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Tackling Economic Crime

Volume 714: debated on Tuesday 17 May 2022

Money obtained through corruption or criminality is not welcome in the UK. The Government are taking concerted action to combat that threat by investing £400 million over this spending review period, with the kleptocracy cell in the National Crime Agency targeting sanctions evasion and corrupt Russian assets hidden in the UK. The Government have taken far-reaching steps to improve corporate transparency, including through recent and forthcoming primary legislation announced in the Queen’s Speech last week.

I thank the Minister for that answer. NatWest and HSBC have been hit with big fines for facilitating money laundering, and Danske Bank will probably see a fine of £2 billion for £200 billion of money laundering. This is seen not as a deterrent, but as a cost of doing business for these big banks. Does he agree that the only way that we will tackle this is through criminal prosecutions both at a corporate level and of senior managers? Does he support the calls to that effect in the economic crime manifesto by the all-party groups on fair business banking and on anti-corruption and responsible tax, and will he support such measures in the economic crime Bill?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I think he is the House’s foremost observer of banks’ behaviour, but he also knows that this is an extremely complex area of law. The Government have asked the Law Commission to undertake an in-depth review of laws around corporate criminal liability for economic crime and to make recommendations. My understanding is that the Law Commission will make an announcement on this subject imminently, and we will look at that very carefully.

One of the key complaints from any of my constituents who are victims of economic crime is about the inability to reach out to Action Fraud, and if they do, they get no response. I urge the Minister—plead with him, in fact—to reform the work of Action Fraud and perhaps even bring about a new body in any new legislation to ensure that constituents get some sort of answer and, importantly, some form of support from the authorities of the UK state.

This is a criticism that I hear. I am very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss it further, examine the experience of his constituents and look at what we can do constructively to move things further in the right direction.

Following clarity from my hon. Friend to UK Finance on how banks should interpret the money laundering regulations, a number of banks continue to close existing pooled client accounts of long-established, reputable boat-broking businesses. That is now stopping those businesses trading. What further assurance can he give to banks regarding these low-risk businesses?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. As she will know from the letter that I sent her this morning and from our conversation with industry representatives together a few months ago, this is quite a challenging issue to resolve. I cannot direct the banks to open, and keep open, these accounts, but I will continue to engage with her and with UK Finance to see whether more progress can be made in the coming weeks.

The Government have lost £4.3 billion of taxpayers’ money through fraudulent covid schemes. Now we learn that a large chunk of that money is going into the hands of terrorists, organised crime gangs and drug dealers. Will the Minister reassure me that he is taking the reports seriously and update the House on the total number of investigations the Government are undertaking that relate to covid fraud?

I can absolutely reassure the hon. Lady that the Government take the issue very seriously. That is why at previous fiscal events the Chancellor has invested £100 million in a taskforce to deal with it. When we designed a number of the interventions, protecting taxpayers was a real consideration. It is also the case that we needed to act swiftly to assist those businesses and if we had not made some of those interventions at the time, many businesses would have gone under. We continue to engage carefully on the matter.

We on the SNP Benches welcome the economic crime and corporate transparency Bill, and given the scale of the problem that the Tories have presided over, it is long overdue. What discussions has the Minister had with colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy about making Companies House an anti-money-laundering supervisor in its own right finally to lock out the fraudsters, the kleptocrats and their dirty money from Companies House once and for all?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight Companies House reform as a major area that we are working on. The Government forwarded more than £60 million to start that work, which has now been accelerated. Alongside the register of overseas entities and beneficial ownership, the increased transparency of those assets will be very welcome.