and that is why we will take time to get the detail right on property while prioritising further action as far as we can. To be clear, in the past week the Government have passed the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act 2022, established a register of beneficial ownership, and sanctioned more than 1,000 individuals and entities. The Deputy Prime Minister explained in answer to the first set of questions the action he is taking at the International Criminal Court to ensure that it can fully investigate Russian war crimes, but I accept that more might need to be done.

The international corruption unit and the international anti-corruption co-ordination centre have operated for some time now in the National Crime Agency. Why was it necessary to set up a third kleptocracy unit and how will this new body’s work differ from that of the existing bodies? Were they not already investigating the behaviour of oligarchs?

I do not think that anybody should doubt that we have the measures in place. Our sanctions regime is bold and we have taken swift, comprehensive measures. I also remind the hon. Lady that only last week the Deputy Prime Minister announced further measures on strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs. When we talk about powerful oligarchs in this country, that is important. Judge us by the actions. I am sure we all agree that these measures are swift and comprehensive and, most importantly, will have an impact on the Putin regime.

Does the Minister agree that the international sanctions causing such hardship to the Russian people are totally the responsibility of one man, and his name is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin?

My hon. Friend puts it perfectly. Of course, the sanctions will have and are having an economic impact. We have no quarrel with the Russian people. The blame for that impact lies squarely at the door of the Kremlin, and I think the whole world knows that.

First, Mr Speaker, let me associate myself and my party with your comments earlier about PC Keith Palmer and others who died five years ago today.

The Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report states that under this Government, some UK law firms became “de facto” Russian state agents and played a role in

“promoting the nefarious interests of the Russian state”,

including oligarch’s assets. Will the Minister tell the House what he has done to stop UK law firms such as Debevoise & Plimpton, Cleary Gottleib Steen & Hamilton and Steptoe & Johnson acting as enablers of Russian criminals and the Kremlin?

As I set out very recently in my written answer to the hon. Gentleman, the rule of law means that everyone has a right to access legal representation. Legal advice is often necessary to ensure that those who are subject to sanctions fully understand and comply with the restrictions, but as I said to him, lawyers are required to follow strict procedures when transacting with sanctioned individuals. Those individuals are required to obtain a licence from the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation to make payments for legal services, and lawyers should carefully consider whether their advice is helping the client to comply with the sanctions or is participating or facilitating a breach of those sanctions. To be clear, there are severe penalties for breaches, including fines and potential imprisonment.

Given what is happening in Ukraine, there is an urgency about going further than the Minister outlined. Will he consider imposing sanctions on law firms that continue to act for the Kremlin and Putin’s cronies, whose looted wealth is funding Russia’s murderous war machine?

It was only on 20 January that the Backbench Business Committee brought before this House a debate on SLAPPs lawfare. I responded to that debate, and at the end I said the Government would be responding. Less than two months later, the Deputy Prime Minister came before the House with detailed proposals. Of course, a key part of this is the behaviour of law firms. Any action we take—we have to be clear on this; we are the Ministry of Justice—must be subject to the rule of law and must take a balanced approach, recognising that while we want to take action, it is a fundamental right to be legally represented.