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Wagner Group: Sanctions Regime

Volume 726: debated on Wednesday 25 January 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on reports that the UK Government assisted Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin in circumventing the UK sanctions regime.

The war in Ukraine, as we all agree, is a barbaric, illegal incursion into a sovereign nation by another. It has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, mass displacement and an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe.

We will always stand up for our friends and allies, and we are proud to have led the world’s response, in partnership with our allies, in supporting Ukraine in its fight against Putin’s aggression. We will deliver tanks to roll back any Russian advance, we continue providing aid to help Ukrainians as they defend their homeland, and we have unveiled the most stringent sanctions on any country at any time in our history. We want to use economic sanctions to starve Putin’s war machine and put direct pressure on every individual involved in the decision to go to war and continue to make war on Ukraine.

In response to the question that has been asked today, I should say that it is a long-standing custom that the Government do not comment publicly on individual cases. It would not be appropriate to break that custom, even in a case as serious as this one, in which there is obviously public interest. However, I want to outline the general approach taken to date by the Treasury’s Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation in cases in which persons designated under sanctions seek licences for legal fees, and how that has been followed, and the strong constitutional reasons for that.

Within the sanctions regime broadly, because everyone has a right to legal representation, it is possible for frozen assets to be used to pay for that legal representation. OFSI grants licences to allow sanctioned people to cover their own legal fees, provided that the costs are reasonable. To be absolutely clear, decisions on the issuance of licences for legal fees are largely taken by OFSI officials in line with standard practice. The principles and guidance for assessing these applications are long-standing and have been published for a number of years. Applications are assessed solely on a costs basis.

As the UK is a country with checks and balances, it is right that the relevant court, rather than the Government, should decide the outcome of a case on the substantive merits. However, I can confirm that in the light of recent cases, and related to this question, the Treasury is now considering whether this approach is the right one and whether changes can be made without the Treasury assuming unacceptable legal risk, while ensuring that we adhere to the rule of law. In advance of that, I know that the entire House shares the same goal: to support Ukraine and see all those behind the invasion punished for their complicity. The Government will continue to take a hard line on all those responsible.

I think the whole House will be shocked at the evasiveness that we have just seen from the Minister, given the seriousness of this case.

For years, the Labour party has been calling for the Government to clean up the London laundromat effectively and stop London homes being used as bitcoins for kleptocrats. For months, the Opposition have stood shoulder to shoulder with the Foreign Office in co-ordinating sanctions against Putin and his inner circle. But yesterday we found out that the Treasury, which was then under the leadership of the current Prime Minister, issued special licences that allowed Yevgeny Prigozhin to circumvent sanctions issued before Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.

The Government appear to have granted a waiver for a warlord that enabled him to launch a legal attack on a British journalist. This is a perfect example of a SLAPP—a strategic lawsuit against public participation, designed to silence critics through financial intimidation.

Prigozhin is one of the most dangerous and notorious members of Putin’s inner circle. The Wagner Group, which he leads, is responsible for appalling atrocities in Ukraine and around the world. If the now Prime Minister’s Treasury had any hand in alleviating pressure on Prigozhin, I am sure every hon. Member would agree that that would be absolutely unconscionable. I ask the Minister to answer these questions for the benefit of the whole House. Did a Minister authorise the granting of a licence or exemption to Prigozhin? When did Ministers become aware of this incident and what actions have they taken? Will the Minister commit today to an independent investigation of this controversy? Will he commit to urgently review the law regarding SLAPP suits so that oligarchs and warmongers cannot bully and harass journalists and critics? When will the Government introduce restrictions on the provision of legal services to Russia, as the European Union already has?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman: he takes us back to when I stood opposite him in our Ministry of Justice days.

I am not being evasive: I am standing in front of the House of Commons to answer the question. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Prime Minister, and he is right that my right hon. Friend was Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time. I shall explain the process. I am not going to comment on the individual case, but without prejudice to it and talking about the general situation that pertains to how OFSI considers such cases, there is a delegated framework whereby decisions on legal fees for persons designated under all the sanctions regimes are routinely taken by senior civil servants. I want to be clear on that. We are not aware of any case of legal fee decisions under any of the sanctions regimes being taken by a Minister. I want to be clear with the House on that.

The point about SLAPPs is really important. I was at the Ministry of Justice when it was a live issue. It was first raised in a Backbench Business Committee debate by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), in conjunction with the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne), and I responded to that debate for the Ministry of Justice. Let me set out what we are doing. We have been clear as a Government that SLAPPs represent a clear abuse of the legal system, as they rely on threatening tactics to silence free speech advocates who act in the public interest. That is why it is often called lawfare. We ran a call for evidence on strategic lawsuits against public participation and libel reform from March to May 2022 in light of reports that Russia and its allies might be funding litigation against free speech in the UK. We published our response to the call for evidence on 20 July 2022, having closely analysed 120 responses from media, legal and civil society professionals, and we are committed to tackling SLAPPs.

I can confirm that targeted anti-SLAPP reforms will include a statutory definition of SLAPPs, an early dismissal process and costs protection for SLAPPs cases. The Government have committed to primary legislation to make those reforms a reality as soon as parliamentary time allows.

I understand that the decision was made by civil servants. Will my hon. Friend commit to considering whether we need to introduce ministerial oversight and how quickly that should be done? It is gravely concerning that no civil servant thought that this might need political oversight or some sort of political intervention. Will my hon. Friend also consider the proscription of the Wagner Group, which is a state terrorist organisation responsible for war crimes around the world?

Finally, I have been disappointed by the Government’s response to my multiple written questions about the Wagner Group and the new centre it has set up in Serbia—it is an enormous installation. We are seeing heinous activities in the Balkans, especially around the illegal Republika Srpska day that took place. So my asks are introducing ministerial oversight; looking at the Wagner group in Serbia and putting pressure on the Serbian Government; and finally proscribing that organisation.

My hon. Friend the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee speaks with great expertise on these matters. She makes some points that are for other Departments to consider, but I will ensure that they are fed back. On the point about the specific process in relation to OFSI, I will not comment on the individual case, but there is a general point about seeking clarification. I can confirm that we will undertake an internal review to see how such cases are considered in the future, and we will say more on that in due course.

Despite the Minister’s gymnastics on this issue, it is clear that there are still serious and systemic links between the UK Government and Russian political elites. In 2021 the operations, tactics and human rights abuses of the Wagner Group were well known, and the EU and the UK imposed sanctions on Yevgeny Prigozhin, as the Wagner Group leader, for that reason. These revelations present a serious and immoral disregard for human rights obligations and due process at the heart of the Minister’s Government, and all this took place on the current Prime Minister’s watch, as he was Chancellor at the time.

Will the Minister tell us what advice, legal or otherwise, prompted the Treasury to make Prigozhin’s activities possible? It is not beyond his capability—legal or otherwise—to tell us who made the decision to override that. What actions will his Government now take to ensure, as a result of these revelations, that the Prime Minister’s promised

“integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”

will be followed through?

I think that the hon. Gentleman submitted a similarly worded urgent question this morning, and obviously I respect that point, but there are no gymnastics here; I am merely setting out the position.

The hon. Gentleman asked about legal advice and so on. Within the sanctions regime broadly, because we are a country with the rule of law and everyone has a right to legal representation, it is possible for frozen assets to be used to pay for that legal representation. This is about sanctioned individuals. The Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation grants licences to allow sanctioned people to cover their own legal fees provided that the costs are reasonable. I should make it clear that decisions on the issuance of licences for legal fees are not, and should not be, political, and are largely taken by officials in line with standard practice. As I said a few moments ago, we are not aware of a case relating to legal fees under any of the sanctions regimes in which a Minister took the decision.

I welcome the Minister’s assertion that there is to be a review of this approach, but I ask him to make it quick. Even the Treasury’s press release today indicates a level of misunderstanding on the part of the officials, claiming a fundamental or absolute right to legal representation. Of course you have a right to representation if you are defending yourself in court, but there is no fundamental right to use legal representation to destroy someone else and shut down free speech.

As my right hon. Friend knows, I responded to his Backbench Business debate. He has been incredibly consistent in calling for actions on these points, and I respect that very much. However, I do think that the right to legal representation is a fundamental tenet of our democracy, which can mean—I am not commenting on the specific case—that individuals whom we find distasteful have a right to legal representation. Let us not forget that even at the Nuremberg trials, people who had committed the most heinous crimes in the history of the western world were legally represented.

I have to say that I had never seen such a case of lack of professionalism, lack of integrity and lack of accountability as this one. It absolutely astounded me: I thought it was unbelievable.

Let me say to the Minister that in terms of the way in which such matters are decided, this is not an isolated case. Petr Aven, for instance, has been given a licence, and according to the press it is thought that he will be able to spend up to £600,000 a year on so-called household expenses which include buying and selling Bentley cars and other luxuries. That is just outrageous. By the time the sanctions stop, the resources—the sanctioned assets—will have disappeared.

Let me also say to the Minister that this issue of individual confidentiality does not play here. The Foreign Office publishes a list of the names of the individuals concerned. I therefore think that we have the right to know what went wrong in this particular case, and that the Minister should report to Parliament. I welcome the fact that a review of the OFSI regime is taking place, but that too should be reported to Parliament.

Finally, may I ask the Minister for a commitment that the legal fees general licence will not be rolled over beyond its expiration date of 27 April 2023?

I have previously answered an urgent question, tabled by the right hon. Lady, on a matter relating to dividends in Russia, and—again—I respect her consistency in respect of a range of points that relate to this issue in one way or another. However, as she knows, I cannot go into the details of the specific case that she has mentioned. There are all kinds of reasons for that, and I think it important that we preserve it. I may be wrong, but I suspect that it would continue under any future Government, because there is very good reason for it. That is why we talk about the sanctions regime in aggregate rather than discussing individual confidential cases.

If we take the overview, we see that this country is doing everything possible. Our position on Ukraine is that we are not directly deploying our armed forces into the theatre, so we have to use every other lever at our disposal, including sanctioning more than 1,200 individuals and 120 entities and freezing assets worth £18 billion. It is a very ambitious sanctions regime, and we should be proud of what we are doing as a country to support Ukraine. We have played a key role in helping it to withstand the Russian invasion, although of course we recognise there is more to do.

I am not going to talk about any individual case. I know that the Government are doing very good work on the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill and the Bill of Rights, and—certainly on this side of the House—we all support that and recognise its importance.

I want to talk specifically about the SLAPPs primary legislation and where it will be. If it is to be in the Bill of Rights—as has now been indicated to me—rather than being a separate law, that may limit the scope of what we can do about SLAPPs. It may not cover all the stuff that is needed to cover the SLAPPs and the lawyers who engage in this practice, the SLAPPers. We need separate primary legislation, a SLAPPs Bill like the ten-minute rule Bill that I introduced yesterday. A gold-standard, best-practice SLAPPs Bill has been written for me, which the Government can take on or allow me to introduce. It covers a little bit of privilege, it covers the private investigator market, and it is broad enough to cover all the abusive SLAPP practices that will not be covered in the Bill of Rights. Will the Government please consider this course of action, as the most sensible course to ensure freedom of speech and a free media ?

My hon. Friend speaks with huge passion about these matters. Only yesterday, as he said, he presented a ten-minute rule Bill relating to this issue. He will appreciate that there are issues relating to parliamentary time, and that this is above my pay grade. I feel very strongly that we have done as much as we can on SLAPPs, but we want to go further, because we need legislation. I said at the end of the Backbench Business debate—my hon. Friend, of course, spoke in it—that I had heard what was said, and that we would now act. The Ministry of Justice took that forward; we had the call for evidence, and we have responded to it. At present, however, our position is, I am afraid, that we will commit ourselves to primary legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows. I cannot say more than that at this moment, but I am aware of how strongly my hon. Friend feels about the issue.

I am sorry, but this is so complacent, and the Government have been systematically complacent about the issue of sanctioning individuals for the last three years. The Foreign Office was not prepared: it did not have a proper sanctions regime in place. We are sectioning only 20% of the people who have been sanctioned by the United States of America, although I have no idea why. Then we allow people to sidestep sanctioning. What the Minister is saying today is basically endorsing what the Treasury did in relation to this particular case, which gives a green light to those people to do it again and again and again. Alisher Usmanov, for instance, is sidestepping sanctioning by a completely different process.

It is time the Government decided as a whole that we are going to do this, and we are going to do it properly. I actually think that we should listen much more to our Back Benchers, because the whole House is united around this and the Government are too complacent.

The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that I am endorsing any particular action. I have made it very clear that I am not commenting on a specific case. What I have said relates to the general regime that pertains, and is without prejudice in respect of any specific case. The hon. Gentleman also said that we were not prepared. He may not be aware of Operation Orbital, but we have been training Ukrainian soldiers since 2015: 22,000 Ukrainian soldiers.

Well, I am talking about Ukraine, because I think that that is the key issue here. It shows we were preparing for what happened, although, obviously, the situation was unprecedented when Ukraine was invaded. We are clear about the fact that our officials and Departments worked as fast as possible to bring forward an ambitious range of sanctions—which of course happened in March last year when the Prime Minister was Chancellor—and they are having a significant impact on Russia and its economy.

Although we cannot discuss a specific case, “Wagner Group” is written on the Annunciator and I wanted to add a further question about the regime that we are operating within the Treasury. I urge the Minister to go further than he committed to doing in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, because the Wagner Group is clearly such an evil organisation and what it is doing in Ukraine and across north Africa is so evil. Will the Minister today, from the Dispatch Box, ask OFSI officials to have a red flag system whereby anything related to the Wagner Group is flagged up individually to the Minister responsible?

My hon. Friend speaks with the expertise of her position as Chair of the Treasury Committee, and I hear what she is saying. I have said that the internal review will take place. She is more than welcome to write to me in her capacity as Chair about that, and I will reply in due course.

My hon. Friend makes the point that this question is about the Wagner Group but that we are saying that we are not commenting on the cases of specific individuals. As a Government, we are absolutely clear:

“The Wagner Group is a Russia-based private military company”.

It has organised the recruitment, co-ordination and planned operations of mercenaries participating in military operations in Ukraine. It is responsible for engaging in and providing support for actions that destabilise Ukraine and undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty or independence of Ukraine.

That is why the most important question is: what are we doing to support Ukraine? Opposition Members have mentioned the Prime Minister, so let us talk about what he did as Chancellor. He was the one who put in place £2.3 billion of military support for Ukraine, which helped the Ukrainians to defend themselves against Russia so that the fight is still being fought to this day.

This is outrageous. The Minister has just confessed to the House that sanctions implementation is out of ministerial control. The result is that a waiver was issued for a warlord to sue an English journalist in an English court.

Let us just be clear about the sanctions indictment that this Government issued on 31 December 2020. We sanctioned Prigozhin because he was operating

“a deniable military capability for the Russian State.”

Ten months later, civil servants under the Minister’s control signed off £3,500 for business-class flights, £320 for luxury accommodation at the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe, £150 for subsistence and more. Let us be clear about what the leaked emails from that conversation show. They show that Prigozhin’s lawyers wanted to sue Eliot Higgins and Bellingcat because

“public rebuttal of the article…is one of the reasons for his sanction designation”.

The Minister signed off money for a warlord to prosecute an English journalist in an English court, to undermine the sanctions regime that he is responsible for. This is outrageous and it has to change now.

The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that I did not, in any way, confess that Ministers have no control over the sanctions regime. What I stated very clearly is that in respect of OFSI consideration of legal fees under the sanctions regimes, these decisions are routinely taken by senior civil servants under a delegated framework. That is simply a statement of fact. On the claims for travel and other expenses, let us be clear: under the legal expenses derogation, OFSI is only permitted to issue a licence where the costs, including those relating to disbursements, have been deemed to be reasonable. OFSI therefore scrutinises the hourly fees charged by fee earners, the hours incurred and any other associated costs. It is the responsibility of the applicant to demonstrate to OFSI’s satisfaction that this statutory reasonableness test is met. If it is not satisfied, OFSI will not be able to issue a licence.

Does my hon. Friend agree that this is just the latest example of a dodgy Russian oligarch or similar using legal action to attempt to shut down legitimate journalism? I strongly welcome what he has said about the Government’s intention to act against SLAPPs, but will he commit to publishing the detail of that legislation as soon as possible? Will he look for a means by which it can be introduced, as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) said, as a stand-alone Bill, which would be preferable? If that is not possible, will he look to use other vehicles, possibly relating to human rights? The media Bill might well provide a vehicle for acting to protect journalism. We need this legislation as fast as possible.

I absolutely hear what my right hon. Friend is saying. He is another colleague who has spoken consistently on these points. He knows that when I was at the Ministry of Justice we acted quickly to bring forward measures on SLAPPs; first, we had the call for evidence and then we gave our response. He will appreciate that the parliamentary timetable is above my pay grade, but I hear what he says and I will ensure that, in considering the passage of that legislation, the appropriate stakeholders will respond to him. In the meantime, I want to be clear that SLAPPs are something on which we want to see progress.

Let us remind ourselves who we are talking about here: the head of the Wagner Group, which is responsible for egregious human rights abuses not just in Ukraine, but in Mali, Sudan and Syria. Absolutely it should be proscribed, and quickly; today is President Zelensky’s birthday and what better gift could we give him? This review is going to take time, so will the Minister assure the House that in the interim a Minister will look at every case until the regime is cleared up? Will the results of this review come to this House so that parliamentarians can scrutinise it? Clearly, the Treasury and the Ministers have not been getting this right, have they?

I say to the hon. Lady that she has many ways at her disposal to scrutinise the Government: as she knows, we have Treasury questions coming up; there are Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office questions; we have recently held debates on Russia, including the one on Russia’s strategy; and a number of statutory instruments have been passed in relation to the sanctions regime. I am sure there will be many other opportunities to scrutinise the Government. As I say, we have only recently taken the decision to hold this internal review, but I will say more on it in due course.

I am sure that all my constituents would regard the Wagner Group as an evil organisation, and its activities in Ukraine, the middle east and Africa are abhorrent. I am sure that my constituents would also support its proscription. In the meantime, will the Minister tell my constituents how many Russian individuals and entities have been sanctioned, what is the value of those sanctions, and what is the value of the economic sanctions that have been imposed against Russia?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend, as we all do, about the nature of the Wagner Group. That is not the point. We do have to have due process, because of the right to legal representation. I believe that, to date, we have sanctioned about 1,200 individuals and 120 entities, and the latest figures show that more than £18 billion of Russian assets have been frozen by our sanctions and that three quarters of foreign companies have reduced operations in Russia. Of course we have no quarrel with the Russian people, although this will have an economic impact. As I said, we are not taking a direct military posture in Ukraine, but we are doing everything else we can, which is why we have to use every tool at our disposal, including a strong economic sanctions package.

The Minister has said that it is officials who would routinely take these types of decision, but I hope he will agree that we cannot ever allow it to become routine for us to allow some of the very worst sanctioned individuals to weaponise British laws to go after British journalists. He said that we are going to have a review

“in the light of recent cases”.

Will he confirm whether he is looking into others?

Although I cannot comment on individual cases, I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady that we should be looking at lawfare. We will be bringing forward that legislation. I do think we have acted quickly on that, but of course it is a complex area of law that we need to get right. She reinforces the point that many colleagues in all parts of the House want to see that legislation come forward, and I have very much noted it.

As a former Minister for sanctions, I agree with the Minister that the UK had led the world in taking a firm, decisive, co-ordinated sanctions approach with our international partners to bring individuals to account for what is going on in Ukraine. This case highlights an issue relating to the granting of licences for legal fees, so how many such cases are there overall? We have sanctioned more than 1,000 individuals, but how many legal licences has the UK granted overall? We co-ordinate our sanctions approach with the United States and the European Union, so how many licences have they given? In this case, was there any co-ordination input from our counterparts in the US? I agree with the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee that things should be referred back to the Minister for decision, rather than having it delegated to an official. What exact date are we looking at for the review?

My hon. Friend has expertise as a former sanctions Minister. Obviously, I cannot speak for the United States Government but only for ours. I do not have the exact figures, but I will look into it and write to him. To be absolutely clear, I stated a fact when I said that decisions specifically on legal fees under the sanctions regimes are routinely taken by senior civil servants. I said that I was not aware of any case where the Minister had taken a decision. But under our constitution, I am standing here because, ultimately, Ministers are responsible for Department and Government policy. Nevertheless, it is entirely right to make a point about how these things work operationally. As I said, that is correct. It is a delegated framework for decision making.

It seems that the Wagner Group is yet another example of the litany of disaster that sustains what seems to be Londongrad. On the back of this appalling situation, can the Minister update the House on when the British Government will not only introduce legislation on limited partnerships but bring about the review that he talks about?

The hon. Gentleman talks about Londongrad; he knows that we are taking extensive measures on economic crime. Let me say to the Members of the Scottish National party who come every time and lecture us on the sanctions regime and so on that the greatest gift we could give to Putin would be for this country to engage in unilateral nuclear disarmament. It is the most extraordinary position to be lectured by the SNP on standing up to Russia, because if we took its advice and adopted its policy, we would undermine NATO and all our efforts to defend ourselves.

Unfortunately, the Government’s response to the Wagner Group has been inadequate, in part because the matter falls between the FCDO and the Treasury. A number of colleagues, including the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), have called for that organisation to be proscribed. Others, including me, have done so for different reasons, whether it be Serbia, Africa or another conflict area. Will the Minister bring together the two Departments, and look at proscribing the organisation and at the impact that will have on the efficiency of the sanctions regime?

My hon. Friend has considerable experience as a Foreign Office Minister. He will be aware of how these things work. I am happy to give that reply. I believe that the decision would be for the Foreign Office, but he is right that we must work across Government, and I will write to him on that point.

As well as the Wagner Group’s murderous activities in Ukraine, I am aware, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Africa, of its activities across that continent. It has mercenaries in Mali, the Central African Republic, the Republic of Mozambique and Libya. It is targeting civilians, actively spreading disinformation and propping up autocratic regimes, all to defend Putin’s footprint and ambitions in the continent. Is the Minister saying that it is acceptable for someone to make money from those evil activities, be sanctioned and then get a licence from the British Government to evade those sanctions in order to defend themselves legally? Regardless of what he is saying, what message does that send to our allies across the world?

Of course we are not saying that. We are saying that, whether we like it or not, there is a principle under democracy and the rule of law of the right to a defence. Therefore, we have a system in place under the sanctions regime to consider applications for legal fees to be paid from frozen assets. That is a statement of fact on how the system works.

We are continuing to sidestep sanctions. It is disgraceful that the Minister continues to defend that at the Dispatch Box. What message does it send to Ukraine and our allies that our own Treasury is helping one of Putin’s notorious warmongers evade sanctions? If he cannot tell us the number of exemptions and waivers that have been given to individuals, can he find out and commit to come to this House and publish those numbers?

The message to Ukraine is that this is a country that believes in the rule of law and democracy. That is why we support Ukraine. That is why the Prime Minister was in Ukraine recently, confirming that we will do everything possible to support them. That is why this country has made a greater contribution to support the brave people of Ukraine than any other country, bar the United States.

I do not know if the Minister has had the chance to read Oliver Bullough’s book “Butler to the World”. There is a copy in the Library if he has not. I recommend it to him because it lays clear Britain’s role in facilitating this kind of lawfare. Oliver Bullough has asked:

“What chance have British journalists got when even our own government is prepared to roll the pitch for oligarchs keen to sue us?”

I repeat my earlier point about the actions we are taking on SLAPPs. We have already had the call for evidence and we will bring forward primary legislation.

Are the Government serious about tackling the use of SLAPPs? Threats of libel action by the Conservative party chairman over his tax affairs, use of the non-disclosure agreement by the Justice Secretary to silence journalists, and the Home Secretary’s attempt to stop the BBC reporting serious domestic violence by an agent of the security services when she was Attorney General, suggest that they prefer concealment over transparency.

The approach the Government are taking, case by case they will not deal with specifics, is just an excuse not to answer questions on specific examples that we raise in this House. I know that the bar is very high, but there can be few of Putin’s allies more notorious than Yevgeny Prigozhin. How can the Minister come to the Dispatch Box and say that the decisions were made by a civil servant? How can there be no red flag on the file of someone of such notoriety to say, “Speak to a Minister”? When are you going to get on and do the job you were put there for?

The reason that we do not comment on individual cases is well-established. I expect that it would be exactly the same under any other Government. To be clear, the UK sanctions regulations do not exclude payments for any particular legal services from that permission. Excluding such payments can give rise to issues about access to justice. OFSI does not consider it appropriate for HM Treasury to effectively decide whether a case has sufficient merit to be permitted to proceed by deciding whether to issue a licence permitting legal fees to be paid. Such an approach would raise considerable legal concerns.

The Minister has been asked on a number of occasions how many exceptions and waivers there have been over the last two years. The House is united. This is not a party political issue. We just demand that he answer that question. If he cannot do it now, can he provide the House with details in writing?

I said to the former sanctions Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), that I would write to him. I will be happy to share that with other colleagues who have asked what information we are able to publish. I will look into that and write to colleagues who have raised that point.

It is very difficult to believe that a regime exists now where civil servants can make this decision, especially in the case of Yevgeny Prigozhin. Anyone with a passing relationship with a newspaper would have realised that enabling that to happen would compromise their Ministers, yet they did not have such discussions. Can the Minister assure us that he will review that? I do not want to hang a civil servant out to dry, but somebody needs to take responsibility for the decision. Does he find it a coincidence that, when one of the worst commercial war criminals went to find access to justice, he turned up in London?

I have merely stated the fact, and it is the case, that these decisions are routinely taken by senior civil servants. I also said that we are ultimately responsible. We, as Ministers, are accountable to Parliament. That is why we will conduct the internal review.

I would be grateful if the Minister could outline to us what it is about billionaire Russians such as Yevgeny Prigozhin and others that make this Government feel that they need special licences so much that they are able to dodge sanctions.

To be clear, we do not make any of these decisions with prejudice to the legal case that the individual is pursuing. They have a right under our law to have legal representation. What we have here is a process for considering applications to use frozen assets to fund legal fees in specific cases.

I recognise that the Minister has responded and tried to address the questions. We recognise that the Government have at least made some efforts to do so. But in this urgent question the House has identified an anomaly concerning the Wagner Group, which, as everyone has said, is responsible for some of the most brutal crimes across the middle east and Africa. The House wants urgency—that is what we are all asking for. Can the Minister indicate the timescale for that to happen? When will the Wagner Group find that the loophole that it has identified can be closed?

This is not a loophole in relation to the Wagner Group. We are clear on all the issues about the Wagner Group. We have acted against it in so much as it is part of the military effort in Ukraine and we have supported Ukraine as far as we are able to, in supporting that military effort. What we are talking about here is a specific point, which is that there is a right to legal representation, so we have a process in place under the sanctions regime to consider applications to use frozen assets to fund legal fees, but as I have said, we will be reflecting on that and reviewing that process.

That completes that urgent question. Those who need to leave, please do so before I start the next one.