Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, this instrument, which is subject to the affirmative procedure, was laid before Parliament in draft on 20 July 2022, under Section 55(5) of the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018—the sanctions Act. It will be made once it is approved by both Houses.
The instrument represents further action to strengthen the UK’s sanctions regime in response to Vladimir Putin’s illegal and abhorrent war against the people of Ukraine. Since the invasion, the UK has worked with international partners to deliver an unprecedented package of sanctions against Putin’s regime and his allies who are complicit in its brutality.
As noble Lords will be aware, the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act 2022 proceeded quickly through Parliament following Russia’s invasion and received Royal Assent on 15 March. That Act amended the sanctions Act to reform how sanctions are imposed and reviewed and how challenges to them are dealt with. Those amendments received cross-party support, including across the Benches in this House.
The economic crime Act created a power for the Government to set a limit on the amount of damages that a court can award for designations made in bad faith. In exercise of that power, the instrument before us introduces a cap of £10,000. This cap will apply to any proceedings challenging the Government’s use of designation powers under the sanctions Act or to the specification of a ship issued on or after 4 March 2022. It will minimise the risks to His Majesty’s Government of spurious or vexatious litigation from deep-pocketed oligarchs, as we continue to ratchet up the pressure on Putin. It is right and proper that the Government protect public funds in this way.
To be clear, this will not affect the right of a designated person to challenge their designation in a court or, if appropriate, have the designation lifted. Furthermore, the courts will have the power to disapply the damages cap to avoid any potential breaches of human rights, where necessary, in individual cases. But the cap will send a strong signal that Putin’s oligarchs and kleptocrats cannot draw on the public purse in this country to boost their coffers, that this Government will not be distracted from the task in hand by endless litigation and that we will not be knocked off course by the risk of damages claims. Noble Lords should make no mistake: this is not about protecting the Government from acting in bad faith. It is about sending a clear message to friends of Putin who are tempted to bring claims without merit.
To conclude, the UK Government will not hesitate in bringing forward further sanctions to target those who participate in or facilitate Putin’s illegal war of choice. On 26 September, the UK announced further sanctions targeting those responsible for Putin’s sham referenda. They included four Russian Government officials, four further oligarchs, 55 state board executives, and 29 individuals and organisations working for illegitimate proxy groups in Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia. On 30 September, the Foreign Secretary announced a new set of sanctions that further limited Russia’s access to the foreign services on which it depends.
Taken alongside previous action, the UK is now preventing Russian access to advertising, architectural, auditing, engineering and IT consultancy services, as well as various commercial legal services. The announcement included a new ban on the export of nearly 700 goods that are crucial to Russia’s industrial and technological capabilities. It also included new sanctions on Elvira Nabiullina—with apologies for the pronunciation—the governor of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation, who has been instrumental in managing the Russian economy throughout the war and in the rouble being imposed on Ukrainian territories that have been seized by Russia.
I trust that the Committee will support this instrument, which strengthens the UK’s ability to sanction those responsible for Putin’s illegal and brutal war. I beg to move.
I thank the Minister for introducing this statutory instrument. Yesterday, we debated other sanctions and focused particularly on Russia. Of course, around the time of that debate, 28 unmanned drones reaped further unnecessary destruction in the capital, Kyiv. A young couple, who were expecting their first child in a matter of months, were among those killed by the senseless barbarity that is driving Putin’s war effort. I know that such crimes will strengthen the resolve not only of the people and Government of Ukraine but that of our Government, this House and all Members of Parliament to ensure that we continue to support Ukraine.
Before I cover the substance of this SI, last night the Minister kindly promised to let me have sight of a letter to my honourable friend Stephen Doughty that answered several of his questions, which I had repeated. By the time I got back to my office, I had received it; I thank the Minister. I specifically raised the issue of mixers, which scramble the origins of crypto transactions to make them virtually untraceable. I asked why two of those mixers—Tornado and Blender—are not on our sanctions list, despite being targeted by the United States. Short of the letter saying that it would be wrong of the Minister to speculate about the targets of future sanctions, there was no mention of them. I will keep repeating the point I have made before: if we do not act in concert with our allies, such as the United States, these mixers will have the capacity to funnel billions to Putin and his cronies. I hope the Minister can reassure us tonight that the Government will act on this.
I turn now to the substance of today’s SIs. It is absolutely right to disincentivise oligarchs and other designated persons from pursuing the Government through the courts by capping the damages that they could receive if they prove that they were sanctioned in bad faith. For far too long, oligarchs from Russia and beyond have acted with complete impunity, their wealth a symbol of global failure to tackle the illicit finance channels which span our economy, politics and society.
Last month, it was revealed that at least 21 Russian businessmen were engaged in legal proceedings across the European Union to overturn sanctions against them, according to filings at the European Court of Justice. I absolutely agree with the noble Lord that today’s action is a welcome step in constraining their ability to tie up these designations in legal showdowns and limit our ability to act. Given that they operate within the parameters of the ECHR, Labour welcomes these changes.
However, it makes no sense to make these changes without acting against illicit Russian finance, which still pollutes the City of London. Labour welcomed the economic crime Act, but the measures it sets out are only the beginning in addressing the chronic problem of dirty money. Minimising what an oligarch can glean from a protracted legal battle is one thing but driving illicit finance out of our institutions is another matter entirely.
As I have repeatedly stated in the Chamber, we must reform Companies House, with new powers to verify information and remove corporate entities from the register once rules are broken. It is vital to ensure that our enforcement bodies are funded for the long term and are no longer outgunned by the seemingly endless resources of oligarchs that we are up against. Spotlight on Corruption highlighted that money laundering prosecutions have dropped by 35% over the last five years. The United Kingdom is by far the most frequent country of origin of SLAPPs—strategic lawsuits against public participation, also known as intimidation lawsuits—with 31% of these cases originating in the UK, according to the Anti-SLAPP Coalition.
The existing budget for economic crime law enforcement is £400 million, with only £100 million of that coming from the Treasury. Given that this is supposed to be a priority of the Government, that amount seems entirely inadequate. I hope the Minister can reassure us that we will build capacity to tackle these oligarchs.
Before I conclude, I have a couple of questions. The cap on damages appears to apply to any proceedings after 4 March. Does the Minister know how many proceedings this will apply to? When the then Minister of State at the Home Office, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, introduced the relevant sections of the economic crime Act, she said that the cap on damages would limit the oligarchs’ claims, but it is not clear what will have been paid out before the cap comes into effect. Is there information on that amount? Can the Minister tell us exactly how the Government concluded that £10,000 is an appropriate level for a cap?
With these comments, I reiterate that we are strongly supportive of the Government’s actions, and we certainly support the adoption of this SI.
I thank the noble Lord for his comments and support for the measure. We have acted swiftly to hold Russia to account for its attack on Ukraine. The UK is inflicting devastating pain in areas of strategic importance to Putin and Russia following the unprovoked and illegal invasion. The Government brought forward this legislation before the Summer Recess and, as the noble Lord said, the cap will apply to all proceedings brought before 4 March.
We continue to make maximum use of our sanctions powers to ensure the strongest possible response to Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. We must ensure that the measures and cases are carefully targeted on the basis of robust evidence before we sanction individuals, goods or companies. That is why we are taking it step by step but noble Lords may rest assured that we will continue to sanction where it will have maximum impact.
It is important to recall that, when this House decided to restrict damages to cases of bad faith, it also gave the Government the power to set a cap. That was done precisely to send the message that no one should benefit from massive payouts from sanctions litigation. We have concluded that £10,000 is appropriate. I am confident in the integrity of our process but this is about sending a message. By imposing a cap, we are removing incentives for deep-pocketed oligarchs or financial institutions to bring unfounded or vexatious litigation. A court cannot neglect to apply the damages cap except in specific circumstances where failure to do so would be in breach of the individual’s human rights.
The starting point will always be that the damages cap applies and will be disapplied only in those very particular circumstances. Any designated person may challenge their designation in court and have it removed if it is not justified, and has the right to receive damages where the Government have acted in bad faith. The core right remains for any designated person to challenge their designation in court and have it removed if it is not justified. This House considered the arguments and supported without objection the Government’s proposal to exclude damages for negligence during the passage of the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act.
I apologise that reference was not made in the letter that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, saw last night to the two mixers he mentioned in his comments yesterday. I am not able to be specific in my answer to him now other than to say that we are working in concert with our allies and will continue to act where appropriate. Absolutely no entity is off the table. We will go further to bring about an end to Putin’s war. I note the recommendation made by the noble Lord; he makes a strong argument. I will make sure that there is appropriate follow-up by government but I hope he understands why I cannot go into more detail now.
The noble Lord asked about 4 March and, I think, how many processes would pre-apply before that date. I think the answer is none. He also asked what has been paid out as a result of actions that precede these measures coming into force. I think the answer to that is also nothing. I think that is correct—I am getting a nod of agreement behind me. That is good news.
The noble Lord rightly raised the question of capacity. I hope I can reassure him by saying that, in December last year, there were 48 substantive roles in the sanctions unit, which has now become the sanctions directorate. We have doubled the number of officials focused on our response. We now have more than 100 permanent staff delivering our response. This number does not include those working across the FCDO and its overseas network, who cover sanctions as part of their wider roles.
The Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation—the OFSI—has also doubled its size this financial year and continues to grow to meet the challenges of the sanctions introduced under the Russia sanctions regime. The recruitment of new permanent staff continues following the former Chancellor’s announcement in March to double the size of the OFSI.
It is the responsibility of the UK and our allies to ensure that our sanctions regimes are maintained and updated appropriately so that we can respond at pace to the activities of malign actors around the world. I once again thank the noble Lord for his insightful contributions and support.
Committee adjourned at 6.44 pm.