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Russia: Sanctions

Volume 818: debated on Tuesday 1 February 2022


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 31 January.

“With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on what we are doing to tackle Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Moscow’s malign intent is clear: it has massed over 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s frontier and Russian forces are continuing to arrive in Belarus. It is only eight years since Russia illegally annexed Crimea and stoked conflict in the Donbass region, so we know that the danger is real. They have been pursuing a campaign of hybrid warfare aimed at destabilising the country. Just last week, we exposed the Kremlin’s plans to install a puppet regime in Kiev.

This threatening behaviour towards a sovereign, democratic, independent country is completely unacceptable. It is a clear violation of the commitments and obligations that Russia freely signed up to, from the Helsinki Final Act and the Minsk protocols to the Budapest memorandum, which guaranteed to

“respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.”

The only way forward is for Russia to de-escalate, pull back its troops and engage in meaningful talks on the basis of those existing obligations. That is why the UK is determined to lead the way through deterrence and diplomacy.

The Prime Minister will travel to the region this week, and later today the UK will be joining discussions at the UN Security Council to apply further pressure on Russia to take the diplomatic route. I will be flying out to Moscow over the next fortnight. That builds on our campaign of diplomatic engagement over recent weeks and months. I have led calls from the G7, NATO and the OSCE to urge Russia to desist from its reckless and destabilising activities in Ukraine, as well as in Georgia, the Baltics and the Western Balkans. I have raised these issues directly with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov. Both the United States and NATO have set out areas where we could explore reciprocal measures to increase transparency, reduce risk and take forward arms control. The ball is firmly in Russia’s court.

While we are determined to accelerate those efforts, we do so from a position of strength. We are combining dialogue with deterrence. That is why the Prime Minister is considering options for further deployments of our Armed Forces, to reassure and protect allies on NATO’s eastern flank. We are preparing to offer to support NATO with additional fast jets, warships and military specialists. As NATO’s biggest spender in Europe on defence, we are prepared to deploy our forces accordingly.

We have been very clear that a united alliance would meet any further Russian invasion of Ukraine with massive consequences for Russia’s interests and economy. We are preparing an unprecedented package of co-ordinated sanctions with our partners, which would impose severe costs. Today, I am setting out our readiness to act. We will be laying legislation before the House that will significantly strengthen our hand in dealing with Russia’s aggressive action towards Ukraine. It will go further than ever before.

Until now, the UK has only been able to sanction those linked to the destabilisation of Ukraine. This new legislation will give us the power to sanction a much broader range of individuals and businesses. We will be able to target any company that is linked to the Russian state, engages in business of economic significance to the Russian state, or operates in a sector of strategic significance to the Russian state. Not only will we be able to target these entities, we will also be able to go after those who own or control them. This will be the toughest sanctions regime against Russia we have ever had, and it is the most radical departure in approach since leaving the European Union. Those in and around the Kremlin will have nowhere to hide.

We will make sure that those who share responsibility for the Kremlin’s aggressive and destabilising action will share in bearing a heavy cost. Their assets in the UK will be frozen. No UK business or individual would be able to transact with them, and should they seek to enter the UK, they would be turned back. Laying this legislation now will enable us to act in concert with the United States and other partners rapidly, multiplying our collective impact. We will use these new powers in a targeted manner, designed to damage the interests of those who bear greatest responsibility for Russia’s actions and exert the greatest pressure to change course. I will not say now exactly who we may target, or with what measure, but Moscow should be clear that we will use these new powers to maximum effect if it pursues its aggressive intent towards Ukraine. Nothing is off the table.

We are also standing with our Ukrainian friends by providing vital support to help them defend themselves. That is why we are supplying the country with defensive, anti-tank missiles, and deploying a training team of British personnel. We have already trained over 21,000 members of the Ukrainian army through Operation Orbital. In addition, we are stepping up our investment in Ukraine’s future, ramping up support for trade up to £3.5 billion, including £1.7 billion to boost Ukraine’s naval capability. We will continue to stand united with Ukraine.

It might seem hard to believe that in the 21st century the citizens of a proud, sovereign, European democracy are living under the threat of invasion. We know from the lessons of history that this course of action would benefit no one. I do not believe that ordinary Russian citizens want to enter into an intractable quagmire of needless death and destruction that could rival the Soviet-Afghan war or the conflict in Chechnya. Indeed, we have no quarrel whatsoever with the Russian people, only with the policies pursued by its leader. It is time for the Kremlin to step back from the brink, to de-escalate and to enter into meaningful dialogue. If it does not, it should be in no doubt: we will be ready to use the powers that I have set out today to maximum effect. We will join our allies and partners to ensure that such reckless action will bring strategic consequences at a massive cost. We will defend freedom, democracy and the rule of law.

I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, I welcome this Statement. I hope I can show a bit of unity with the Minister and he will not get so upset.

This House remains united in solidarity with the people of Ukraine, and we continue to support the principle of sovereignty in the face of aggression. Any sanctions must be targeted and extensive if they are to be the most effective. We must take aim at corrupt elites and comprehensively cover the most crucial sectors of the Russian economy. However, as much as it is welcome that the Government are preparing for these measures, I am concerned that they will not be paired with much broader measures needed to crack down on illicit Russian finance in the United Kingdom.

The noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, wrote to me on 9 December following my questions relating to the full implementation of the ISC Russia report. In that letter, the noble Lord refers to a “cross-government Russia unit” but gives very little detail. Of course, the ISC said that there appears to be a plethora of plans and strategies with direct relevance to the work on Russia by the organisations it oversees. The integrated review acknowledged the need to bring together elements of our work across the strategic framework at home and overseas, using all the instruments available to government in an integrated response. I hope that this afternoon the Minister will be able to tell us what has happened and where the details are on this strategic framework approach.

Six months ago, the Government said that they were finalising their report into how more than 700 Russian millionaires were fast-tracked for British residency via their so-called golden visa scheme, yet in response to Stephen Kinnock yesterday, the Foreign Secretary simply said:

“We are reviewing the tier 1 visas that were granted before 5 April.”—[Official Report, Commons, 31/1/22; col. 60.]

It is shocking that the Foreign Secretary did not have a proper answer to my honourable friend’s question. We have been giving out these visas to thousands of Russian oligarchs. Some £4 million has been donated to the Conservative Party by seven individuals who have deep and highly dubious links to the Kremlin. Can the noble Lord tell us what action the Government will take on the visas, and when they will do so? More importantly, when will we see the economic crime Bill, which will be so necessary to ensure a joined-up approach on these issues? When will the Government consider introducing a register of overseas entities Bill, foreign agent registration laws or new counterespionage legislation? We are still lacking detail on when we can expect Bills—which have previously been announced—to repair the gaping hole in our defence. Will the noble Lord tell the House when we can expect the promised computer misuse Bill and the counter-hostile state Bill to be brought to the House? Can the Minister say when the Government’s cyber co-ordination centre will be operational to help tackle these threats? These are all actions required to be taken urgently.

I believe that, to be successful, sanctions must form part of a unified and coherent response across our allies, and I understand that the noble Lord shares this aspiration. Can he say what steps we are taking to work with the G7, NATO and the OSCE to ensure that we act in unison with all our allies on these important matters?

Sanctions are always effective deterrents, but the Government must also pursue a diplomatic solution. I mentioned yesterday, in response to the Statement on the Sue Gray report, that I found it pretty shocking that the Prime Minister cancelled his phone call to President Putin at a time when such talks are vital to peace and security. Can the Minister say this afternoon when the Prime Minister will make sure that those discussions take place? Will that call be rearranged? It is vital that we have answers to all these questions.

My Lords, I put on record my appreciation for the Minister telephoning yesterday and alerting me to the Statement. He is courteous and approachable, and it is very much appreciated. I hope that his overseas visit was a success. However, as the noble Lord indicated, a telephone meeting with President Putin was postponed and a maskless Foreign Secretary contracted Covid and was unable to travel. It is embarrassing to me, and perhaps others, that the whole world now follows what we see at home: failures in leadership and an increasingly grubby Government.

However, we support moves to shore up the ability to ensure that there is a severe economic response to unwarranted Russian aggression towards Ukraine. Two weeks before Christmas, the EU and the US reached an agreement on what expanded economic sanctions would be. Our announcement, which is welcome, is a consequence of this. But, as with most things, it has a little bit of overselling attached to it.

UK FDI stocks in Russia are currently £12.3 billion —an increase of 25% during Liz Truss’s tenure as International Trade Secretary. Since the unacceptable invasion of Crimea, UK FDI stock in Russia has gone up by 50%. What actions will the Government take to stem this flow? I previously asked what contingency arrangements are in place for guidance for UK businesses that are currently conducting legitimate business that will become illegitimate as a result of any actions. The European Central Bank has done a sensitivity study with banks on exposure to Russia. Has the Bank of England done the same? What guidance is being provided to global oil and energy trading and shipping insurance with trade with Russia, which is primarily done through the City of London and will be the target of US and other sanctions?

Can the Minister explain why economic crime has been downgraded in the UK over the last few years? When Ben Wallace was Minister of State for Security, he was Minister of State for Security and Economic Crime. Damian Hinds is Minister for Security and Borders. There is no Minister for economic crime. As my noble friend Lady Ludford said yesterday, although the Foreign Secretary has said that there will be “nowhere to hide” for Russian oligarchs and their money, they have been hiding in plain sight in Chelsea, Belgravia and Mayfair.

As a December report from Chatham House indicated, the grim details of London’s world centre of kleptocracy have created a wider malaise in England’s legal system. Given this Conservative Government’s inactivity, so clearly identified in Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee reports over many years, it is legitimate to ask whether the Government are crying wolf again.

Yesterday, the Business Minister was unable to give details of what will be in the economic crime Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green, asked the Home Office Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, why there have been

“few, if any, successful prosecutions”

on unexplained wealth orders. She replied:

“There have been some, and as I have explained to the House, it is quite complex and sometimes these things are very difficult to secure. There is more work to be done.”

Of course these are difficult and complex matters, but they will not be less so next week. Therefore, that is not an excuse for inaction.

Referring to President Putin, the noble Lord, Lord Austin of Dudley, asked:

“given that he has invaded Crimea, assassinated his opponents here in the UK and looted Russia’s economy, thereby impoverishing … Russian citizens, why have the Government not considered doing this anyway?”

Under the anti-corruption regulations, those that will be in scope under the new measures are currently in scope for sanctions. The Minister replied:

“The noble Lord is absolutely right. I am not party to some of the discussions going on in the FCDO and elsewhere, but he highlights the point that we have a major problem with regard to the influence here.”—[Official Report, 31/1/22; cols. 617-18.]

I think that the whole House welcomed that admission, after months of denials by the Government. We have a major problem, and if we are now being asked to put in place new measures, which may well be welcome, we have legitimate questions to ask about this Government’s motivation to properly clamp down on those who are doing us harm.

Will the Government finally accept the case for fast-tracking beneficial ownership legislation and the Bill that has been introduced in the Commons by Layla Moran MP? Will they urgently accept the amendments on golden visas proposed by my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire? If the Government are serious about this, they have two key opportunities now—will they take them?

My Lords, first, I thank both noble Lords for their support. I fully accept that it is right that we are challenged with questions as Ministers and on important issues such as the situation in Ukraine. It is important when we look towards Ukraine that the Government, together with all parties and voices across both Houses of Parliament, come together in calling out the challenging and ever-increasing presence of Russian troops, almost in a crescent shape, across Ukraine and Belarus; this is causing particular concern in the eastern part of the country. There is also the annexation of Crimea, of course.

Notwithstanding us having just done a Question on ministerial travel and where Ministers wish to work— as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, it is a requirement that we work beyond what we may be conducting in our business—I am grateful to both noble Lords. I also sought to call the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. I hope that he received the message I had to leave for him; I regret that I was unable to speak to him in advance.

The noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Purvis, rightly asked questions on various issues of illicit finance. I will certainly outline some of the steps that the Government have taken on the specific issue of the economic crime Bill, which was raised by both noble Lords. This also came up in the other place with my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister reiterated, during the democracy summit, the Government’s commitment to seeking to introduce it this year. I assure noble Lords that I have also made sure, in terms of my own responsibilities at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, of the importance of this Bill.

In terms of what the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, raised about what will be in the Bill, the Government have already, as he will be aware, produced the national economic crime plan; there are various elements within that. We created the National Economic Crime Centre in 2018 and, including previous legislation, there was the ground-breaking Criminal Finances Act 2017. In addition, the recent UK spending review announced new investment of £18 million in 2022-23 and £12 million per year in 2023-25 for economic crime reforms, as well as £63 million to reform Companies House, which will go in part towards addressing some of the issues that noble Lords have raised, on beneficial ownership in particular.

I note the Bill that the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, pointed to. Of course, the Government are committed. I took through the legislation—with the noble Lord, Lord Collins, as I recall, on the Opposition Benches—of the SAMLA Bill. We gave a commitment and continue to work, for example, with our overseas territories. We have exchange of notes operational with key members of the overseas territories family, but they are all now committed to ensuring that operational public registers are fully functional by 2023.

Sanctions were mentioned, which I also want to bring into the context of the point that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised about Russia. When we introduced the global human rights sanctions regime, as noble Lords will be aware, we broadened the scope. The global anticorruption sanctions regime has been used specifically to target those individuals from Russia, sanctioning 14 individuals involved in the $230 million tax fraud in Russia uncovered by Sergei Magnitsky himself.

I know that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary alluded to the issue of tier 1 visas. Of course, while this is a Home Office lead, it also involves the National Crime Agency, and we will continue to bring the full weight of law enforcement to those who threaten the security of the UK and our allies. More broadly, the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, asked about the current changes we are bringing and the remit—that is, which individuals and organisations they would apply to. Just to be clear, under the current regime, the UK has been able to sanction only individuals linked to the destabilisation or undermining of the territorial integrity of Ukraine. This new approach, with the governance structures—I am not talking specifically about who or which organisation may be designated—will allow us to target any company that is linked to the Russian state, engages in business of economic significance to the Russian state or operates in a sector of strategic significance to the Russian state. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, mentioned a number of those sectors.

Of course, I will work—as I have previously—with noble Lords across the House, but particularly with the Front Benches, to bring both greater detail through direct questions in your Lordships’ House and more detailed insights on the approach. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, will smile at this, but I am not going to speculate on the individuals or organisations that may be sanctioned under this broader regime. Of course, the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, is right that there are implications in certain key sectors. The issue of guidance and not just the implications for those who may be sanctioned but the wider impact on those sectors and industries is an important consideration. I assure the noble Lord that that is very much part of our thinking.

If I may, I have a final point, which picks up on some of the questions that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about specific acts and specific points. I will, of course, follow up my letter to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, as well and copy in the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, and other noble Lords.

On the point that the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, raised about leadership, he may be aware—but he may not be—that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is currently en route to Ukraine; he may well have arrived. He is having talks directly with President Zelensky. We are also announcing further support of £88 million, particularly looking more broadly at the economic and energy impacts of any steps that Russia may take. The noble Lord raised the issue of the call to President Putin. That is being prioritised, looked at and arranged. Certainly, we hope that it will happen very soon.

On the general point about my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, the noble Lord said that, again, it shows a lack of British leadership. I challenge him in this respect. Looking back over the last two months at the engagement of my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary on the issue of Ukraine, on 1 December, she met the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, and on 2 December, she met the Russian Foreign Minister. I am sure I speak for all noble Lords around your Lordships’ House in wishing my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary a speedy and full recovery. She is certainly looking to undertake her responsibilities in terms of engaging directly in Moscow. She announced yesterday that she is looking to travel to Moscow within the timeline of the next two weeks; subject to her recovery and ensuring that all processes are in place, we are looking to do exactly that.

My right honourable friend has also met with the G7, as the Prime Minister has already. On 13 December, he had a call with President Putin. He had a further call with the Ukrainian president, President Zelensky, whom he is visiting. The Foreign Secretary had a phone call with members of the OSCE. She had phone calls with UN Secretary Blinken on 23 December—to name just one of them—and with the EU policy chief, Josep Borrell. On 30 December, she had a phone call with Foreign Minister Le Drian, Secretary Blinken and German Foreign Minister Baerbock, and, most recently, she had a call with the German Foreign Minister. My colleague, Minister Heaton-Harris, spoke with Deputy Foreign Minister Titov on 26 January. The Foreign Secretary had a call with the Dutch Foreign Minister on 1 February, and, as I said, she intends to visit Moscow, health permitting.

I can provide a full list of engagements. I have not counted other Ministers; indeed, I hope to be in Estonia next week as part of our responsibilities on the Media Freedom Coalition. However, part of my engagement with the Estonian Foreign Minister, where our troops are based, will be on the situation of Ukraine.

My Lords, during last Wednesday’s Statement to the House, I suggested that, prior to supporting a proxy war military intervention, and now sanctions, all concerned should read material from the National Security Archive at George Washington University, which reveals assurances given to the Soviets on NATO expansion—an issue at the heart of the Russian case. Was my suggestion followed up or ignored? Will not those undertakings given to the Russians not go away and, in the end, become central to this whole debate on both sanctions and the potential for conflict?

The noble Lord is right on his specific suggestion but, on his broader point about the importance of diplomacy, that is exactly what Her Majesty’s Government are doing, along with our key partners. It is important, though, that Russia also recognises that it is about its actions. Let us not forget that Crimea was annexed—what, eight years ago?—and it has subsequently continued to take aggressive stances on the borders of Ukraine. I said earlier that we have now seen over 100,000 Russian troops amassing across three different fronts. These are not mere exercises; they are attempts to intimidate Ukraine. It is important that we stand with Ukraine and underline the support that we give to it, including what the sanction would be if there was a Russian incursion or invasion into any parts of Ukrainian territory. It is important that Russia understands that message, which is articulated not just by the United Kingdom but by us and our allies. I assure the noble Lord that the door of diplomacy, as I said in my previous answer, is very much open and the UK is at the forefront of that.

My Lords, is it not possible to secure the involvement of the United Nations Security Council more fully in the Ukrainian situation? Is that not the formula we followed back in 1982 when, despite Russian resistance, Resolution 503 was duly passed? It authorised, among other things, the noble Lord, Lord West—Commander West, as he then was—to set sail for the south Atlantic. Sadly, 22 of his brave colleagues did not return.

My Lords, I am very appreciative, as I often say, for the insights, experience and wisdom within your Lordships’ House. On the specific point that my noble friend raises in relation to the United Nations, as he will note, a meeting on this very issue took place at the Security Council. On initiatives which could be taken, we should never close the route to diplomacy. I believe Russia is now in the chair of the UN Security Council, so surely there is a greater onus on the presidency to demonstrate how it can bring different countries together.

My Lords, I welcome the balance that the Minister and the Foreign Secretary have struck between maximising the pain for corrupt, mafia-like elites while minimising damage for ordinary Russians, who have suffered quite enough under Vladimir Putin. Can the Minister say whether cutting Moscow from the SWIFT financial system and cancelling the Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline are being given serious consideration in the event of an invasion of Ukraine? Will he also elaborate on the co-ordination of the efforts with our closest allies that he has been describing to the House?

My Lords, I can certainly provide more details on the noble Lord’s second question. Yes, we are working with key allies, as I indicated, over the course of the last two months and beyond. We have been working with our key European allies and directly with the EU. We have been working with the United States, as well as partners further afield, on how we can act together on the situation in Ukraine. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned the importance of sanctions and working together in a co-ordinated fashion. I assure the House that we are doing exactly that. On the first question of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, I fear that if I was to say anything further it would run to speculation. But, as my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said yesterday in the House of Commons, whether our approach is diplomatic or looking at the issue of economics and the cost of Russia, everything is very much on the table.

My Lords, further to the question of my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours, can the Minister tell us, as and when the Prime Minister talks to President Putin—inevitably, the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO will be raised as a Russian concern—what precisely is the Government’s position on the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO?

My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, on the central point of Ukraine joining NATO, it is first and foremost a defensive alliance. A country can make an application and it is considered by all members of NATO. No country should be told specifically that it cannot be a member of a particular alliance; it is very much for Ukraine to request its membership and for members of NATO to decide.

My Lords, the presentation in Washington has often been—as I have seen in recent days—that the United Kingdom has only really acted under American pressure. That does not look good in Washington. Can the Minister reassure us that that was not the case? While we are tackling this issue, late as we are to it, can the Government ensure that we take a broader attitude to the question of Russian influence within the British elite, which the ISC Russia report flagged up three years ago? We need now to deal with not just the immediate question of the Ukraine crisis; there is a much broader question. Lastly, have the Government done any impact assessment of, for example, the implications for the property market in London and the south-east of imposing sanctions?

On the noble Lord’s last point, I suppose I should declare an interest: I am a property owner in London and the south-east. In all seriousness, without going into too much detail, as I said—and I know that the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, had to leave, but I recognise the courtesy extended by his note to me—we are looking at the broader impact, as the noble Lord indicated.

On the issue of engagement in Washington, I assure the House that we have been engaging on the front foot. Let us not forget that we have been engaging on this issue longer than the current US Administration. We have always made the case as strong partners of Ukraine—one can ask Ministers present and past in the Ukrainian Government. I have sat with a number of them at the United Nations who have indicated their strong support, not through us asking them, but quite genuinely, for the leadership the United Kingdom has showed in solidarity, support and friendship for Ukraine.

My Lords, the House will understand when the Minister says that it is not in the Government’s gift alone to remove Russia from the SWIFT financial system, but he can say, can he not, if they believe it would be a proportionate measure, if the invasion of Ukraine goes ahead?

My Lords, I know the noble Lord is probing me for more details, but I shall not say any more. I am fully aware of the sensitivity and impact where such steps are taken. As noble Lords will have followed, and as I sought to inform those on the other three Benches in your Lordships’ House, the broader nature of what we can do once the legislation is effected will allow us to sanction organisations and individuals much more broadly and at direct cost to those entities which are Russian or which are owned by Russian entities and operating within the UK.

My Lords, in the event of general economic sanctions being applied—obviously, let us hope that the diplomatic measures that the Minister outlined will bear fruit—given that Russia and Ukraine between them produce one-third of the world’s wheat supply, we will probably see a massive hike in the price of wheat. What assessment have the Government made of the impact of that on UK food prices, and what contingencies are being put in place to find alternate supplies?

My Lords, my noble friend raises a very important point. I think the implications of any sanctions and support are well recognised. I point my noble friend specifically to the steps we have taken just now in support of Ukraine directly, which will be impacted in the first instance, and the new funding I alluded to earlier, looking specifically at the issue of Russian energy supplies. That indicates the seriousness with which the UK recognises the impact of such sanctions.

However, it is important that Russia understands very clearly and unequivocally that its actions of not just taking but retaining territory, annexing territory, as it is threatening to do now further in Ukraine are firmly unacceptable, not just to us but to our allies and the world community generally. Therefore, it is in Russia’s hand to reflect on what is being said, but this is serious. This is a serious point in the crisis, and it is therefore important that we engage diplomatically and directly. That is why my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have said directly to their respective counterparts that they wish to meet to discuss with them. One hopes that the diplomatic channel will bear fruit.

My Lords, like other Members of this House, I support the sanctions that were announced in this Statement. It is crucial that we do not undermine the steps that our Government are taking to get the message to the Russians. The problem is that if the Russians read the international press today, they will get a very different message. The headline in the Washington Post is:

“Britain, the tough-on-Russia ally, is being undermined by London”.

On it is:

“‘Londongrad’ Undermines U.K.’s Tough Talk on Russia Sanctions”.

In the Sydney Morning Herald—with the Secretary of State having just come back from there after a very important visit—it is:

“Billions parked in ‘Londongrad’ undermines Britain’s tough talk on Russia sanctions”.

We can impose sanctions on all of the people identified in this very welcome Statement, but we will not be able to seize their assets because we do not know who owns the assets. If we have to wait until 2023 to have a register that allows our Government to know who owns the assets, then these sanctions will deter no one.

My Lords, London already operates a public register. When I referred to 2023, that was in the context of our overseas territories. We already have a scheme for OTs, called the exchange of notes, which the noble Lord will be aware of. I know directly through its operation, and through speaking to, for example, tax authorities and crime agencies, that they are able to access the necessary information. However, I agree with the noble Lord that there is more to be done on this issue. I outlined some of our plans for greater transparency at Companies House to show greater levels of ownership. I assure the noble Lord that the broadening of what we are seeking to do through the legislation proposed will allow us to target individuals and organisations quite specifically and to freeze their assets as well.

My Lords, the Minister and others have referred to an invasion of Ukraine as a trigger for sanctions. Can the Minister tell me what that invasion will look like? Does it include cyberattacks? Does it include subversion by special forces, who are already in parts of Ukraine, and other such grey activities? How are we going to identify an invasion if the 100,000 troops massed there are just there for strong-arming and for show and will not themselves actually be involved?

My Lords, I alluded to the expertise and insights in your Lordships’ House, and perhaps I should be posing this question to the noble and gallant Lord, who has great insight. The activities of the Russian state and those supported by the Russian state already include such things as the noble Lord alluded to. That has seen some action being taken by the United Kingdom and our key allies and partners. What is very clear is that the physical movement of troops—again, the noble and gallant Lord will know this far better than I—is a real statement of what may come next. To just pass it off as military manoeuvres when the whole of the eastern borders of Ukraine have over 100,000 Russian troops in occupancy is a great cause for concern. Therefore, what we are seeking to do through the Statement, and, importantly, through the widening of legislation and action—be it economic action—is to demonstrate to Russia the real willingness of the alliance and our partners within NATO and Europe to stand up against such further aggression.

As I said, eight years ago Crimea was annexed illegally. No further attempts were made to withdraw troops. I went to Ukraine before Christmas, and saw the anxiety. The massing of troops in Belarus, not that far from Kiev, is causing particular concern, and it is important that we make Statements accordingly. However, behind those Statements must be concerted action.

My Lords, following on from what the noble Lord, Lord Browne, said, when the Soviet Union collapsed just over 30 years ago, people had very little private property. Within a decade, some people had riches beyond the dreams of avarice. Some of that was made legitimately, but a great deal was assets of the Russian state looted by gangsters. A lot of that money then came here. Why are we not pursuing unexplained wealth orders on these people? They have all the money in plain sight and we should be pursuing them now.

My Lords, I praise my noble friend’s impeccable timing, as my dear and noble friend Lady Williams is sitting to my right. My noble friend talked about the issue of these unexplained wealth orders and we have acted. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked earlier about the detail. The same applies for sanctions or any other step that we may take. There is a positive, in that even those with the most sinister motives have, within the United Kingdom, the rule of law. We need to ensure that, whether we are talking of these orders or of sanctions, due process is followed, and with a robustness which allows those sanctions or orders to prevail. The Home Office takes this very seriously, as does the Home Secretary. I assure my noble friend that we will act accordingly.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that our agencies have a very good idea already about where certain money is, who has it and who it belongs to in these chains, particularly with their links to the City and the people they talk to. Can the Minister assure me that we have been monitoring very closely any movements of money and changes of pattern, because the Russians will be very aware that this is about to happen? Can he also confirm that, as a number of noble Lords have said, we are in a position to move and to hammer these people the moment that this happens, rather than having to wait two or three years for legislation? We are able to do things like that if we put our minds to it. The great joy is that, as a member of the ISC, in two years I will be able to see all the evidence of whether anyone was doing that.

My Lords, of course the Government take these issues very seriously. Often when we talk about sanctions, we talk about where the Government may be looking to sanction an individual or an organisation, and we resist, for the very reasons that the noble Lord illustrates. Giving any intimation or indication of who or what company may be targeted will lead to funds being withdrawn, if assets are held in the United Kingdom. Therefore, we look to be informed by our agencies across the piece, but it is also important to look to the application of law. There are many wise heads within your Lordships’ House on this very issue. We ensure that the letter of the law is applied fairly to any action that the Government may take. Before such a measure is taken, the background and supporting evidence is considered very carefully at a cross-government level. The noble Lord refers to various agencies, and we have some of the best—arguably the best in the world. Their contributions are important to any final decision that the Government take.

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister can help me with the question of the breadth of sanctions which are to be sought. There is a passage in the Statement which says that:

“We will be able to target any company that is linked to the Russian state”.—[Official Report, Commons, 31/1/22; cols. 55-56.]

Of course, every Russian company is linked to the state under an obligation to report any information which may help to advance the policies of the Russian Government. The effect of this would be that the Government are seeking power to target any Russian company, whether it has a connection with Ukraine or with the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I have already talked through the broader nature of what we as a Government will be allowed to do through legislation. This is enabling legislation. When we look at each individual designation—be it an individual or an organisation—that will be considered very carefully. However, it is important that Russia recognises that its actions in Ukraine are being not just noticed but acted upon. Therefore, it is important that we are seen to act, and to act with our partners accordingly.