Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, these regulations amend the Russia (Sanctions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019. This instrument was laid on 29 June 2023, under powers in the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018. The measures in this instrument entered into force on 30 June 2023.
If I may digress from my script, once again we are debating Russia and its actions. As I came into the Room, I was catching up on some of the news on the Black Sea grain initiative. Yet again, we have seen tragedy; to say it is shocking is perhaps an understatement. According to media reports, Russia has not only scuppered the Black Sea grain initiative but attacked some of the grain ports, destroying much of the grain held in those warehouses. Again, it shows the tragic nature of this illegal war and the importance of our sanctions. I say at the outset that I appreciate the work of both Front Benches opposite and the co-ordination and unity that we have displayed in moving through sanctions at such a pace.
I turn to the SI in front of us. These measures have been co-ordinated with our international partners, while refining the approach to accommodate the particular circumstances of the UK legal sector. By restricting access to additional services from the United Kingdom, they will contribute to increasing pressure on Mr Putin for waging this illegal and brutal war against Ukraine. I know that noble Lords have been focused on this issue in previous debates too. These measures place further constraints on the Russian economy, and therefore Mr Putin’s war machine. They add force to the largest, most substantial package of economic sanctions that Russia has ever faced.
The instrument delivers on the commitment made by the UK Government to ban legal advisory services on specified commercial activities. This will further hamper the ability of Russian businesses to operate internationally. This legislation will make it illegal for any person working in the UK, as well as British nationals working abroad, to advise on or facilitate certain commercial activities that would be sanctioned by the United Kingdom Government if they involved a British national or entity or were taking place in the UK. In practice, this will make it harder for Russia to benefit from the United Kingdom’s world-class legal expertise. This goes beyond prohibitions already in place that cover a range of professional services, including accountancy, architecture and management consultancy. This latest measure demonstrates our continued determination to ratchet up the pressure on Mr Putin for continuing his illegal war.
Although this legislation will close down opportunities for Mr Putin’s associates and supporters to benefit commercially from the UK’s legal expertise, it is important that we ensure that legal services can continue to be provided where they contribute to upholding the rule of law and compliance with our sanctions framework. By protecting the fundamental right to legal representation, we, frankly and directly, distinguish ourselves from Mr Putin’s oppressive regime. By ensuring that legal advice can continue to be provided for the purposes of compliance with our sanctions framework, we enhance the effectiveness of our regulations and intensify the pressure on Mr Putin.
Legal professionals are under a strict obligation to ensure that their services support their clients to be sanctions-compliant and do not stray into enabling them to circumvent restrictions. However, it has become apparent that this legislation can be interpreted as having the unintended consequence of prohibiting persons in the UK and British nationals abroad from providing legal advice to clients seeking to comply with the sanctions regimes of our international partners. Let me assure noble Lords that it is not the intent of these regulations to prohibit this type of legal service. UK lawyers should be able to support their clients to be sanctions-compliant beyond UK law as we work closely with our allies to tighten the net on Russia’s economy.
We have looked at this issue thoroughly. As an immediate response, we are working, first, across government and, importantly, across the legal profession. We have met representatives of the legal sector. My colleagues, the Lord Chancellor and the Justice Secretary, have met members directly; indeed, the Lord Chancellor met the president of the Law Society this morning. I know that this is a concern that anyone would have but I assure noble Lords that we are working closely with the legal sector in this respect to ensure that we implement a general licence that will make it clear that this type of activity can continue. We aim to have this in place in the coming days. I put on record our thanks to the legal sector for its constructive engagement on this important issue.
We have sought here to provide a direct remedy to that possible unintended consequence; the valuable support and input that we have had from the professional legal sector is very much appreciated. Once we have issued the licence, we will consider whether further amendments to the SI to address the issue are appropriate and necessary. Of course, I will update noble Lords, particularly those representing the Front Benches, on this. We will do this in conjunction with the legal sector and, if amendments are deemed necessary, we will bring them forward at the earliest opportunity.
As with our sanctions, this latest package has been developed in co-ordination with our international partners, as I said. In doing this, we will continue to work with the legal community to monitor the effects of this legislation and ensure that it achieves the desired objectives. We will also continue to co-ordinate with our international allies to identify and address any gaps or loopholes that emerge in our respective sanctions regimes.
This latest measure demonstrates our determination to target those who participate in or facilitate Mr Putin’s illegal war of choice. Through our sanctions regime, and those of our allies, Russia is being increasingly isolated, cut off from western markets, services and supply chains. Key sectors of the Russian economy have taken a significant hit and its economic outlook is bleak. The UK Government will use sanctions to intensify the military and economic pressure on Russia until Mr Putin does the right thing and ends his brutal invasion of Ukraine. We welcome the clear and continued cross-party support for this course of action. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for introducing these regulations in such a clear and comprehensive way. I will refer briefly to the concerns about unintended consequences in a moment but I will start by strongly agreeing with the Minister about what are likely to be the consequences of the decision on grain in the Black Sea.
Putin will again threaten the expansion to new victims of his aggression to Ukraine across those who are least able to feed and fend for themselves, especially as malnutrition and hunger ravage the Horn of Africa. Those countries that are dependent on the grain will be looking at this with doom. In a way, it is a horrific response to the leaders of countries, when they consider that they can effectively maintain the status quo ante relations with the Putin regime, to know how little he holds in his standing their people, who need this food.
I have comments to make only with regard to accepting the Government’s argument that we had an issue we had to respond in the UK in terms of our legal services. This had been highlighted over a number of years, including the reports of the “London laundromat” and those companies that used SLAPPs and were part of the circumvention and subversion of the sanctions regime, so we welcome the moves. However, in welcoming them, the Minister will not be surprised to hear that noble Lords received a Law Society briefing on concerns about unintended consequences. My understanding is that the principal unintended consequence, as the briefing said, is this: if an international company wishes to know whether a specific activity that it is contemplating is prohibited by UK, EU and US sanctions, a UK lawyer can answer whether it is prohibited by UK sanctions. However, if it is UK-prohibited activity, the lawyer cannot then advise whether it is also prohibited by EU or US sanctions. I am grateful to the Minister for stating that the Government are in active consideration of how these unintended consequences will not be brought about.
In relation to the position of having a general licence, the Law Society has indicated that the issue is perhaps of a more substantial and complex need rather than requiring a sticking-plaster solution, as they put it. However, I am glad to hear that meetings are taking place at a high level; and that the Government have indicated that either a general licence or amendments will be brought forward as soon as they are necessary. We will support them when they are brought forward because we want to avoid this issue causing more complexity when we need more clarity both that the UK legal system will not be—indeed, will never be—used as part of subverting the sanctions regime we have put in place and that the UK can be a leader in many respects. I am grateful for the Minister’s clarifications and his offer to keep us informed of any progress in these talks.
I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for discussing the proposed statutory instrument so thoroughly. I want to follow the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, in what he picked up from the Law Society’s briefing. It is certainly the case, as the statutory instrument is framed, that a lawyer who works for an international firm but may be based in New York cannot advise an international client on EU or US law in respect of, say, divesting from activities in Russia. It is really quite important to know how he can be compliant with the law. I note the intention to have a general licence but will it be such that there will be a lack of clarity and a concern that overseas clients consulting UK lawyers will not be able to get advice at the same time about where the law stands in respect of US and EU law?
My Lords, one of the issues we need to address is that Russia is highly dependent on western countries for legal expertise. As a country, we previously exported £56 million in legal services to Russian businesses every year, so it is important that we address this issue.
I also welcome the fact that we can use this debate to reiterate our cross-party support for these measures to show our unwavering commitment to and solidarity with Ukraine, its people and its sovereignty. Following last night’s Statement repeat on NATO’s Vilnius summit, I underscored the strength of feeling across our diplomatic and military alliance that we must stand with Ukraine until the war is won. It is vital that Parliament speaks with one voice.
The Opposition fully support the steps that the Government are taking to further strengthen our sanctions regime, prevent evasion and ensure that the Kremlin’s capacity to conduct this war is undermined. I stress that we recognise that this statutory instrument is common sense and prudent. It clearly should not be permissible that, more than 500 days into this conflict, it would be potentially lawful for a UK legal services provider to support commercial activities that advanced Russian interests because said activity did not have a sufficiently tangible connection to the UK, due to the territorial application of the 2019 regulations.
I hope the Minister can tell us what assessment the Government have made of how effective the 2019 regulations were and how we discovered any potential loopholes that people could get through. This leads on to my major point about this: can the Minister account for the delay in addressing these issues from the application of the regulations in 2019? If this loophole has been exploited, why has it taken us so long to address it?
I have read the Law Society’s letter and I appreciate the Minister’s response. I welcome the fact that the law officers and other departments are meeting with the Law Society but, to echo the point from the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, I am keen to support the Government in strengthening these sanctions. I do not want to see any further escape routes for people. It is important that we hear the Minister’s view on how effective these new regulations will be at imposing the sort of sanctions that we believe are necessary to limit Russia’s ability to wage war.
I know that the Minister has heard me say before that it is one thing to adopt particular regulations on sanctions, but how we resource them and how we are satisfied that they can be implemented and monitored is another. Can he tell us how the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation is resourced? Will it be able to police these regulations? If our sanctions regime truly is a work in progress, we must be capable of reflection and improvement. If exemptions are causing more issues, we need to know about them; the assessment must be based on that.
There is one other question I will briefly raise, which is that the regulations provide exceptions when the Act relates to diplomatic missions or consular posts. Can the Minister give me a practical example of that? I am not sure I understand the purpose of it.
I have addressed the point about the Law Society. Of course, this was also raised with the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which expressed the view that this issue needs to be addressed. The committee was approached by an international law firm.
I conclude by saying that we once again fully support the Government’s actions. We want to see the Russian regime sanctioned. The news I have just seen on the BBC website about not only breaking the agreement but bombing the very facilities that could feed Africa is absolutely atrocious. The sooner we bring this regime to account, the better. We fully support the Government in their actions.
My Lords, I put on record my thanks to the noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Collins. I am sure I speak for all three of us in saying that, when we embarked on this journey of sanctions, we hoped that our debates and discussions would be limited. However, it is a real tragedy of the consequences of the war on Ukraine that we are continuing to have these debates. As I said in my opening remarks, and as was acknowledged by the noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Collins, the fact that, even as we speak, there continue to be not just acts of aggression but pure violations of international law shows the nature of this war.
One point I would raise is how we amplify these points to the sorts of countries that still sometimes challenge us directly. I was delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Wallace—I am not tempting him into the debate, but I am sure he will have a view on how we address the issue of influence directly. Quite often on the world stage and as I have travelled, it has been said to us that our sanctions are causing problems of food insecurity. Russia’s actions today demonstrate what is causing the challenges to food security. We have always worked with the UN and other key countries to ensure that the Black Sea grain initiative is kept on the front burner. It is regrettable and tragic that it was not. Further, it is tragic that we have seen the consequences culminating in this Russian aggression on the very areas that store the grain.
That said, I thank noble Lords for their specific contributions. To clarify the point made by my noble friend Lady Lawlor, whose intervention I welcome, what we are seeking to introduce—we have identified this issue—is a general licence as an immediate first step. We are working directly with the legal profession, including the Law Society, to ensure that any other unintended consequences and any other loopholes that we can address directly can also be met first hand. As I said in my opening remarks, we will seek to bring legislation forward at the earliest opportunity. It is important that we continue to do so.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the issue of identifying, as things are, how we have been working to address particular issues and the delay. As I am sure he would acknowledge, legal services are distinct from other professional services in the constitutional role they play within our country in supporting and upholding the rule of law. Therefore, we carefully consider the implications of different policy options. This is ever evolving. In collecting an evidence base, we also work with legal services to ensure that, as far as possible, the measures we lay have the desired effect.
I am not saying that this is the last time we will have this conversation. As we are imposing these sanctions and taking further steps to restrict Russian activities, I am sure that we will identify areas, as we have on this occasion, that will further address those very issues. As a former person of the City myself, I fully understand the comprehensive scope of not just the banking services but the services industry around them. We have previously addressed consultancy and accountancy firms and today, in conjunction with legal representatives, we have worked through the implications for the legal industry.
I share with noble Lords that our level of engagement has included webinars. As I said earlier, I know that my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice are working with the Law Society of England and Wales to organise round tables with leading sanctions lawyers, as well as holding confidential discussions directly with firms. The MoJ is engaged in regular dialogue with representative bodies, and this has allowed the Government to identify key areas of concern.
As the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Purvis, identified, following the announcement of the SI, the sector raised concerns that the exemption for advice related to compliance with sanctions applies only to UK sanctions regulations. We are considering this issue as a matter of urgency and, as I said, looking to introduce this general licence to address that very issue. As to whether the Act complies with international sanctions imposed on Russia, including the EU and US sanctions regime—
As I understand it, the auditing element of it is a professional and legal requirement, but if I can amplify that further I will of course write to the noble Lord.
The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, and my noble friend Lady Lawlor raised the issue of the general licence and its application. Under the general licence, UK persons will be able to advise on global sanctions regimes, including but not limited to the United Kingdom, USA and EU. In response to my noble friend, the same applies to the scenario she illustrated of a UK person working in the USA. However, I will take all these elements and ensure that there is a specific response because these are understandably issues of concern.
At this juncture, I also say that our rule of law and justice system allow for the provision of representation services. I am sure that the fact that I did not get a question on that means that noble Lords have acknowledged and noted that it is right that a country such as the United Kingdom continues to protect that right of legal representation. We may have our personal views on particular people who seek to take advantage of our professional services but, at the same time, every professional, including legal professionals, will now be bound by the new regulations that we are putting forward.
On the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, specific to the Diplomatic Service, I am sure that some areas of privileges and immunities are covered in that. Again, in the interest of completeness, I will cover that in the appropriate letter.
On auditing, as I said, audits apply to the shareholders rather than the companies, in order to ensure that audits can take place where they are a statutory requirement. I have just had that confirmation from the Box—I remember some of my private sector experience quite well. It shows that when you do things off the cuff, you remember things from years past.
In all seriousness, we have sought to address some of the key areas identified as these new regulations and sanctions regimes are applied. While we have worked to ensure that Russia cannot access our legal expertise in relation to certain commercial activities, we have not hindered work that helps to provide judicial rights and access to justice.
These measures are the latest addition to our package of sanctions, which is having a damaging effect on Mr Putin’s war machine and his regime. I know that the UK Government and all Members of your Lordships’ House are united in keeping the pressure on Mr Putin until he ends this horrific and senseless war.
Finally, if, before the House rises, there are further details I can share with noble Lords on the issuance and the date of issuance of the general licences, I will do so. I will write to noble Lords on the areas that I have said I will address, particularly on diplomats. That said, I put on record my sincere thanks to all noble Lords, including my noble friend, who participated in this brief debate. Sadly, and tragically, I am sure that we will have further debates on this.