I beg to move,
That this House expresses solidarity with the people of Ukraine, and supports their sovereignty and Ukraine’s territorial integrity; condemns Russian aggression and emphasises the UK’s commitment to NATO; resolves to end illicit finance that rewards and sustains the Putin regime in Russia; calls on the Government to introduce an Economic Crime Bill, an Overseas Entities Bill and a register of beneficial ownership by the end of March 2022; and further calls on the Foreign Secretary to make a statement to this House on the implementation of the recommendations of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia Report, HC 632, published on 21 July 2020.
My ancestors knew what it was like to have freedom taken away at the barrel of gun. They knew what the twisted lies of imperialism sounded like. They knew what it was like to live without the vote. They were taken from their homes, enslaved, shackled to ships, and forced to work for the profit of a foreign empire. No act of authoritarianism is ever the same, but Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine in recent weeks are an ugly attempt to restore the Russian empire.
The Russian President denied the right of a sovereign nation to exist. He unilaterally recognised separatist movements that seek to dismember Ukraine. Then, under the cowardly shield of the night, he sent in tanks and soldiers to enforce his diktat. Putin’s crimes against peace need a united and immediate response: a full set of sanctions, possible now; to provide continued support for the Ukrainian army; and to clean out the dirty Russian cash in our system. However, to stand up to Putin in the long term, we need to stand up to Putinism. Putin is not unique. He is the figurehead of an ideology that is being emulated by despots and dictators around the world.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that not nearly enough action is being taken to crack down on illicit Russian influence in the UK? Our structures are set up to be so opaque that we have no idea of how strong Russian influence is. With Putin’s money still being funnelled, can we not create a proper register of overseas entities, clearly to see and address this issue?
I appreciate that my right hon. Friend will say more on this issue. It is estimated that there is at least £2 billion of dirty money in the London property market—much of it is concentrated in high value areas including Kensington and my borough of Westminster—and we do not know the beneficial owners of those properties. Was he as surprised as me to hear the Prime Minister say that we may not expect the economic crimes Bill until the next Session?
My hon. Friend is so right. These properties are pricing out young people and challenging working people. Often, the lights are off and no one knows who owns them. If that is not an urgent issue, I do not know what is. I was staggered when the Prime Minister said that it did not merit action until the next Session.
It is not just about urgent action. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is outrageous that legislation on publishing the beneficial ownership of UK properties owned by entities abroad was promised by the Government in 2016, there was consultation on a draft Bill—I think a Bill is sitting in Government, ready to go—and it was promised again in the 2019 manifesto and at G7 meetings but has yet to appear? Is that not an utter scandal?
Further to that point, my right hon. Friend will be aware that the Treasury Committee has published a report on economic crime in which it calls for an economic crime Bill, so this matter is supported not just by Opposition Members but by many Conservative Members. There is support right across the House, so why is there a lack of urgency from the Government?
My hon. Friend is right. We are talking about foreign ownership of property in our country, and that ought to command cross-party support. Just six or seven years ago, I would never have thought that this would feel like a partisan issue and be the basis of an Opposition day debate. It should have had time on the Floor, and we should have had an economic crime Bill years ago, but it takes the Opposition dragging the issue into the public domain to get a response.
To stand up to Putin in the long term, we need to stand up to Putinism, because Putin is not unique; he is the figurehead of an ideology that is being emulated by despots and dictators around the world. Putinism is imperialism. Putinism is authoritarianism. Putinism is ethno-nationalism. The Russian regime represents a fundamental geopolitical threat and we will not defeat the broader threat until we tackle the ideology that underlies it. Part of our message to Putin must be that his actions are a historic mistake.
This is not the first time that a Russian leader has waded into conflict as a result of his ideology. The same thing happened in East Berlin in 1953 when the USSR moved in to suppress riots. It happened in Hungary in 1956 when Russia sent in troops to invade the country as well as in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and in Afghanistan in 1979. None of those acts of aggression was a success in the long term for Russia, and civilians caught in the middle always pay a terrible price. In the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Russian soldiers strode in convinced that their invasion was liberating the Czech people from capitalism, but, when they are arrived, normal Czechs surrounded the invading forces and said, “Why are you here? You aren’t liberators—you are aggressors.” The Russian troops were deflated; the propaganda that they had been fed was a lie. The same thing will happen if Putin moves on the rest of Ukraine.
Only the Ukrainian people should have the freedom to determine their own futures. That fundamental belief in self-determination is shared across so many of our borders. It is a founding principle of so many of our closest allies and partners across this great continent and beyond it. The logic of democracy is why Putin will never win in the end. Any reward that he gains will be pyrrhic.
Putin has made his move. The wider threat that Ukraine faces is immediate, but the consequences for Europe and the west are also stark. This is likely the end of the post-cold war era, but we do not yet know what era is next, because it has not been decided. The effects of this moment will depend as much on our response to this aggression as on the aggression itself.
I thank the right hon. Member for putting forward an impressive contribution to the debate. Following his line of thought, does he agree that, having decided our first step of imposing sanctions, we must do so properly and with wisdom? We also need to act in co-operation with other nations to ensure that we do not see Russian money supply transferred from our banks to friendly banks—those in Switzerland, for example, among other nations—in the next few days.
The hon. Gentleman is right. He knows a lot about violence and the corruption of money to fund that violence, and I am sure that the whole House is grateful for his wisdom.
What we know is that autocrats from around the world are watching to see if we meet this test of our strength and resolve. China will be watching to see how the west responds to Russia as it plots its next move. We must be strong not only to defend the people of Ukraine whose dignity and resilience has been an inspiration to all of us throughout the crisis but to defend the liberal international order that we need to stay safe.
Labour would go deeper, broader, stronger and faster on sanctions. The Government’s targeting of just five banks and three individuals is simply not enough. They claim that these are the toughest ever sanctions on Russia, but, after the annexation of Crimea, the UK froze the assets of almost 200 individuals and 50 entities alongside a range of other measures. Labour would go much further. We would increase the depth of sanctions by targeting more oligarchs and more banks. We would increase the breadth of sanctions by widening the measures beyond just asset freezes to sectoral measures, blocking dealing in Russian sovereign debt and banning the fake-news producing Russia Today. We would ramp up the speed of sanctions—we would not wait for Putin’s next act of war but introduce the full set of sanctions now. We would increase their coherence, moving in lockstep with our allies who have sanctioned more people more quickly than us. We would have stopped Nord Stream 2 and targeted Belarus as well, and we would make our sanctions stronger by targeting the systems people operate in as well as individuals. That means reforming Companies House so that it is fit for purpose, creating a register of overseas owners of UK property, as has been mentioned, delivering a strong economic crime Bill, as has been mentioned time and again, and implementing the recommendations of the Russia report finally in this House.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that an estimated £100 billion a year is run up through money laundering, fraud and corruption, so he is right that it is imperative that the Government take action now. When the Minister for Security and Borders, the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), gave evidence to the Treasury Committee, he admitted that the Government have been found wanting—not his words, but more or less so—and that there is much to do. This week is the moment to act.
I thank my right hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene once again. The words the Minister for Security and Borders, the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) used when giving evidence to the Treasury Committee were that he was “not happy”—that is the quote in our report—with the progress the Government have made in tackling economic crime. That is in the Treasury Committee report. I share his unhappiness with the progress the Government have been making. If the Minister is not happy with the progress the Government are making and we are not happy with the progress the Government are making, we can only guess why there still seems to be a lack of progress.
I have to say to my hon. Friend that it is challenging all our consciousness when the Government say they are not happy and the Minister says he is not happy and nothing happens. They are in charge and they have to fix this.
Sanctions are the way we punish Russia for its crimes, but there is so much more action we should have taken years ago to defeat the corruption, crime and lies that define the ideology and operating system of Putinism. That means rooting out the dirty money that is corrupting our economy and our democracy. It is no use tackling Russian aggression abroad while doing nothing to tackle Russian corruption at home. For a decade, the Tories have failed on this. Worse, they have enabled it. We are working with the Government on standing up against Russian aggression in Ukraine, but we must work in the UK to get our own house in order. It is a great shame that the UK is regularly described as the money laundering capital of the world. It is shameful that our US allies have said they are concerned that the influence of Russian money has compromised us. It is shameful that the Tories have failed to stop Russian money from turning London into a laundromat for ill-gotten gains.
Our openness to kleptocracy and its money has weakened our country. Dirty Russian money props up Putin’s regime by shielding the dark money of the Russian oligarchs and Putin himself. It fuels crime on our streets. When kids risk their lives to deal drugs on county lines, that is dirty money. When vulnerable women are trafficked across the country to be abused, that is dirty money. When people are forced to live in fear because of criminal gangs on the streets, that is funded by dirty money. Dirty money makes the housing crisis worse by inflating prices and buying up properties to lie empty as assets not homes. And it leads people to ask questions about the Conservative party, which has accepted £2 million in donations since Boris Johnson took power in 2019. Mr Speaker, it must give that money back.
One thing my right hon. Friend has not mentioned yet is tier 1 visas. I note that Lubov Chernukhin was given a tier 1 visa in 2011 and Alexander Temerko was given a tier 1 visa in 2011 by Conservative Home Secretaries. Subsequently, between them they have given millions of pounds to the Conservative party and lots of individual Members of this House have taken money from those individuals. It certainly looks like corruption, does it not, if you give out a visa, do not insist on that person surrendering their Russian nationality, and those people use extensive shell companies in the British Virgin Islands and elsewhere to hide where their money is coming from? That is corruption, is it not?
What concerns me is that the way that Russia is set up at the moment—I described it yesterday as a mafia state—means that if you are going to make money out of Russia you have to have the permission of Mr Putin, otherwise you are out of the picture. Does my right hon. Friend therefore not share my concern that a lot of the money coming in is directly or indirectly linked to the activities of Putin himself?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We note, do we not, individuals who are the target of sanctions in Europe and who have been the target of sanctions in the United States since 2018? And we wait and we wait and we wait. And we wonder why this Government are so slow to act.
Today, we call on the whole House to come together to end the tidal flow of dirty Russian money flooding into our country by: ending our openness to fraud and money laundering with an economic crime Bill that should be brought forward this month; fixing our inadequate regulation of political donations by reversing the Conservative’s Elections Bill that is setting us back; strengthening our lax mechanisms of corporate governance; enabling our national agencies to clamp down on economic crime; and blocking the threat of foreign interference in our politics. We need transparency with an overseas entities Bill and the reform of Companies House to shut down the shell companies that obscure the origins of wealth and hide corruption, and reveal who owns land from abroad. Finally, this House must come together and recognise the urgency of implementing the Russia report, which was published in July 2020—nearly two years ago.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way and I welcome the commitments he has made on the sort of action a Labour Government would immediately put in place. There is one area he has not covered, which I think is of great importance: the role played by the financial services sector and the enablers here in London in supporting money laundering and illicit finance. Whether lawyers, accountants, the banks or other advisers, they are often complicit in this activity. Does he agree that the economic crime Bill also needs clauses that tackle the role of enablers in enabling illicit finance?
My right hon. Friend is exactly right. Over two thirds of our economy is the service sector. The consultants, lawyers and accountants are absolutely a part of the process of dirty money and the laundromat. We must act to deal with them. [Interruption.] Of course not all of them, but there are facilitators and we expect to see the appropriate clauses in the economic crime Bill.
Defeating Putinism starts with leadership that represents our values. If we are to be taken seriously on the world stage when we talk about democracy, we cannot be watering it down at home with unfair reforms such as voter ID and loose rules about overseas donations. If we are to be credible champions of international law, our leaders must practise the laws they set at home. The best way to defend the rule of law is to follow it.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly emphasises what the UK can do to clean up matters in the UK. One commentator has talked about the need to tackle what he calls the ecosystem of Russian influence over UK democracy, which would mean going further and including direct donations to politicians—some of whom are Members of this House—the actions of public affairs companies and lobbying companies, and in particular the funding of think-tanks. Does he agree that a very comprehensive package of measures is needed?
The hon. Gentleman makes the list more comprehensive and he is exactly right.
Enough is now enough. Putin has invaded Ukraine, a sovereign state and a friend and partner of the United Kingdom. That is an attack on the hopes, dreams and aspirations of ordinary Ukrainians. We can no longer let him exploit the holes in our system at home to enable his aggression abroad. This is not a partisan issue, and nor should it be difficult. It is shameful that the Government have not acted long ago. We want to work with the Government not only to win against Putin’s aggression abroad, but to defeat the ideology of Putinism at home. We are united in this House in support of NATO, in support of freedom, and in support of democracy and equality. Let us send a clear message to President Putin and authoritarians around the world that the UK is no longer a haven for dirty money.
I thank the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) for securing this timely debate and join him in expressing our united support for the people of Ukraine and their territorial integrity. We have seen events unfolding that none of us thought we would ever witness again.
We have unreservedly condemned this outrageous and unjustified act. This action is inconsistent with the United Nations charter and a clear breach of international law. It demonstrates flagrant disregard for Russia’s commitments under the Minsk agreement and represents a further attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. We continue to call on Russia to observe its obligations under article 2(4) of the United Nations charter to
“refrain…from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”.
We reiterate our unshakeable commitment to the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of Ukraine. We insist that the Russian Federation immediately returns to compliance with its obligations under the United Nations charter and its commitments under the Helsinki Final Act and the 1994 Budapest memorandum. We demand that the Russian Federation immediately withdraws all its military forces from the territory of Ukraine, unconditionally and without exception. We also insist that the Russian Federation allows and facilitates the safe and unobstructed access of humanitarian assistance by international agencies for those in need in Ukraine. Yesterday, the Prime Minister announced, here in the House, the UK’s response to this action.
I agree with the Minister’s fine words, but two weeks ago, the Prime Minister told the House, on Ukraine, that the UK’s role was “to lead the West”. In the meantime, Germany has put Nord Stream 2 on hold indefinitely. Today, the European Union has sanctioned Duma deputies, the Russian Defence Minister and the Russian air force and Black sea fleet commanders, and it has brought in asset freezes and sanctioned 23 individuals, five banks and an internet troll factory. The USA has also extended sanctions. Is the UK actually leading the west?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I would say that we absolutely are leading, with our allies. I will come on to the package of measures and some of the points that have been raised, as well as what we will go on to do.
The UK is one of the largest and most open economies, and London is one of the world’s most attractive destinations for overseas investments. Those factors not only make the UK attractive for legitimate business, but expose the UK to illicit finance and money laundering risks. We are well aware that individuals with links to the Russian state may seek to further their reputation and influence in the UK through strategic investments. We continue to look in close detail at the nature of those relationships. We examine the intentions of those individuals; professional enablers, individuals or entities who facilitate corrupt elites; and what that money can be and is being used for in the UK.
Money obtained through corruption or criminality is not welcome in the UK or in our Crown dependencies and overseas territories. The Government are at the forefront of tackling illicit finance, combating the threat from source to destination, including those linked to Russia.
I believe that there are Ministers and Government Members who are frustrated at the lack of progress that the Government are making in tackling money laundering and fraud, which brings me back to the question of why. The Government have the majority that they need, they control the timetable and they have been in power for more than a decade, so why is there a lack of progress on the issue of Companies House? Our Treasury Committee report again talked about the slow pace and the lack of progress. What else does the Minister need for us to make progress on this issue, when we in the Opposition are offering an open door and saying, “We will support it.”?
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. I will set out the steps that the Government have taken and come on to—[Interruption.] Let us start with the actions that we have taken and then look at what we will do.
First, we have announced significant new investments. In the 2021 spending review settlement, £42 million was announced for economic crime reforms and £63 million for Companies House reform. In addition, the introduction of the economic crime levy will raise an estimated £100 million a year from 2023-24 to fund new economic crime initiatives.
Secondly, we are strengthening our law enforcement powers. The Criminal Finances Act 2017 introduced new powers to combat dirty money in the UK. It allowed for the proactive investigation of assets owned by suspected criminals and corrupt public figures.
Thirdly, we are developing new tools to target illegitimate wealth. [Interruption.] I will come back to these points. In April last year, the UK launched the global anti-corruption sanctions regime, which allows the Government to impose asset freezes and travel bans on those involved in serious corruption around the world. That is a strong personal deterrent and has been used so far to sanction 27 individuals in 10 different countries.
I am delighted that we have Magnitsky sanctions; I campaigned for them for 12 years—as did many other Members, including the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely), who is on the Government Benches—so it is a great thing that they are there. However, when the Minister talks about Companies House reform, the legislation is there. It is ready and waiting. The most disgraceful thing that I have ever heard is a Companies House official telling a Committee of this House, “I’m really sorry. We sometimes just daren’t take things forward because we know that Russian oligarchs have much deeper pockets than we do.” The truth is that our integrity as a country is being bought. We have to change that.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I will talk about what we want to crack down on, but, as he will recognise, such things need to be legally robust.
To go back to the examples that I was giving before that intervention, the UK is a world leader in corporate transparency. It is the first country in the G20 to implement a central public register of company beneficial owners, showing who ultimately owns and controls UK companies. However, we are determined to go further to crack down on dirty money and financial exploitation, and we are enhancing the already strong regulation, supervision and legislative powers that are at our disposal.
More in sorrow than in anger, I raise the issue of Russian money and its role within the Conservative party. Fedotov, Temerko, Chernukhin, Mikheev, Knaster and New Century Media are all Russians or Russian companies who have close links to the Conservative party and have given money to Conservative MPs, Conservative constituencies or the Conservative central office. The figure I have is greater than the one that Labour Front Benchers have been using; I think it has been at least £3.6 million over the past decade.
I urge the Minister—I really do say this more in sorrow than in anger—to go back to her colleagues, sort this out and get that money out. I would not give it back to Russia; I would give it to organisations such as Transparency International, which does a fantastic job helping us to fight corruption. Until the Conservative party does so, it will have no credibility at all in the argument on fighting corruption.
Let me be clear. The Conservative party does not accept foreign donations—after all, they are illegal. All donations to the party are received in good faith, after appropriate due diligence, from permissible sources. Donations are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission and published by it, and they comply fully with the law.
I am sorry that the Minister has to defend the indefensible. Will she confirm to the House today whether the vetting of Mohamed Amersi’s donation surfaced the news that he made $4 million in a business deal with a man who was President Putin’s telecoms minister? Did the vetting cover that—yes or no?
As I say, donations to the Conservative party are received in good faith. They receive appropriate due diligence, are from permissible sources, are properly and transparently declared to and published by the Electoral Commission, and comply with the law.
I will make progress, because I want to turn to sovereign debt. If Russia stages any further invasion into Ukraine, we will not hesitate to implement a comprehensive and unprecedented package of sanctions in close co-ordination with our allies around the world.
May I make a little progress? I have been quite generous, to be fair.
The package will include measures to stop the Kremlin’s access to UK financial markets for sovereign debt. That means that the Russian Government will be unable to access UK services to raise capital through the issuing and trading of sovereign debt.
To pick up on the point about Nord Stream 2, we welcome Chancellor Scholz’s strong response to Russia’s egregious actions: Germany’s decision to suspend Nord Stream 2. We in Europe must now wean ourselves off dependence on Putin’s oil and gas. For example, in 2020 less than 3% of the UK’s total gas supply came from Russia.
Many hon. Members have mentioned the economic crime Bill. We are committed to bringing it forward.
The Minister says we need to wean ourselves off Russian gas. That is eminently sensible, but I have a slightly wider question: do we need to wean ourselves off Russia more generally? Let me put it this way: does the Minister think it right in any circumstances that Tony Blair went to see then acting President Putin in 2000 or that David Cameron went to Moscow in 2011, almost to beg for Russian investment and placings and listings on the stock exchange? Surely we have made mistakes over a long period that have to do with political reputation as much as with the practicalities of gas supply.
The point that I want to make is about where we are today and where we have been for the past few days, weeks and months. Let us be honest: the build-up of troops on the border of Ukraine has been happening over some time.
We are committed to bringing forward the economic crime Bill. It will establish a new public register of beneficial ownership of overseas companies and other entities that own or want to buy UK property. It will ensure that individuals and entities can no longer hide in the shadows. It will also include reforms to Companies House that will bear down on the thousands of UK companies and other corporate structures used as vehicles for facilitating international money laundering, including from Russia.
We have increased checks on private flights, customs and freight travel under existing powers to prevent security threats to our people. On 17 February, the Home Secretary took decisive action to shut the tier 1 investor visa route to all new applicants of all nationalities, with immediate effect.
In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine yesterday, we announced our first package of sanctions measures. With immediate effect, we froze the assets of five Russian banks. Four of those banks are involved in bankrolling the Russian occupation: Bank Rossiya, which is particularly close to the Kremlin; Black Sea Bank for Development and Reconstruction; IS Bank; and GenBank.
Sorry, but I will just make a little progress. [Interruption.] Just a moment—just hold fire for a second, if you do not mind.
The assets of one further bank—Promsvyazbank, the pivotal bank in propping up Russia’s defence sector—have also been frozen. We will also freeze the assets of, and impose travel bans on, three oligarchs: Timchenko, Russia’s sixth richest oligarch; and Boris and Igor Rotenberg, long-standing associates of the regime.
The Minister is being very generous in giving way. I am hearing that apparently No. 10 is telling the media that sanctions on the Duma members who voted are still being finalised because it needs evidence. What more evidence does it possibly need, considering that the EU has already announced that it is sanctioning 351 Members of the Duma?
The hon. Lady is very lucky to be looking at her mobile phone. I am not looking at my mobile phone; I am fairly focused on the debate in hand. [Interruption.] I am going to focus on the sanctions that we announced yesterday and the statutory instrument that the House approved.
To go back to my last point, no UK individual business will be able to deal with them until they have returned to Ukrainian control.
I will make progress, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind. I think I have been pretty generous so far.
Over the coming weeks, we will extend the territorial sanctions imposed on Crimea to territory occupied by Russian forces in the so-called breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. We will also sanction those Members of the Russian Duma and Federation Council who voted to recognise the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, in flagrant violation of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty.
This will not be the end. Yesterday’s announcement was just the start of our upward ratchet.
The Minister has repeated the points made yesterday about sanctions against banks. Can she explain to the House what her Government will do to sanction the large state-owned banks? If we sanctioned Sberbank, VTB and Gazprombank, for example, as well the non-state owned Alfa bank, it would actually have a serious impact on the Russian Government. At the moment, we are neither here nor there.
I am not going to speculate on further sanctions. That is normal, standard Government policy, because to do so would undermine future sanctions. All I will say is that this will not be the end. Should Russia stage any further invasion into Ukraine, we will not hesitate to implement a comprehensive and unprecedented package of sanctions in close co-ordination with allies around the world.
If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I would like to make a little progress.
That package of sanctions will include measures to stop the Kremlin’s access to UK financial markets for sovereign debt, which means the Russian Government will be unable to access UK services to raise capital through the issuing and trading of sovereign debt. These measures will curtail the ability of the Russian state, and Russian companies, to raise funds on our markets, and will further isolate Russian banks’ ability to operate internationally. We will also introduce measures to limit Russia’s ability to trade internationally, and to degrade the development of its military industrial base for years to come. We will keep ratcheting up the pressure, targeting more banks, elites and companies that are of significance to the Kremlin.
I am grateful to the Minister. Is there not a danger that the UK has taken a peashooter to a bazooka contest? As we are targeting a few individuals and a few peripheral banks, the Kremlin can sit back and allow oil and gas prices to rise, which will hit every single household in the UK.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and also for his persistence. As I have said, this is the first tranche of measures, and we are prepared to go further.
In conclusion, as we have shown consistently in recent years, and in recent days, the UK takes the threat of international illicit finance, including that from Russia, extremely seriously. We have taken decisive action to demonstrate that corrupt elites and individuals who seek to exploit our financial systems to hide their illegitimate wealth are not welcome in the UK, and we can and will go further to ensure that the UK is safeguarded from these threats.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Are you able to help me? I may have inadvertently misled the House earlier today when I said in a point of order that the Prime Minister was intending to correct the record of what he had said yesterday regarding whether Roman Abramovich had or had not been sanctioned—the Prime Minister said yesterday that he had, but I think he now admits that he has not. I was told by one of the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretaries yesterday afternoon that he was going to write to me, and that there would be an apology. I gather that a version of the Prime Minister’s apology was submitted a while ago for a clarification, as is standard practice for Ministers, but I understand that has now been withdrawn. So the Prime Minister was going to correct the record, but now he is correcting correcting the record by not correcting the record. Can you confirm that that is the case, Madam Deputy Speaker?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order but, to be perfectly honest, I am having difficulty in grasping what his actual question is. He has asked me to confirm something, but I would have to be absolutely certain what it was that I was confirming before I could say that I was confirming it. This is a very serious matter and I want to make sure that we get the facts correct. I am told that a written ministerial statement has now been published and is available online. It might be that that contains the information for which the hon. Gentleman is searching. I am quite sure that if the record requires to be corrected, the Prime Minister will have it corrected.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I just wonder whether that is the correct procedure for a Minister. Normally we have a specific procedure in the House for correcting the record, which is only available to Ministers, so it would seem very odd to have sent forward a correction of the record through the standard process and now suddenly to divert down a completely different route, namely a written ministerial statement. My understanding was that written ministerial statements were normally announced in advance, rather than being suddenly sprung on the House.
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, and there does seem to be some confusion. My understanding is that the written ministerial statement, which the hon. Gentleman is suggesting has been withdrawn, has not been withdrawn, and that it stands. Does that help the hon. Gentleman?
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. No, I am sorry, but it does not. As I understand it, earlier this afternoon, during this debate, the Prime Minister submitted a correction to the record, as is standard practice for a Minister who has misled the House inadvertently—in those circumstances, Ministers correct the record. As far as I know, this is the first time the Prime Minister has chosen to do so—hurrah.
What I understand you now to be saying, Madam Deputy Speaker, is that instead of correcting the record—which is the standard, proper process for a Minister—the Prime Minister has decided to table a written ministerial statement. As I understand it, written ministerial statements are only meant to be tabled when they have been announced in advance on the Order Paper, and, as far as I am aware, that is not available.
Now I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. I have to say that I think it is better that I tell the truth to the House, because I am not aware of exactly what this situation is, but I will immediately, by the methods available to me, find out precisely what the situation is, because—I note that those on the Government Front Bench are agreeing with me—it is very important that the information available to the House, to the Chamber and more widely is correct and accurate. I have a great appreciation of the point made by the hon. Gentleman. I want to make sure that the information I give to the House is accurate, and as I do not have it at my fingertips, I will find it and announce it as soon as I possibly can.
Now, where were we? I call Alison Thewliss.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sorry that you were drawn into such a Pythonesque sketch show, but it is indicative of some aspects of the situation that I feel we are in with the Government today. They are absolutely all over the place on this issue. I could not quite believe it when the Minister said that the Government were taking it seriously, because we would not be here today if there were any sense whatsoever that they were taking it seriously. They have not taken it seriously, and that has been the case for years.
I thank the official Opposition for initiating the debate. It seems as though we have spoken a fair amount about economic crime in the past few weeks, but this motion could not be more topical or more significant.
During the sanctions debate yesterday afternoon, Members on both sides of the House rightly made clear that we have no quarrel with the people of Russia, and I want to start by reiterating that today. The cities of Glasgow and Rostov-on-Don have been twinned since 1986, hosting exchanges and working together to build bonds of friendship.
Rostov-on-Don now finds itself on the Russian frontline, and my thoughts are with residents there, as well as, of course, with all those in Ukraine, who must be very fearful of what more is to come after eight years of hostile action taken by Russian forces. We on these Benches are very clear about the fact that Ukraine and its sovereignty must be respected, and its people protected from Russian aggression.
I found it striking yesterday afternoon that Members in all parts of the House—perhaps forbye the Minister—were standing up to say that sanctions against five banks and three individuals were not enough. They are quite clearly not enough. These individuals have been on the US sanctions list since 2018, and are hardly likely to find this additional step a surprise or, indeed, an inconvenience.
It was billed that, post Brexit, the UK would be able to act in a nimble fashion and sanction more and more individuals as it saw fit, but it seems that we are not even going as far as the EU. Germany’s ending of Nord Stream 2 yesterday was a hugely significant move. European Union Foreign Ministers agreed unanimously on Tuesday to sanction 27 Russians and entities, as well banks and the defence sector, and to limit Russian access to European capital markets. The EU’s measures will also target as many as 351 members of the Russian Duma, as well as individuals and businesses linked to Russian actions in the separatist regions.
I appreciate that the Prime Minister said during Prime Minister’s questions, and the Foreign Secretary said this morning, that they will escalate sanctions in the event of full-scale invasion, but by that time it will be far too late.
Does the hon. Member agree that it is important that, as far as possible, Britain acts in concert with its allies, and that it is therefore strange that the Government have come forward with a very weak package of sanctions while the European Union has a very strong package?
Does this whole crisis not demonstrate the strategic malfunction of the Conservative party’s obsession with the European Union over the years, especially given all the negative energy that has consumed politics in this place over the last five years in the fallout from Brexit? We have taken our eye off the ball when it comes to the biggest foreign policy challenges that the UK—the state—faces.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct on that. There is a real need to work together on this, but the UK has been several steps behind, unfortunately.
I note with interest that it was reported that shares in Russia’s two biggest banks went up yesterday, in relief that they had not been targeted. The five banks targeted represent a mere fraction of the Russian banking sector. Only one of the five is on the Russian central bank’s list of systemically important credit institutions. The Black Sea bank is Russia’s 197th largest bank by assets, IS bank is 155th and GenBank is 92nd. They were hardly the biggest fish to go after. Ministers have assured us that there will be a ratchet process, but it feels to many that they are not moving fast enough or taking enough action to make a real impact here. Those cronies and oligarchs who have money to shift will no doubt be doing so already. The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, Dmytro Kuleba, has tweeted this morning:
“To stop Putin from further aggression, we call on partners to impose more sanctions on Russia now. First decisive steps were taken yesterday, and we are grateful for them. Now the pressure needs to step up to stop Putin. Hit his economy and cronies. Hit more. Hit hard. Hit now.”
The UK Government should listen to that plea from our allies.
There was much talk during the recent statements of military action and of sending tanks and guns, and while that might be of immediate assistance in an escalating scenario with tens of thousands of Russian troops on the march, we must not neglect to tackle the long-standing scandal on the doorstep of this Parliament that has allowed President Putin to gather his strength and finance his corrupt regime. What frustrates me, other colleagues across this House, anti-corruption experts in the field and the Glasgow Central constituents who email me is the lack of action and urgency on illicit finance. The UK Government alone have this responsibility, but they have not taken the ample opportunities they have had over the years to stop the flow of Russian dirty money through the City of London. The Minister for Security and Borders, the right hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) told the Treasury Committee that he was not happy, and we are not happy either. The Government could have taken stronger measures in the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill Committee, on which I sat. They did not do so. They have their registration of overseas entities Bill, which is still waiting for action. They have had ample opportunity to reform Companies House and to tackle Scottish limited partnerships and the lack of investment in enforcement agencies. People are getting away with this corruption through a lack of proper enforcement.
One of the most egregious examples is the Russian laundromat case, in which some 113 Scottish limited partnerships played critical roles in a massive Russian money-laundering scheme that moved $20.8 billion out of Russian banks. One of those involved was Igor Putin, cousin to the Russian president. I would like to pay tribute to my former colleague in this House, Roger Mullin, who did so much to tackle the scourge of the misuse of SLPs, along with the researcher Richard Smith and the journalist David Leask. The UK Government’s actions to tackle that were painfully slow and they have still not nailed the issue of the abuse of SLPs or the lack of enforcement on persons of significant control. Money has been taken from Ukraine recently via SLPs as well. Some £36 million in a scam being investigated by authorities last year ended up in the bank account of the SLP Remini Consulting.
Let us not kid ourselves: this is profitable business. The lack of enforcement has allowed an industry to flourish unchecked in the leagues of enablers right here in the UK. The journalist David Leask has pointed out:
“The mundane, unhappy reality is that we have outright crooks and a fair number of white-collar professionals happy not to look too closely at where money comes from. These ‘enablers’ here”—
“and in England are a threat to the UK and to the wider world. They corrode our democracy and distort our markets. And they are laced throughout our society. They are company formation specialists, corporate lawyers and accountants who provide financial services to oligarchs, gangsters and corrupt politicians. They rarely think of themselves as bent. But that is what they are, ethically if not legally .”
The UK Government cannot talk seriously about tackling illicit finance if they do not go after those who enable it. They ought to start by looking in their own coffers for the donations with dubious sources and for those whose funds allow them to come into the Government’s inner circle. The Conservative party has accepted nearly £2 million in donations of Russian-linked money since the Prime Minister came into office in 2019, with a quarter of the Cabinet reportedly having Russian-linked donations. The Prime Minister and the Minister said that these were legitimate donations from British citizens, but handing them golden visas first, before getting the money, completely undermines the whole principle. I have constituents who have waited years for a visa, but anyone with enough money can waltz right in and do what they like.
The hon. Lady and I both sat and listened with increasing incredulity during the Treasury Committee hearings on economic crime. Does she share my frustration at the Government’s seeming inability to act on any of their stated concerns?
On the issue of golden visas, prior to the tiered scheme there was the old UK investor visa, which was introduced in 1994. It ran from the end of the Major years through Blair, Brown, Cameron and all the Prime Ministers since, and now the tier 1 visa scheme has been done away with. Is my hon. Friend as frustrated as I am, given that the issue of dirty Russian money is not new, that the action is always too late and never quite enough?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The Government are several steps behind those who wish to bend the rules and wash their money through the City of London.
This morning, in response to questioning about a photo taken with Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of Putin’s former Finance Minister, the Foreign Secretary said:
“I think we’ve got to be very careful to distinguish between those who are supporters of the regime, those who are propping up Vladimir Putin and those people who may have moved from Russia years ago and who are part of the British political system.”
I would gently suggest to the Government that when those oligarchs and good pals of President Putin are seen by the British Foreign Secretary as being “part of the British political system”, it really does illustrate the scale of difficulty that the Conservative party has got itself into.
On that particular individual, it does seem odd that dual nationals can give vast amounts of money, especially when they have hidden nearly all of their assets from clear view and when, on top of that, it is pretty clear that a lot of their ownership has sprung from their time spent prospering under Putin.
That is absolutely correct. No questions seem to be asked about where this money has come from, the legitimacy of it or even who it really belongs to in the end.
A notable absence from the Prime Minister’s sanctions announcement was any commitment to extend them to those Tory party donors. Maximilian Hess, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, has described some Russian business people as
“a champagne glass removed from Westminster’s political elite”.
And it comes to Scotland too. At a Tory black and white ball in 2018, the then Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth—now Baroness—Davidson, auctioned off a lunch with herself to Lubov Chernukhin, who bid £20,000 to win it. It is said that Baroness Davidson has not yet even come good on that lunch, but if the £20,000 has been accepted, it is a significant donation, whether or not sandwiches, cakes and tea have been taken.
The Prime Minister repeatedly refused to allow publication of the report by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee in the run-up to the 2019 general election. The Times quoted sources suggesting that his reluctance was due to his embarrassment at the links the Committee had discovered between Conservative party donors and the Kremlin. His Government have yet to act on the recommendations of that report. To make matters worse, the Tories’ Elections Bill will water down the Electoral Commission and make foreign donations easier, so their denial just now, stating that it is not foreign money, is not even going to stand when that Bill comes into force.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. Does she share my concern that when the Prime Minister’s spokesperson was questioned about these donations, they just repeated the same answer, which was that due diligence had been met, but when they were asked what that due diligence actually consisted of and what was involved in it, they were unable to give an answer?
Yes, the hon. Lady is absolutely correct. It is a disrespect to everybody who donates with honesty to political parties in this country—those small donors who give a tenner or put money into a raffle—that so little is asked about these absolutely massive donations that go to the heart of our democracy and compromise the very place in which we sit today.
The Government must also act on the economic crime Bill. We heard earlier that it would be introduced in the next Session. We have heard before that it will be introduced when parliamentary time allows. Well, there has been tons of parliamentary time over these past couple of years and yet no economic crime Bill. The disappearance of that Bill was part of the reason that Lord Agnew resigned as the Minister for economic crime.
We have not yet seen the Government’s registration of overseas entities Bill. The register of overseas entities was supposed to be up and running last year, but we are still waiting to see the legislation. I sat on the Joint Committee on the draft Bill, and this morning I dug out the Committee’s papers and our report to refresh my memory. The Committee made suggestions to improve the Bill by closing loopholes such as trusts and introducing verification, the lack of which makes the current register at Companies House so utterly useless and full of guff.
Lord Faulks, the former Conservative Minister who chaired the Joint Committee, recently revealed that, under the previous Prime Minister, Downing Street leant on him when he tabled amendments to introduce a public register of overseas property owners. He said:
“I was obviously misled because nothing has subsequently happened. I can only think a deluded desire to protect the City of London has led to all these delays.
It is a real irony that our reputation for protecting the rule of law is one of the things that attracts people who have very little regard for the rule of law themselves and come from countries which ignore it almost altogether.”
That is the nature of the money being attracted.
Meanwhile, the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International has said that Russians accused of corruption or of links to the Kremlin own around £1.5 billion-worth of property in Britain, 28% of it in the City of Westminster on the doorstep of British democracy.
This House is united in our cross-party support for the Government and people of Ukraine. Members across the House want to see more action by way of sanctions against those involved in Putin’s regime, but this report rings hollow when this Government have, time and again, failed to take action to halt the flow of dirty money through the City of London, tarnishing both credibility and reputation.
The Scottish Parliament does not have the powers to act on this, although my colleagues and I dearly wish it did. This UK Government have a chance to put that right, and they must do so without further delay, else the stream of questions as to why not and who benefits will become a flood.
Order. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) made a perfectly reasonable point of order, and I could not give a clear answer. As I consider it to be extremely important that information given in the House, particularly from the Chair, should always be absolutely clear, I would like to make clear the proper answer to his question.
The hon. Gentleman is concerned that the Prime Minister sought to clarify, by means of a written ministerial statement today, something that he said in the House yesterday. That is perfectly proper. The written ministerial statement was notified on today’s Order Paper and has since been properly published. It has not been withdrawn, so it stands. It says:
“Further to my answer to the Rt Hon member for Barking during my oral statement on Ukraine, it is the position that oligarchs at the heart of Putin’s inner circle and banks which have bankrolled the Russian occupation of Crimea have been targeted by the first wave of UK sanctions in response to Russia’s further violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. As I said in my answer, these include Gennady Timchenko, Russia’s sixth richest oligarch, to whom she referred in her question, and Boris and Igor Rotenberg, two long-standing associates of the regime. In the event of further aggressive acts by Russia against Ukraine, we have prepared an unprecedented package of further sanctions ready to go. Further details can be found at: UK hits Russian oligarchs and banks with targeted sanctions: Foreign Secretary’s statement—GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
Roman Abramovich has not been the subject of targeted measures.
More generally anyone who comes to this country on an Israeli passport is a non-visa national. Israelis are required to obtain a visa if they want to live, work or study in the UK.”
I hope that clarifies the position and that the hon. Member for Rhondda will be pleased the matter is now absolutely clear. [Interruption.] We will have no more on this. I have clarified it.
The second half of the Opposition’s motion relates to the economic crime Bill and, as many do, I have great sympathy with the points raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House over a period of time. I look forward to the economic crime Bill being introduced, and I think we could go further. We could provide further resources for the National Crime Agency, which has asked for them, and many of us on both sides of the House are underwhelmed by the extent of the British sanctions so far in response to what is clearly a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
It may be that we are not party to deliberations on the calibration of the response from western allies, and it may be that Nord Stream 2 was phase one and the City of London withdrawing its facilities will be a further step. In the absence of knowing what those deliberations are, the Government, on the face of it, have clearly not done enough in response through these petty, small sanctions considering the scale of the crime itself—the invasion of a sovereign, democratic country. With Members on both sides of the House having called it out as an illegal invasion of a sovereign country, we should remember that it is not a one-off. This Russian aggression started with the invasion of Georgia in 2008. Not everybody outside this place knows that 20% of the country of Georgia, a fifth, is still occupied by Russian troops. We tend not to dwell on that too often, but it has been followed by the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine. It is abundantly clear that Russian aggression must be met with the strongest possible response, including by providing the Ukrainian Government with all the means required to defend themselves.
I told the House yesterday that I think we should have stronger sanctions. And it is not just about stronger sanction, as we also need stronger defence and more defence spending.
In the absence of any knowledge about the calibration of our response—that is not to say it does not exist—the sanctions were pitifully woeful. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have been very underwhelmed by them.
We need to do everything we can to provide the Ukrainian Government with all the means required to defend themselves. That means economic support and additional supplies of lethal weapons with which to protect their sovereignty, primarily and hopefully to act as a deterrent but also, if it comes to it, for use in battle. If Russia does invade, there will be an ongoing resistance to support. NATO must also continue its programme of beefing up deployments across eastern Europe, the high north and the Black sea. We must show to Russia that NATO is serious about protecting its members, and we must remind Russia of our article 5 undertaking.
There are people in this country who say this is overly aggressive, but we should make it absolutely clear in this place that we do not seek conflict. I was a soldier back in the 1980s, and I remind the House that I have consistently voted against our military interventions over the past two decades. I opposed war in Iraq, believing that we went to war on a false premise. I opposed the morphing of the mission in Afghanistan after we had got rid of al-Qaeda in 2001. I was the only Conservative MP to vote against our Libyan intervention. And I opposed trying to arm certain sections of the rebels in Syria, as I felt that we underestimated the task at hand and that those weapons would have fallen into the wrong hands. I was opposed to all of that, but, as a former soldier, I also recognise that strong armed forces are the best way of deterring aggression.
On deterrence after the fall of the Soviet Union, this political state, along with a range of other western states, gave opportunity for finance through oligarchy yet ignored ordinary Russians. Does the hon. Gentleman not think that if we had supported ordinary Russians to get the benefits of freedom and liberty in the west through golden visas for them, we would not now have 190,000 Russian troops on the borders of Ukraine?
That is a bit of a tenuous link. Let us be clear: an aggressor is going to consider invading a country regardless of what visas have been given in a third country. Having said that, I agree that we need to look at this, and I made that point clear when I first stood up.
We need to be clear that we need strong defence. One reason I opposed those recent interventions over the past 20 years is because I felt that they distracted us from the real business of countering traditional state-on-state threats. War should always be a means of last resort, once all other avenues have been exhausted, but the real danger was state-on-state threats, including Russia and, increasingly, an assertive China. We all know that jaw-jaw is better than war-war, but jaw-jaw is most effective when supported and backed up by strong armed forces, because potential adversaries then listen. After a decade of hollowing out our defence capabilities and cutting the number of soldiers, we need to get serious about defence and reverse those trends. The Prime Minister is right to say that we have had the largest increase in the defence budget since the end of the cold war—we are standing at about 2.4%, if we believe Government figures—but I suggest that we need to do much more. We still have the smallest Army since the Napoleonic times, if not before. We still have too few ships able to guard our aircraft carriers, and our air defences are thin. As a former soldier, I can promise the House that there is no substitute for boots on the ground. I buy the technology argument—everything about drones and how we have to be up to speed with cyber and all the rest—but there is no substitute for boots on the ground if we want to dominate ground. That is a simple fact.
I ask the Government to seriously think about this, but I also ask the Opposition to do so. For 20 years I have been in this place and I have banged on, together with others, on both sides of the House, about the need for increased defence spending. That has largely fallen on deaf ears. Some Opposition Members will remember that in 2013 I led the revolt from those on the Government Benches on the Bill that became the Defence Reform Act 2014, which was cutting regular troops and trying to replace them with reservists. With the help of the Scottish nationalists and Labour, we tried to get the Government to think again. Unfortunately, I was unable to carry a sufficient number of Conservative Members, but we came close. So I am not standing here being a hypocrite and suggesting this in a way to try to make party political points. I am asking the Labour party, the official Opposition, to do something. The establishment in this country still does not get it on defence. We need a substantial and sustained increase in defence spending, to act as a deterrent, not to be used in an offensive manner. Deterrence is the best way.
The Labour party has a very proud history in this area. It was a Labour Government who signed us up to NATO and who were determined that we had a nuclear deterrent. I suggest to the official Opposition that we need to start at 3% for defence spending but not tie this to a particular percentage of GDP, because GDP fluctuates. We need to start at 3% and then build on it, because we are entering an era where there is a battle for democracy yet to be had. I hope I am not being too dramatic when I say that. We need strong armed forces for that, and the Labour party, the official Opposition, has a role in this.
Having these debates is great, but we have had them so many times before about defence spending and other issues and interventions. If the Labour party was to say, “We are going to commit to a substantial and sustainable level of defence spending”, it would move the dial in the debate. The official Opposition would be surprised at just how much support there is on the Conservative Benches for a substantial increase in defence spending—well above the 2.4% figure we heard bandied about by the Prime Minister yesterday. The official Opposition have an opportunity to move the dial on this, and I encourage them to take it. This is an important issue on the doorstep, contrary to what many people suggest; people are proud of their armed forces. There is also an opportunity to be a force of good for the Union, as we are proud of our armed forces across the four nations of the UK.
I am conscious that others wish to speak, but may I briefly return to this point about the new era we have now entered with regard to the battle for democracy? We believed that democracy would sweep the field after the cold war, because it was blatantly obvious that it was the right thing, but democracy is a fragile concept. We fundamentally believe in it in this place, but let us never underestimate the number of oligarchs and totalitarian individuals out there—states, even—who want to overthrow democracy. We have to nurture, encourage and protect it. But what are we doing? We have a weak foreign policy when it comes to potential aggressors, and not just potential ones; when there is an invasion of a sovereign country we are debating quite petty sanctions. We need to step up to the plate.
I also suggest to the House that this is not just about hard power—quite the contrary, as the cold war was won largely because we won the soft power battle. We need to further finance our diplomatic sources and our diplomacy generally. One reason why I voted against the Libyan intervention, when I was the only Tory to do so and was very unpopular with my own party, was because we simply did not know what was happening on the ground. We did not have the diplomats there kicking the tyres and feeling the dust. We used to have great expertise in this area but we have hollowed it out, through cuts, and those cuts can be counterproductive. They can be a false economy. If we do not know what is happening on the ground, these decisions are much riskier. Satellites and technology take us only so far; we need experts on the ground.
I concur with what my hon. Friend was saying a moment ago about the need for the Labour party to commit to greater defence spending. Labour Members often challenge us about the need to increase development spending and I agree with them on that. He mentions diplomacy as well, and I wonder whether there is the opportunity for a cross-party agreement on sustained investment in our defence and our diplomatic service, and restoring development spending to 0.7% as soon as possible—and perhaps even going beyond it? I wonder whether there is an opportunity to increase all of our commitments to the international community and perhaps achieve a cross-party consensus.
I thank my hon. Friend for the intervention, and I certainly think there is greater scope for cross-party consensus on these key issues. We come together in condemnation of Russia and events such as this, but we need also to come together on such things as defence spending and diplomatic spending.
Let me return to soft power. I am chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on the British Council, and I know that some Members on the Opposition Benches have served with the British Council. We work together in trying to promote the interests of the British Council, but let me cite a further example of where we are going wrong as a country. Last year, the Government failed to meet the £10 million shortfall between the British Council’s commercial activities—predominantly the teaching of English in the far east, mostly in China—and the money the Government supplied. That £10 million shortfall has resulted in the closure of 20 country operations. That is not global Britain or the furthering of the interests of soft power. The British Council is a key instrument of our soft power capability. We are a soft power superpower, but we should never take that for granted.
My hon. Friend is taking us on a journey. I appreciate the point he made about increased military spending and an increase in boots on the ground in our armed forces, but does he feel that we as Members of Parliament do not have the full facts, whereas Ministers and officials do and see far more than we do? It is not necessarily right to criticise them for what they may or may not have seen. On top of that, we should be aware that there must be a sliding scale in respect of the sanctions on Russia. We cannot put everything on Russia all at once; we have to see how the situation develops.
I am afraid my hon. Friend has greater faith than I have. We have an excellent civil service and, by and large, parties on both sides of the Chamber have supplied good Ministers, but I would not have blind faith in every single Minister or official. The bottom line is that we are making cuts when there should not be cuts. When it comes to the calibration of the response, what my hon. Friend says may be the case, but there has been no calibration of the response since Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008. There has been absolutely nothing, so I would not necessarily assume that we should suddenly come round and say there must be a calibration now.
I have had the nod from Madam Deputy Speaker, so I am conscious that I need to move on. On the issue of soft power, in addition to the closure of 20 country operations last year, we face further country closures this year because, despite the FCDO’s budget going up 21% in the comprehensive spending review, the British Council’s budget is, believe it or not, falling again, stirring up questions about cuts.
In conclusion, in taking on the oligarchs and those who do not believe in democracy, we have to have a rounded response. We need to increase defence spending—I have called on the Labour party to help us to move the dial on that and to work in as cross-party a fashion as possible; we need more money for the diplomatic service; and we need to make sure we fund every avenue of our soft power capability, because it is going to be a battle of minds and ideas as much as it is going to be a battle of hard power.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron). I wish to focus a bit more on the economic crime and money laundering aspect of today’s debate, because we talked about sanctions last night and the political situation has been well covered.
I am a member of the Treasury Committee. A couple of weeks ago we published our 11th report of the Session, which is before the House, and we await the Government’s response with interest. It was frustrating to take evidence for that report in the knowledge that in 2019 our predecessor Committee had come up with detailed recommendations on dealing with the issues of money laundering, economic crime and fraud that were then becoming a problem, only for us to have seen the levels of all those crimes rise rapidly from 2019 and onwards into the pandemic, costing this country billions of pounds.
Others have pointed out how we allow London to be described as a laundromat for dirty Russian money, which is what the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report told us was the case when it was published in 2020, after a significant delay that was down to the Prime Minister’s not allowing it to be published. It is frustrating to be two years further on from that report and to see no effective response to many of the things it said. If the Minister had come to the Dispatch Box and said, as a result of this debate, “We’ve seen the Russia report; we’ve been a bit tardy but we’re now going to put its recommendations into effect”, I would have been reassured. Yesterday, I asked the Prime Minister whether, in the light of Putin’s actions in Ukraine, he would do that, but he did not answer in the affirmative.
We are, then, in a situation in which London can still be described as a laundromat for dirty Russian money. It is now seen as the jurisdiction of choice for dirty money. One of the most vivid things I recall from when the Treasury Committee sought evidence for its report on economic crime was the ministerial evidence we were given. Ministers provided no satisfaction whatsoever that proper progress was being made. Where is the hold-up? Where is the blockage that is preventing what should be obvious progress from being made? Some measures have been announced for years and years, yet we have seen no proper or legislative progress.
We all welcome our City’s importance as a financial centre, but it is now being compromised by a baffling lack of urgency in dealing with economic crime. Our security is being threatened by international criminal gangs, kleptocrats and terrorist financing, yet the Government seem to have become fixated on describing complex processes rather than acting to stop their outcome, which is rising levels of economic crime and fraud, affecting many of our constituents when they are scammed out of hard-earned money.
Perhaps the hon. Member should read the report, which is very comprehensive. If he had read it, he would know that it did indeed deal with that issue. It is something that we have been talking about, and our predecessor Committee was talking about, for a very long time, yet there is still no action. Apparently, the Chancellor has put aside a little money and the Government are talking about doing something in 2023-24. Our predecessor Committee was talking about this in 2019. Nothing has happened. Why has nothing happened?
We urgently need greater transparency, tougher regulation and tougher enforcement. As others have said, we need to introduce an open register of beneficial ownership of companies. The Prime Minister repeats that that is what the Government are doing, but there is no sign of it. David Cameron promised one in 2015 to get him through a G20. The legislation exists in draft—the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) served on the Joint Committee on it and read it in minute detail—but there is still no progress. The Prime Minister reiterated that we were going to have an open register of beneficial ownership of companies to get him through the G7 in 2020, but there is still no sign of it. Why? We have enough time. The Prime Minister has had offers from the Opposition to facilitate the passage of legislation quickly to get it on the statute book, but the will does not seem to be there.
We need an economic crime Bill. Lord Agnew, who was responsible—you could not make it up, Madam Deputy Speaker—for fighting fraud in the Treasury, resigned at the Dispatch Box in the House of Lords in frustration because he could not perceive any urgency or determination to tackle the rising levels of fraud in the pandemic support schemes. He was so aghast at the lack of willingness there seemed to be in the Government that he felt he had to resign to “smash some crockery”, as he put it.
We need reform of the corporate liability law to crack down on money laundering and facilitation of this kind of crime in the banks. We need to deal with the urgent reform of Companies House. I have already discussed this. It is on the Government’s so-called agenda year after year after year. People can still create a company at Companies House, say that the owner of it is Vladimir Putin or Mickey Mouse and nobody will tell them not to do it. They can then use that to defraud various people and launder their cash. This is a joke and there is still no urgency in dealing with it.
We need to deal with the fragmentation of law enforcement if we are to deal with economic crime. No one part of the law seems to have any kind of coherent responsibility for enforcing it, so even if we had tougher regulation, we do not have the enforcement muscle to make sure that we get the outcome. Why are the Government dragging their feet? Why are they so ineffectual? Why is there no measurement of the outcome? Why do we have this kind of benign neglect as the forces of darkness gather, as they focus on laundering their dirty money through the City of London? We know how this affects people in terms of property prices. How can we have sanctions if we do not know who owns the companies that the money is flowing through? This has to be dealt with. The problem is getting far, far more urgent than it has ever been before. Our democracy is at stake and we expect this Government, finally, to get off their backside and do something about it.
I thank and congratulate the Opposition on bringing forward this debate. It is a very, very important and timely matter. I am impressed by the unanimity that has been shown across the House in response to what is happening in eastern Europe and by the support that has been given to the Government’s measures so far.
The shadow Foreign Secretary said earlier that the world is watching to see whether the west meets this test, and he is absolutely right. The Foreign Secretary said recently that there has been a decade of drift in regard to Russia, and, sadly, that is true as well, but that is no longer the case. I applaud the measures that have been announced: the clampdown on the activities of the oligarchs in the UK; the suspension of banking; and the restrictions on the Russian state and Russian companies from raising debt in London markets.
What more can and should be done? Yes, we must take resolute action to get illicit Russian money out of the City. I was powerfully struck by what the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) said about Companies House. From my constituency work, I have become very conscious of the deficiencies of the system there and the ability that fraudsters have to establish companies. There is also a danger from a security perspective, so action must be taken, and I am sure that the Government are hearing that.
Many Members and commentators have suggested that Russian trading should be suspended through the SWIFT banking system. I defer to others on that, but I do just observe the potential economic turmoil that that would induce and recognise that it might be necessary for us to experience pain in this country, even at a time when our own economy is fragile and when the cost of living is going up. We recognise that, because of the decade of drift that the west has allowed to take place in Russia, there may be economic pain in consequence.
As I said, I defer to others on that, but I thank my hon. Friend for that information.
The same applies to the impact on wholesale gas prices, which will naturally ensue as European countries in particular restrict their imports of Russian gas. That is necessary. Thankfully, we are not dependent on Russian gas to the same extent as our friends in Europe. I commend Germany for its brave decision to suspend Nord Stream 2. I hope that that will become a permanent commitment.
The Opposition accuse us of not doing enough. Of course there can, should and will be more steps taken, but I invite them to consider what they would be saying if we had shot off every measure possible all in one go, without consultation and without collaboration with our partners. They would be accusing us, no doubt, of precipitate, hasty action and of lack of partnership with our allies. We would probably be accused of Brexit Britain little Englandism, impotent sabre rattling, and trying to distract attention from political problems at home. They would be making those accusations if we were shooting off every possible measure in the book. Actually what we are doing is taking deliberate action. We should not mistake a measured approach for a lack of resolution. On the contrary, this is a steady, deliberate ramping up of the sanctions that are necessary, in partnership with our allies. This is the responsible way to proceed. It is the way that this Government proceeded when the Russian state attacked people on the streets of this country in Salisbury in my county of Wiltshire. It was the right action to take. It took a little while to convene an international response to that, but it was the right one.
What can we do beyond finance? I applaud the military commitments that have been made in recent months, and particularly those in recent weeks, including: the increase in the military support that we give to Ukraine; our commitment of further troops to Estonia and Poland; the increase in our RAF presence in Cyprus; and the dispatch of warships to the eastern Mediterranean and the Black sea. Those are all the right measures to take. Putin said rather preposterously that Russia was being encircled by NATO. That now will come true because of what he has done. I commend the Government from before this crisis for their increased funding—£20 billion extra—to our armed forces, which includes investment in cyber and in all the grey zone defences that we need to counter the sort of threats that Russia poses. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) said a few moments ago. I cannot believe that we do not also need an increase in the number of men and women in uniform able to act as a deterrent to the sort of aggression that we are seeing. As I said in my intervention on him, as a nation, we need to increase development spending, diplomatic spending and defence spending.
I had the honour of meeting some of the soldiers going out to service part of Operation CABRIT in Estonia last year when they were training on Salisbury plain in my constituency. I want to take this opportunity to press for those soldiers to be awarded a campaign medal in recognition of their activities to defend Europe and the west as part of Operation CABRIT. Under the current circumstances, it is extremely necessary and appropriate to recognise that they are not just undertaking a training exercise; they are actually defending Europe and defending the UK. I hope that we will see a medal for our troops who are serving in eastern Europe and that we will increase our armed forces in the years to come.
May I make an observation before I start properly? The Minister for Asia and the Middle East, the right hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling), appeared to suggest earlier that, in the event of further Russian aggression, there would be tougher sanctions. That mirrors the prime ministerial statement that Madam Deputy Speaker read out earlier. However, in the debate on sanctions last night, the Minister for Europe and North America, the right hon. and gallant Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), said that there would be tougher sanctions as a result of what Russia “has already done”. Those two things are not the same. They may just have been slips of the tongue, but what we cannot have is confusion added to the delay, the dither and what many consider to be an already inadequate response. I would add—I think this rather mirrored the mood yesterday and I suspect mirrors the mood today—that Russia has already invaded and annexed a sovereign state. We do not have to wait until the tanks encircle Kyiv in order to take the necessary sanction action, which it is possible to do.
I very much welcome and support the motion we are debating today. I am glad that it refers to the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report. I had a hand in that report and I am very proud of it. I shall refer to only three paragraphs—all on Russian expatriates. The part entitled “Welcoming oligarchs with open arms” ties in directly to the question of what we do about dirty money. Paragraph 49 begins:
“Whilst the Russian elite have developed ties with a number of countries in recent years, it would appear that the UK has been viewed as a particularly favourable destination for Russian oligarchs and their money. It is widely recognised that the key to London’s appeal was the exploitation of the UK’s investor visa scheme, introduced in 1994,”—
almost 30 years ago—
“followed by the promotion of a light and limited touch to regulation, with London’s strong capital and housing markets offering sound investment opportunities.”
One could easily read that last half-sentence as, “excellent opportunities to launder dirty cash,” because that is precisely what happened.
Paragraph 50 goes on to explain that the UK offered
“ideal mechanisms by which illicit finance could be recycled through what has been referred to as the London ‘laundromat’. The money was also invested in extending patronage and building influence across a wide sphere of the British establishment—PR firms, charities, political interests, academia and cultural institutions were all willing beneficiaries of Russian money, contributing to a ‘reputation laundering’ process.”
It was not simply the money that the first generation of oligarchs managed to seize with Yeltsin’s privatisations, but everything that has gone on since then—a “reputation laundering” process.
That leads us to the preposterous situation my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) referred to earlier. When the Foreign Secretary was asked about £2 million of donations to the Tory party—including, the report said, to the Deputy Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer—she said that those donors are
“part of the British political system”,
as if accepting donations of that sort of money was normal. It is not. No matter how many times it has been laundered or how many assets have been purchased and sold and purchased and sold to clean the cash, it is still dirty cash.
I understand perfectly well why a donor would wish to offer money to a political party—it buys them political influence—but I am at a bit of a loss to understand why any political party would accept such money. It does not make that party part of a normal political process; it makes it part of a racket.
The report went on to say that
“there are a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin who are well integrated into the UK business and social scene, and accepted because of their wealth. This level of integration—in ‘Londongrad’ in particular—means that any measures now being taken by the Government are not preventative but rather constitute damage limitation.”
As the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) said earlier, this report was published in July 2020, almost two years ago. Much of the evidence is a year or two older still, and the issue of dirty money predates that. We all know what is going on.
The idea that we have to debate this as part of an Opposition day, rather than actively considering the various pieces of legislation that are necessary, is quite shameful. We have spent enough time on partygate and being ambushed by cake, but when it comes to billions of pounds of stolen cash sloshing about London, we have to talk about it on an Opposition day. That is frankly a disgrace.
That section of the report went on to say:
“It is not just the oligarchs either: the arrival of Russian money resulted in a growth industry of enablers—individuals and organisations who manage and lobby for the Russian elite in the UK. Lawyers, accountants, estate agents and PR professionals have played a role, wittingly or unwittingly, in the extension of Russian influence which is often linked to promoting the nefarious interests of the Russian state. A large private security industry has developed in the UK to service the needs of the Russian elite, in which British companies protect the oligarchs and their families, seek kompromat on competitors, and on occasion help launder money through offshore shell companies and fabricate ‘due diligence’ reports, while lawyers provide litigation support. William Browder”—
the head of the global Magnitsky justice movement—
“told the Committee that:
‘Russian state interests, working in conjunction with and through criminal private interests, set up a “buffer” of Westerners who become de facto Russian state agents, many unwittingly, but others with a reason to know exactly what they are doing and for whom. As a result, UK actors have to deal with Russian criminal interests masked as state interests, and Russian state interests masked by their Western agents.’”
I will conclude by saying that I can think of no stronger justification for the immediate introduction of an economic crime Bill, an overseas entities Bill and the register of beneficial ownership.
I will aim my remarks very much through you, Madam Deputy Speaker, but at the Minister. There has been a lot of smoke about events; it would be nice if he could give us some light on what will actually be happening.
I am slightly concerned that, broadly speaking, we still do not understand as much as we should about Russian hybrid conflict, about the economics, the military, the espionage, the lawfare, which some hon. Members have referred to, the finance and the propaganda. That is something we should be much more concerned about.
Some hon. Members have talked about Russian past form in this area; I lived in the Soviet Union and the post-Soviet states from 1990 to 1994, and arguably the first time that paramilitaries and front groups were used was in Transnistria in 1991 and the first Georgian war in Abkhazia and South Ossetia between 1991 and 1993. We saw there a simplified version of the much bigger thing we saw in 2014 in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea. Arguably even before that, in the dying days of the Soviet Union, the Soviets played an imperial policing role, using similar front groups and violence, in Nagorno-Karabakh as well. This practice is not new and it is very much part of the playbook.
In Ukraine now, the frontline is the border; in Germany, the frontline is the gas pipelines and, as many people have pointed out, the frontline in the UK flows along the Thames to the City of London. There are a series of Bills that it would be useful for the Minister to discuss and for us all to be aware of.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one way to stop that flow up the Thames is to abolish unincorporated associations, which are utilised not only by political parties but by Members of Parliament?
I do not know enough about that, so I will have to respect the experts’ opinions, but the hon. Gentleman makes a potentially valid point.
I would like us to look at the economic crime Bill; most importantly, given that not enough people are talking about it, I suggest a foreign lobbying Bill. I also respectfully suggest amendments to data protection and libel laws. Many people have already talked about the economic crime Bill, but it is shocking that we have 2,000 UK-registered companies involved in laundering and corruption cases linked to Russia, involving £80 billion—staggering sums of money—and £1.5 billion of property owned by people close to Putin or involved in crime and corruption.
I understand that historically the City wanted a light touch, to be more competitive than New York, but on the back of that light touch we have taken in some very unsavoury kleptocrats and oligarchs, and the tide of dirty money is damaging us. Why on earth do we need a culture of shadowy offshore trusts in this country? In what way does it help? I know it enriches a few thousand people with fancy bonuses, but in what way does it help our national interests? It is great that the Home Secretary has stopped the golden visa scheme, but really that horse bolted a long time ago.
On foreign lobbying laws, the UK is an influence-peddler’s paradise. Oligarchs pay for the best PR and the best reputation-launderers, and they pay for senior politicians to navigate through the rules. I understand that some people are attacking the Conservatives in this regard. I do not support wrongdoing on any side, any more than I support Alex Salmond tarting himself around Russia Today. Does anyone wish to defend Peter Mandelson’s record—
I have a Patrons Club on the Isle of Wight. Their structure is legal. I am afraid I do not know more about it, but if the hon. Gentleman wants more information, I am sure I can find it. I find his remark tediously parochial and completely out of character with the serious nature of this debate, and more fool him for making it.
I shall make some progress and not take another intervention, thank you so much.
When we are talking about influence, we need to be talking about the influence that senior peers and former Prime Ministers may offer. These are not unsavoury characters in this country but they are doing some very unsavoury business working for people who know the value of reputation-laundering and of using the City and our legal culture. The Guardian takes these things very seriously, and yet on the Scott Trust for many years, and now on The Guardian’s board, we have Geraldine Proudler. According to Bill Browder, Geraldine Proudler was on the wrong side of the Magnitsky case. She gave legal advice to people involved in allegedly organised crime with a multi-million-pound fraud that was involved ultimately in the murder of Sergei Magnitsky. So again I ask Katharine Viner: if The Guardian is so keen to make sure that the Conservatives, and indeed Labour and the SNP, obey high standards in public life, why does Geraldine Proudler sit on the Scott Trust board and now the Guardian Foundation? These are serious questions for those on both sides of the House. I do not defend those peers who have gone to work for Deripaska and other people, but neither should Opposition Members defend those peers who do the wrong thing.
One of the most depressing things about the Intelligence and Security Committee report on Russia was the statement from the National Crime Agency that it felt that it was unable at times to take on certain potentially bad actors because those bad actors’ pockets were so deep. I am sorry, but if the NCA is saying that it is unable to uphold the law in this country because of the wealth of the bad people it wants to go after, we are knowingly participating in the undermining of the rule of law in this country, and that is an extraordinarily serious and bad thing to be happening.
We had a great debate on lawfare, and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) have also talked about it. Some of the most sophisticated law firms in Britain are offering intimidation, kompromat and dirt-digging services to some of the most corrupt people on earth. When we talk about an economic crime Bill or a foreign lobbying Bill, can we also talk about amendments to data protection law and to libel law to ensure that we uphold freedom of speech and ensure that those journalists trying to do the right thing in trying to investigate bad actors are supported by the law and not hounded to financial ruin?
I congratulate Labour Front Benchers on calling this debate, because we are required to come together today to discuss, to expose and to unravel what could be the greatest coincidence in British politics. The cynical would say, in the words of Yogi Berra, that it is almost too coincidental to be a coincidence, although of course this House would not hazard such a judgment, but here it is: on the one hand we have a Government who have presided over the most comprehensive failure to tackle economic crime, which is a failure so profound that we have earned a reputation around the world as one of the world’s capitals of money laundering, yet on the other hand we have a flood-tide of money—not £2 million, not £3 million but over £4 million, and counting—that has come into Tory party coffers from generous souls with close ties to Russia. The ministerial code, for what it is worth, says that Ministers are required not only to avoid a conflict of interest but to avoid an appearance of a conflict of interest.
I therefore speak today in a spirit of great generosity to the Minister, because I want to try to extract him from the pickle that he now finds himself in. I am seriously concerned that Tory Ministers are now exposed to the allegation that they are quite simply poodles on roubles. In that spirit of generosity, I want to set out the two problems that the Minister will be required to resolve if he is to escape such an appearance over the weeks, months and years to come. Problem No. 1 is the gaping hole where a plan for tackling economic crime should be. We know the scale of the problem because the National Crime Agency has told us. It says that the scale of economic crime is some £100 billion a year in money laundering and £190 billion lost to fraud—a total of £290 billion. That is a significant chunk of our nation’s GDP, so this is not an insignificant problem: it is a monumental problem over which the Government are presiding. Secondly, the reputational damage is so serious that think-tanks in Washington are writing reports saying things like:
“uprooting Kremlin-linked oligarchs will be a challenge given the close ties between Russian money and the United Kingdom’s ruling Conservative Party”.
How on earth has the Conservative party got itself into this mess? Well, it is quite a story. I am going to rattle through the 10 key steps that have led the Government to get into this mess. First, they abolished the Minister in charge of economic crime. When the Minister was appointed—[Interruption.] Well, he was appointed with the title of Minister for Security and Borders, whereas his predecessor was known as the Minister for Security and Economic Crime. So the Government are taking economic crime so seriously that they deleted it from the title of the Minister who has been asked to wind up this debate.
Secondly, the Government have now tasked not one, not two but 12 different agencies with tackling the problem of economic crime without going to the trouble of appointing someone to be in charge of these 12 different agencies so as to lead the charge. Thirdly, they have neglected to implement 60% of the measures in their own economic crime plan. Going through the list of measures rated “red” by the Royal United Services Institute, some of them are pretty significant, such as making sure that the police get serious about tackling fraud and economic crime.
Next, the Government have starved the National Crime Agency of so many resources that its director general says that it will not take on cases where it thinks the legal costs will be too high. Then they have failed to equip Companies House with the powers to check information sent in by people setting up shell companies. According to the Minister, there are now 11,000 companies on the register that still have not filed returns on who is the person with significant control, yet how many prosecutions have we had? One hundred and nineteen. It is pathetic; it is lamentable. Then they have failed to bring forward a register of beneficial ownership of property, like the multi-million-pound mansions in Westminster. Then they have failed to use our unique role in the global financial economy to light up where bad actors are doing bad things. SWIFT, the financial messaging system, is based in the UK. We are the global hub, along with New York, of financial settlement worldwide. We could be using the panorama of information to which we have access to light up bad people, to create intelligence packages and then to ensure that those people are pursued to the ends of the earth.
We have failed to stop our courts being used as arenas to silence journalists such as Catherine Belton and Tom Burgis, who are pursuing bad and corrupt companies. Thank God for HarperCollins and Arabella Pike because, frankly, without such brave publishing houses, we would not have the truth brought into the public domain. Then we have the Government’s failure to introduce a foreign agents registration Act, despite the fact that it works in America and Australia. To cap it all, they have failed to offer us any kind of hard timetable for the economic crime Bill, which is an omission so serious that they lost their own Minister to it in the House of Lords.
Those 10 elements—this 10-step decent into chaos—is why we now have a situation where the grand total of unexplained wealth orders targeted against oligarchs is zero. Apart from the Magnitsky sanctions, which came from a list of the crimes handed to us in 2007, we have not proposed any sanctions for economic crime against Russian-born individuals since 2014. Some might say that is benign neglect; others might say it is malign neglect; and others might say that the Conservative party has been paid to look the other way.
I am sure we were all reassured by the Secretary of State for Instagram’s appearance on “BBC Breakfast” this morning, where she—the Foreign Secretary—told a grateful nation that the Tory party vets its donors and that we must not confuse Russian heritage with proximity to President Putin. I think we would all agree with that, which is why, in the spirit of generosity and helpfulness, I offer my vetting services to those on the Conservative Front Bench this afternoon.
Let us start with Lubov Chernukhin, who has donated £2.1 million. The Guardian revealed that her husband, Vladimir, who was appointed deputy chairman of VEB, which was not sanctioned yesterday, received $8 million from Suleiman Kerimov, who was sanctioned by the US Treasury in 2018. The transfer to Vladimir came on 29 April 2016, mysteriously just before a donation of £1.5 million to the Conservative party. Then there is Alexander Temerko, a man who, it is said,
“forged a career at the top of the Russian arms industry and had connections at the highest levels of the Kremlin”.
He was a former deputy chairman of Yukos Oil Company and somehow mysteriously escaped the purge of his colleagues. He has now donated £747,000. He has been working very closely with Viktor Fedotov, a director of Aquind, a source of great largesse to many Members in the House. Mr Fedotov is the former head of a subsidiary of Lukoil, and was revealed in the Pandora papers as a man who, along with two others
“made fortunes from the company in the mid-2000s, around the time it was alleged to have been siphoning funds from the Russian state pipeline monopoly Transneft.”
Then we have Dmitry Leus, who has donated £54,000. According to the Daily Mail, he was
“found guilty of money laundering and jailed in Russia in 2004. The conviction was later overturned and he insists the prosecution was politically motivated.”
Here is the mystery: he also donated to the Prince’s Foundation, which has decided to return Mr Leus’s money. The House will be amazed to hear that the Conservative party has not.
Then we have Mohammed Amersi. He and his wife have given £793,000 to the Conservative party. The BBC said he was involved in one of Europe’s biggest corruption scandals, which entailed $220 million being paid to a Gibraltar-based company owned by the daughter of the President of Uzbekistan. He has always insisted that his donations came from UK profits, but the Financial Times tells us that he
“received $4m from a company he knew to be secretly owned by a powerful Russian”—
Putin’s then telecoms Minister.
Then we have Murtaza Lakhani, whose firm Mercantile & Maritime has donated £500,000. This is the chap who Bloomberg tells us has been revealed as making large parts of his fortune through channelling
“a $6 billion torrent of cash”
from the Russian oil giant Rosneft to Kurdistan. The money flowed to a company registered in the tax haven of Belize, with a mailing address in Cyprus.
Then we have David Burnside, formerly of this parish. His firm has donated £200,000. Mr Burnside boasts links to senior figures in the Kremlin. The Guardian reported that he
“has introduced several prominent Kremlin figures to senior Conservatives”,
including Mr Putin’s old friend, Vasily Shestakov.
I will conclude, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I think my vetting services have been exhausted for the Front Bench. I will conclude by saying that Conservative Ministers are behaving like innocents abroad in a world that is not innocent. No wonder people are now saying that the capital of Londongrad is not Mayfair but Matthew Parker Street, home of Conservative central office. The cruel would say it is 5 Hertford Street, co-owned by Jamie Reuben, scion of the family that made its fortune in the Russian aluminium wars and, as we know, the place where the Foreign Secretary insists on her £3,000 lunches.
The Government have to work harder to persuade us that there is not a coincidence. They have to persuade us that they are not poodles on roubles. They have to bring forward a proper plan for tackling economic crime, not least because of the fact that the financial services industry is worth £165 billion to this country, and it employs millions of people who work hard every day. But we trade on our reputation, and right now, this Government are destroying that reputation for good.
I want to make a few short remarks in favour of the motion and expressing my solidarity with our Ukrainian friends, who, as the Prime Minister rightly said,
“threaten no one and ask for nothing except to live in peace and freedom.”—[Official Report, 22 February 2022; Vol. 709, c. 175.]
Of course, that is the plight of so many across the globe who find their lands illegally occupied by their neighbours. I applaud our Front-Bench team for bringing this motion to the House, and I endorse entirely the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) in his excellent exposition on this Government’s failures to better regulate, control and monitor the influx of Russian oligarch moneys, among other things.
I have three brief points to make. First, the measures announced by the Prime Minister have been widely criticised as insufficient, and we heard from the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on that very point, so the criticism is well-founded and widespread. The current extent of the sanctions to three individuals and some banks—we have been told that they are not the major players—is hardly the punitive sanctions that we were led to believe would be imposed.
Time after time, we have seen some Government Members cuddling up to powerful Russians, many of whom have benefited from the break-up of state-owned industries in Russia to the detriment of the Russian people, and it is those Tory politicians who have had direct financial benefit. It seems more than a bit rich for the governing party of this country to talk about sanctioning the sorts of people who have been filling their party political coffers. We have heard mention of Alexander Temerko. It is true that not every Government Member has had funds from that individual, but I ask the vast legions who have had that benefit: what do they think he wants or expects of them?
Secondly, and worse still perhaps, we have just had the Elections Bill go through this House. One of the most dangerous provisions within it, as pointed out by Opposition Members, was the open door to political donations from overseas. This dual citizen route to influencing politics in our country will come back and bite the governing party for some considerable time to come. The Government should understand that there is great scepticism out in the country that they really mean it when they talk about being tough on Russian oligarch money or any other dodgy money coming into British politics.
Finally, I will finish on regulation and control. Undoubtedly, there needs to be a major overhaul of company law, which allows 761 companies to be registered above a takeaway in Somerset, with directors declaring themselves to be “Jesus Christ” or “Adolf Hitler”. Until recently, I though a slap was a form of physical violence, but it is also a SLAPP—strategic lawsuits against public participation. It is a type of litigation, or threat of litigation, that is used, as the name suggests, strategically by claimants against organisations and individuals, including NGOs, activists, academics, whistleblowers and journalists, to shut down free speech. We are not going to settle the appropriate mechanisms here and now, but as we cannot give into Putin, we cannot give into the bully boy tactics of oligarchs or anyone else who wants to abuse their power and wealth.
Perhaps the Government can give some thought to protecting investigative journalists, as raised by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely), who have the courage to take on people, and to ensuring that agencies of the state are properly equipped and protected and have the capability and capacity to take on such people through unexplained wealth orders and other measures. We could all do with rereading the Treasury Committee’s report on economic crime. Certainly, the single enforcement body that it alludes to would go some way to providing the real teeth that are clearly necessary but sadly absent.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In my speech, I was going to name another Member of the House of Lords—I will not do so—who has recently taken leave of the House of Lords to work for Russian interests but does not want to declare what he is doing. Because that person has taken leave, could one mention them in a speech—or despite them taking leave, is one still not allowed to mention them?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. My immediate answer, but I stand to be corrected if I am wrong, is that someone who has taken leave is still a Member of Parliament—a Member of the House of Lords—and must be treated as such in a debate here and not criticised directly by name. There are good reasons why we do things in this way. That is my answer to the hon. Gentleman.
I start by declaring an interest as I lived and worked in Russia from 2005 to 2008 as director of the British Council in St Petersburg. I have great respect and affection for the Russian people. The tragedy, of course, is that for centuries, with the exception of a brief period of democracy in the 1990s, Russia has been led by a succession of kleptocratic thugs who have plundered the country’s vast natural resources and ruled with total disregard for the freedoms, rights, talents and potential of the Russian people.
Vladimir Putin is a product of that system. He is rotten to the core. He is the embodiment of the mafia state that Russia has become. He is not a grand master of the game of geopolitical chess; he is a gangster. He has sent his army into eastern Ukraine not because he is worried about NATO, but because he is frightened of democracy and terrified of freedom. He has seen the recent popular uprisings in Belarus and Kazakhstan, and he has seen the support that is building around opposition figures such as Alexei Navalny. He knows that in Russia, when revolution comes, it is swift and decisive.
Let us be clear: the invasion of Ukraine has absolutely nothing to do with NATO or some grand geopolitical strategy. Putin has sent his troops across the border because a thriving, prosperous and democratic Ukraine spells disaster for him and his cronies, so they will do their utmost to destroy the hopes and aspirations of the Ukrainian people.
Tragically, the international community has allowed Mr Putin to get away with it for far too long, and I am afraid that the sanctions that were announced by the Prime Minister yesterday show that we are still failing to respond with the strength that is required. Just five banks and three individuals were sanctioned, but none of the Russian banks that are of any real significance were included—for example, VTB, VEB, Alfa-Bank or Sberbank. The named individuals are also relatively minor players. Where is Abramovich? Where are Kostin and Usmanov? They should all be on the list. It was a slap on the wrist when far more hard-hitting measures were needed.
If we are to truly act with the robust moral authority that is required, we must get our own house in order. London has become the destination of choice for the crooks and thieves who run Russia. The cancelling of the tier 1 visa scheme over the weekend was a welcome move, but the Home Secretary’s refusal to publish the long-completed report on the scheme is deeply troubling, as it is bound to give rise to the suspicion that the Government have something to hide. Currently, 700 Russian millionaires live in the UK on the basis of tier 1 visas. What financial due diligence was done on their applications? Have the national security implications of their presence in our country been properly assessed? Have they had access to the Prime Minister or other senior members of the Government?
On the matter of Russians buying political influence, the Home Secretary must surely now review all the donations that have been made to the Conservative party by dual British-Russian citizens with connections to the Russian state, and she must update the House on that as a matter of urgency. The House also needs to know why only four individuals have been the subject of unexplained wealth orders since those measures were introduced in 2017.
The Opposition have repeatedly warned the Government about the links between the City of London and the corridors of power in the Kremlin, but in recent years the Conservative party has received almost £4 million in donations from individuals with close links to the Russian Government, which has clearly created a conflict of interest that has prevented any meaningful action. Enough is enough. Our national security and our reputation as a country that believes in and upholds the rule of law are at stake. We need a root-and-branch overhaul of the broken system; we need an economic crime Bill; we need a registration of overseas entities Bill; we need a total overhaul of Companies House, so that it is empowered to be a guardian of propriety rather than a passive library; and we need the full implementation of the Russia report.
Ukraine is being attacked by a rogue state that is intent on destroying democracy, liberty and the rule of law—a state led by a thug who orders mafia-style hits on the streets of our country. We must stand firm against Mr Putin and his cronies, and we will, but the Government must also take stronger action, and they must do so now.
I think I have been here before. We have discussed the role of unincorporated associations in providing a loophole for political campaign finance in the UK, particularly for the Conservative party, and notably, the role of the Constitutional Research Council, which seeks to promote the Union in all its parts. We are all mindful of the £435,000 that it donated to the DUP during the Brexit campaign.
Although I knew we were sure to hear a fairly good overview of the myriad examples of Tories having their mouths full of Russian gold this afternoon, along with the excellent article by John Kampfner in this morning’s edition of The Times, I realised that it might be worth considering a longer view of the modern history of illicit finance in this political state. I support the official Opposition’s motion but I will give a broader historical narrative as to why we are where we are.
The excellent work done by Peter Geoghegan at openDemocracy on campaign finance and by David Leask in The Herald, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), on the abuse of Scottish limited partnerships deserves greater scrutiny. I also refer hon. Members to my Westminster Hall debate in February 2019 on the saga of unincorporated associations. The whole morass of state capture by financial interests, often from overseas, was not inevitable and could have been avoided.
Oliver Bullough, who has done so much to document the nexus of Russian illicit finance and political influence, has written quite a few times about the advent of the Eurodollar age, as the Soviet Union found a rather deflated 1960s City of London a willing recipient of its foreign exchange reserves and the modern practice of offshore financing was born. That was just the start, however, of the competitive advantage that the City enjoyed when the sluice gates were opened.
It was to the great detriment of the good people of Russia that at the very moment they were experiencing economic shock therapy and the systemic looting of their country’s great wealth, those looking for convenient places to stash the loot were welcomed—I have to say; it is a historical reality—by a new Labour Government desperate to show that they could be trusted to do right by the City. That is well documented. I will just dip into the economist Brett Christophers’ superb book “Rentier Capitalism”:
“It was New Labour that in the late 1990s shrunk the City’s regulatory system into the minimalist form of the Financial Services Authority...the FSA’s architects and administrators were themselves entirely up-front about just how hands-off and permissive this pared-down new regulator would be.”
The alarm bells were already ringing for those who could see what was happening in Russia after 1999. I have spoken about John Kampfner’s article in The Times today, and I think we should be really mindful of some of the other things he has said in the past.
It is not as though the signs were not there for the wider public. In 2006, not only did Putin’s increasingly murderous domestic agenda become clearer with the assassination of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, but he began to demonstrate the contempt with which he saw the UK with the cruel and calculated murder of Alexander Litvinenko here in London. I am afraid that that began under the premiership of Tony Blair, and the phrase “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” seems to ring a wee bit hollow.
We all know very well what happened next, and we have had a pretty good run through the ways that the looted wealth of the Russian people—ordinary Russians who, as I mentioned earlier, should maybe have been given the golden visas to come here and enjoy the benefits of freedom and democracy—has entered the body politic not only in buying football clubs, art galleries and prestige property, but in keeping private schools and charitable foundations, as well as Members on both sides of the other Chamber, financially solvent.
The UK often likes to see itself as some sort of soft underbelly of superpower, but that soft power has never been as soft an underbelly as it is now, in that too many of our ruling class have been happy to have been rubbed. We are beginning to see the results of this almost three decades-long infatuation with illicit Russian finance, and I have to say that I cannot help but wonder if we are not correct in concluding that this very fabric of the British political state really could not help itself.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), and to take part in this debate. This debate is so important at this point in our history, and I think we are all disappointed that it has to take place.
As a child of the cold war, I remember the feeling of relief in the 1990s that the constant threat and fear of a war in Europe had been lifted, yet here we are. As a student of international relations, I studied the Cuban missile crisis, but it is only in the past few weeks that I have fully appreciated what it is like to watch and wait, and to hope that, like Khrushchev, Putin would blink first and the crisis would be averted. We all know now that that is not what is going to happen and is not what has happened.
There has been the so-called incursion—the invasion—of east Ukraine, and the threat of sanctions as presented by the Government was not enough to prevent it. They did not propose sufficient financial pain for Putin and his allies to give any of them pause for thought. It was not enough to protect the people of Ukraine. The people of Kyiv—it is twinned with my own city of Edinburgh, and we have shared exchanges and had receptions with them—may now face the most horrific of ordeals, and that strengthens my resolve. I am so disappointed that the action proposed by this Government was not strong enough to deter it.
The Liberal Democrats welcome tough sanctions on Russia, and we wish to preserve the unity that will be so important in controlling this evil—not just unity in this House, but unity with our NATO allies. However, I fear we need something stronger and more far-reaching if Putin is to take our resolve seriously—something much stronger than we have at the moment. The current list of those who will face sanctions is weak, with only three individuals on it, and it allows many of Putin’s cronies simply to get away scot-free. It is time that we used the full force of the sanction powers at our disposal, and Putin’s Russia must be treated like the rogue state it is.
The Government have dithered and delayed on the draft registration of overseas entities Bill for more than 2,000 days now. It went through pre-legislative scrutiny in 2018, and we are told by a Minister in the Lords that it is sat on a shelf gathering dust. The Lib Dems, on the other hand, have been doing the Government’s work for them. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) has introduced the Registration of Overseas Entities Bill, using the text of the Government’s draft Bill, and it has support from all parties of the House. Why are we not accelerating its passage through the House? We would be prepared to sit night and day to get it passed this week, and I am sure others would be too, in order to put a stop to Russian interference in the UK property market.
We have heard much today about the Russian money with which London is awash, as well as about the kleptocracy. We have heard about the golden visas, which have now ended, but the Government dithered and delayed, while not prepared to offer visas to the foreign nationals working at the forefront of the pandemic. We need the long and overdue report on those golden visas and who is in receipt of them.
We will not persuade Putin of our resolve if we do not send a stronger message immediately. If we are saying that we will get more sanctions after further action, that is not enough. Measures such as moving the champions league away from St Petersburg are essential, but they are not enough.
We must be both united and strong in our stance against the outrage perpetrated on the people of Ukraine. We must be united on their behalf, and we must make sure that Putin is deterred, is deterred now and does not ignore the next warning. We must keep adding layers of warning before he has invaded Ukraine—all of Ukraine—and destroyed its democracy, denied its people their freedom and begun to look elsewhere.
It goes without saying that the response from the Government yesterday was totally inadequate. We have had a great deal of warning over a very long period of Putin’s intention and the likelihood of what happened yesterday taking place, so it really does prompt the question why we were not better prepared with stronger sanctions from the outset when he seized control of yet further parts of Ukraine.
We have been waiting for a considerable time for Government legislation. People have mentioned the economic crime Bill, reform of Companies House, the law to register foreign agents, the registration of overseas entities Bill and the replacement of the outdated Computer Misuse Act 1990, while the Government’s Elections Bill will enable overseas donations to be given in our political system. We have also had—nearly two years ago—the Intelligence and Security Committee report on Russia, and all the time we have been waiting for the Government to act.
Even if we accept the fact that the £2.3 million of donations to the Conservative party that have taken place since the Prime Minister took over the leadership of that party are legitimate, the Conservatives have to acknowledge that accepting that sort of money—while sitting on this legislation and regulation, and with the delay in action and the delay in the response to the Intelligence and Security Committee report—at best looks dodgy.
We also have the photograph of the Foreign Secretary—a photograph she published herself—with Lubov Chernukhin, wife of the former Deputy Minister of Finance of Russia, who has given £1.7 million to the Conservative party. All that prompts a question about what the Government’s motives are for delaying the legislation that we need to deal with the Russian dirty money that has been laundered through the City of London.
Our legal system is being distorted in favour of these aggressive criminals who are using SLAPP orders to silence journalists and newspapers, and to attack publishing companies that publish books about the affairs of those individuals. Eminent law firms such as Carter-Ruck and Schillings are allowing themselves to be used to corrupt our legal system in favour of those dangerous individuals. We should be calling those law firms out, because their activities are providing an opportunity for criminals who are laundering money through the City of London to operate. They are taking blood money from those people. They are using a plethora or a confetti of letters to individuals, to stop them being able to do their jobs, or to soak up their resources and prevent them from investigating those activities. They have even gone as far as taking the Serious Fraud Office to Court. The Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation has taken a Government agency that has a duty to investigate such activities, and tried to shut it up using its resources. It has even attacked individuals in the Serious Fraud Office. That must be stopped, and the Government need to act.
This debate has exposed the gulf between what is needed to deal with illicit finance—and, one could add, what the Government say they are doing or intend to do—and what they are actually doing, which is almost nothing, in terms of either introducing measures or enforcing the measures that already there. Whether oligarchs, the companies they set up to hide behind, or agents of hostile powers, they can operate freely.
We heard about sanctions from the shadow Foreign Secretary in his opening remarks, from my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) and from my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle), so we know what has to be done—there is a list of things that have to be done. There is the Russia report, and there is the economic crime report—why will not the Government act on those? That is not partisan or party political, because we also heard what Lord Agnew said, which is that what is being done is “desperately inadequate”, particularly the failure to bring forward an economic crime Bill. We heard from Lord Faulks, a former Conservative Minister, who said that the Government are turning a “blind eye” to what is going on and have done nothing to stem the flow of illicit funds, and that he was misled regarding the introduction of a property register. For all the great furore that the Home Secretary made about tier 1 visas, everyone who wanted one has got one already. This is shutting the door after the horse has bolted, and there has been no enforcement related to it. Indeed, a new type of visa will be introduced, so presumably it will start all over again.
In the limited time I have, I want to address the failure of regulation, enforcement and prosecution. We have heard from other Members about the failure of the courts, about Companies House, about trusts and unincorporated associations, and about how things are easily concealed. It gives me no pleasure to say this, but the Serious Fraud Office suffers from its budget being a fraction of what the company it is prosecuting has to spend on lawyers and defence. But it is also true that the head of the Serious Fraud Office is under investigation for the conduct of the Ziad Akle case. The accusation is that the SFO went after the minnows and let the sharks swim away, which is exactly what the Government are doing on sanctions. Many senior people in the SFO end up working for those very law firms we have heard about which are defending the oligarchs. What are the Government doing about that? It is a laughing stock in terms of criminal enforcement and prosecution in this country.
What are the Government doing about SLAPPS? We have heard about that issue several times, including in the excellent debate we had here last month, led by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill. They identified the way that oligarchs and companies can persecute and prosecute investigative journalism.
What will the Government, who love interfering with the courts, do in response to the Bloomberg v. ZXC case last week? That shows that when an investigative journalist publishes details of an individual before charge, the individual can, on the grounds of privacy, hide behind that ruling. Nothing is being done to support those who wish to expose what is wrong and everything is being done to protect that wrongdoing. The fact that there is Tory party money behind this stinks.
I am honoured to be called in this important debate and agree with all the concerns of the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), about Russian aggression and the illicit finance sustaining the Putin regime that is responsible for the aggression. That aggression threatens not just the Ukrainian people—I met a Ukrainian constituent of mine this morning and share her deep concern and love of her country—but the wider region and regions across the world. For example, in Bosnia, and in Republika Srpska in particular, ongoing Russian interference is threatening peace. Putin’s dirty money coming through London is a big part of that, and it is right that we have time to discuss it in this place and urge the Government to do so much more. President Roosevelt said that the key to diplomacy is to
“speak softly and carry a big stick”,
but the Government are doing totally the opposite: they are talking tough and acting very soft.
In Putney, when we look around the big developments by the river, we see dark windows. We wonder who owns those houses, why they are they not living in them and why they are putting up prices for us in London. Of course, illicit money thrives on secrecy and darkness, and that is what we see here.
What would Labour do were we in government now? We would do so much more. First, the Elections Bill is being debated in the House of Lords tomorrow, so there is time to look again at Labour’s new clause 2, which would have cut the connection between the increased number of overseas voters that we will have and the open door for donations that will be allowed to flood through with the increased allowance. Why do we not simply cut that connection? I hope that the Minister will address that. I urge him to bring new clause 2 back in the Lords tomorrow.
Labour would also implement all the recommendations of the Russia report. We would push for Russia to be excluded from financial mechanisms such as SWIFT and ban trading on Russian sovereign debt. We would tackle Putin’s campaign of misinformation. We would work with our European allies to ensure that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is cancelled. We would take steps to ensure a robust and transparent register of beneficial owners of overseas entities. We would urgently reform Companies House. We would bring in the economic crime Bill that has been promised for six years. We would fix unexplained wealth orders. We would also not leave the sanctions at just three oligarchs and five banks, which shows that we have one weak and out-of-touch Government. By contrast, the EU has announced sanctions for the 351 Duma members and, in the US, Biden has already announced sanctions on the country’s sovereign debt. Our allies are going further than us. To say that we have to go in step with them is just an excuse; actually, we are not in step. I hope that the Minister will say something about that.
It is time to bring an end to the Tory party donations from Russian oligarchs that are linked to all this slow action by the Government—surely there is a link. If there is no such link, the Government should do far more, show us that and put the security of the Ukrainian people and the British people before those who pollute our financial system and wish us harm.
I commend the Labour party on the motion. It is an important consideration and it is right that, as well as supporting Ukraine and condemning Russian aggression, we should look deeper into how the Kremlin finances itself as well as our own resilience against bad actors and dirty money. It is not a pretty picture. It is frustrating because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) said, the SNP has been calling for action on it for years, and although we do not have the legal powers in Holyrood to act ourselves for Scotland, the UK Government do have the power but do not have the desire to act and have done far too little, far too late.
I listened carefully to the Minister’s response to the shadow Foreign Secretary’s speech. I have much respect for her and wish her a long and happy career at the Dispatch Box, but she must be reassured to know that she has a great future in stand-up comedy if it all goes wrong. It is flatly not credible to say that the UK Government have treated this as a priority. Actions do count. Actions do matter. We can judge the Government by their record on this issue and it is a pretty poor one. The numbers are stark: at least 2,189 companies involved in laundering £82 billion of Russian dirty cash. Transparency International calculates that Russians accused of corruption or links to the Kremlin own about at least £1.5 billion-worth of property in the UK. Billions more is owned by opaque offshore trusts. We do not know who owns them.
The sanctions announced yesterday are wholly insufficient to deter future aggression or punish malfeasance in the past. We want more, but I would make a wider point: it is probably worth cracking down on dirty cash anyway and making sure that we are resilient to bad actors in the future. The fact that we have vast tracts of Scotland owned by opaque trusts, and we do not actually know who owns them, is a scandal and it is well past time we deal with it.
I hope the Government recognise the opportunity they have. I take Labour Members at face value that there is an opportunity for the Government here. There is a consensus in the House to act and a real willingness to see progress. We do need an economic crime Act. We do need an overseas entities Act. We do need a register of beneficial ownership. We do need reform of and investment in Companies House. We also need to see the full implementation of the Russia report and the “Moscow’s Gold” report. All those things will strengthen our democracy, strengthen our financial integrity, strengthen our resilience against bad actors, and strengthen the faith of the people of these islands in democracy on these islands. All those things are worth doing. There is a need to act. There is a consensus for action. There is no excuse for delay.
It is a matter of fact that the Conservative party has received £2.3 million of Russian-linked donations since the Prime Minister was elected. Continued delay on this range of issues will only fuel suspicion that that delay is for the very worst reasons. I hope those on the Treasury Bench recognise the opportunity they have on this issue.
In our armoury of responses to countering Russian aggression, tackling illicit finance should be one of our most powerful weapons. We all recognise that Putin’s actions on Monday were a gross violation of international law and showed complete disregard for the sovereignty of Ukraine, but the sanctions announced yesterday were widely recognised as more feeble than the Prime Minister’s tennis backhand. The scale of the proliferation of illicit finance, particularly in London, has allowed Putin and his cronies to spread their dark money through the west, and with it a dark web of influence. As it trickles down through the system, it impacts upon our politics, our economy, our housing market and our public finances.
Under the leadership of the current Prime Minister, the Conservative party has accepted £2.3 million from donors of Russia-linked money in recent years. It also accepted £160,000 from a Russian donor for one tennis match—we could call that the ultimate backhander. The Pandora papers revealed that Mohamed Amersi, a major Conservative party donor who funded the Prime Minister’s campaign to become Conservative leader, advised on a deal that was later found to be a £220 million bribe for the daughter of the then President of Uzbekistan. Like many of my colleagues, I want to see any money with links back to Putin’s regime returned. Shedding our politics from the influence of dubious cash is in the interests of us all and our democracy, and bolsters our firm stance against Russia.
As we have heard, London is the “laundromat” for corrupt money. Those are not my words, but the words of the Russia report, published in July 2020. Half of the estate agents advertising properties for sale in London at £5 million failed to register with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for anti-money-laundering supervision in 2019, or had failed to pay their annual fees for that. A Treasury report published in December confirmed that luxury London homes are an
“attractive method to launder illicit funds”.
We all know that the housing market is broken, but part of the reason for that is the impact of illicit money flushing through the market and pushing up house prices for all our constituents in all parts of the land.
Perhaps worst of all is the illicit finance that is costing the British taxpayer dearly. The National Crime Agency estimates that money laundering costs the British economy £100 million—almost five times what we spend on social care. Recognising the toxic effect of illicit finance, it is time to act. If not now, when?
Six years since the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, promised to introduce a register of beneficial owners of overseas entities, we are still waiting. In Prime Minister’s questions today, the Prime Minister confirmed that an economic crime Bill will not be introduced in this parliamentary Session. We do not have time for dither and delay. We need to know who the real beneficiaries of shell companies are to end the attractive secrecy of the UK market for fraudulent cash. In that vein, Companies House is no longer fit for purpose and is not doing the job that we need it to. The Treasury Committee agreed that reform of Companies House has been too slow and is “essential” to end the scourge of illicit money.
Finally, let me turn to the question of why the Government have failed to use unexplained wealth orders, which are an effective method to prevent or deal with illicit finance. In theory, they provide an opportunity to confiscate assets without ever having to prove that the property was obtained from criminal activity, but only nine orders have been issued relating to four cases, as of February 2022. As the Russia report stated, it is far too easy for businesses that have been investing their dirty money in the UK for many years to find lawyers and accountants to somehow explain their wealth. We need to ensure that the Government have effective tools at their disposal that are fit for purpose and challenge those who enable illicit finance as well as benefit from it.
I thank all the right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to this debate. Many points have been made over the past few hours, but two in particular stand out. First, there was a consensus across all parts of the House—with the exception of one Member who spoke—that the Government have not gone anywhere near far enough with the package of sanctions that was announced yesterday. Secondly, there is an enormous gulf between the rhetoric employed by Ministers and the lack of action that we have seen on illicit finance over many years.
Let me reiterate the Opposition’s position on these issues. We support the Government in taking a firm stand against Russian aggression and in favour of Ukraine’s freedom to decide its future. We support solidarity with our NATO allies. We reject the imperialist notion of “spheres of influence” by which Russia seeks to limit the choices and freedoms of its neighbours.
There can, of course, always be a nationalist appeal to people who speak the same language living across different borders, but if we follow that route, we will be in a never-ending cycle of ethnically based conflicts. No one has pointed out the dangers of that road more eloquently this week than Martin Kimani, the Kenyan ambassador to the UN Security Council, who urged the world to leave behind the mindset of dead empires. His warning not to take refuge in nostalgia and grievance but to look to the future was a leadership lesson for our times. What a contrast between that powerful eloquence and the recent essay on Ukraine by President Putin. Anyone reading that will have seen declarations of love and common history laced with threats and denial of freedom on every single page, and the desperate, needy pleas for respect.
I thank the right hon. Member, my friend, for allowing me to intervene. The real worry is that Putin’s forces have now gone into the area where his proxy forces have operated: Luhansk and Donetsk. Two thirds of those provinces are still in Ukraine, yet the Duma has said that they are now Russian, so at any moment, we can expect Russian troops to go across those demarcation lines. We therefore have to be extremely strong in response and our sanctions have to be much harder.
I respect the right hon. Member’s experience and agree absolutely with his intervention. Let us call things what they are: not breakaway republics, but step-by-step annexation; not peacekeepers, but an invading force. We have seen the pattern over and over again.
The former High Representative of the European Union, Baroness Ashton, has spoken about President Putin’s strategy of the wedge. He seizes part of the territory of a neighbouring country—Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, or parts of the Donbas in Ukraine. By holding the wedge, he seeks to limit the freedom of those countries to join international associations. He seeks to absorb the rest of the country in managing the conflict that he has created. He uses up resources, he creates a refugee problem and, if he cannot take over neighbouring countries entirely, he at least ensures that they are not free to develop as they wish because they are not whole and their freedom is compromised.
That “Greater Russia” mindset has been behind President Putin’s policy towards Ukraine for the past eight years. Right now, it is not fully clear whether he will be content just to hold the wedge or whether he will go further, but even what he has done so far is already limiting Ukraine’s options and choices for the future.
How should we respond? Some lessons have been learned. The solidarity shown by the United States, the United Kingdom and most European countries in recent weeks has been important and impressive. Calling out the troop build-up and the creation of flashpoint incidents and false flag pretexts has shone a welcome light on what is happening. The development of open source intelligence has exposed the ham-fisted propaganda emerging from Russia and its troll factories.
Allied unity is important, but so too is allied resolve. In the past, we have set red lines, but when they were breached we have drawn back. The result in Syria was the repeated use of chemical weapons and the ability for Russia to dictate the course of events for years afterwards. This time, if we talk about maximum sanctions for military action, we have to be prepared to carry them out. Who really believes that sanctioning just three people who have already been on the US list for years will deter President Putin from acting further? No wonder the Royal United Services Institute, the respected defence and foreign policy think-tank, described yesterday’s actions as like having
“turned up to a gunfight with a peashooter.”
The Government’s actions have to match their rhetoric. Yesterday, that simply was not the case. The Minister’s defence is that this is simply the first tranche and that there is more to come, but what is the case for waiting, given what we have seen? Is there anything in President Putin’s actions in recent days to suggest that he is in compromise mode? He is not. He is testing us every hour.
Not only do we need a sanctions regime that matches the seriousness of what has been done, but we need determined action to clean up what the Intelligence and Security Committee has called the London laundromat.
I will press on, because we are short of time.
Our country and our capital city should not be a welcome home for illicit finance, the proceeds of looting and the proceeds of kleptocracy. There is a basic problem: if sanctions are to work, we have to know what people own. The Government have been sitting on a registration of overseas entities Bill for four years, and it has been six years since it was first talked about. How can sanctions be effective if we do not have legislation to show us what people own? Queen’s Speech after Queen’s Speech has passed without action. Only a few weeks ago, the Government’s own counter-fraud Minister resigned, saying that that legislation was once again to be set aside. Today, it looks as if it may be delayed further. It must be brought forward as soon as possible.
At the heart of money laundering is the use of shell companies to hide the true nature of ownership behind layer after layer of needless complexity. That lack of transparency is the fraudster’s friend. Reform of Companies House is long overdue, but, again, pledges to reform it have not been matched by action. If we are serious about policing kleptocracy and fraud, we have to change this situation and empower our register of companies to be a regulator, not just a library of information—and sometimes a library of dodgy information at that. The recommendations of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report on Russia have to be implemented. Our agencies have to be resourced to use the powers that they have, otherwise the legislation that we pass in this place is just bits of paper. We also have to be alive to the network of enablers who act as the praetorian guard for the oligarchs here in the UK.
As has already been said, it is not only money that is laundered here, but also reputations. The donation to a university, the purchase of a football club, the sponsoring of a gallery, donations to the Conservative party—all that is designed to burnish the reputations of those involved. In the whole history of this, one fact stands out: the interests of finance have trumped those of security. Then, when people call this out, there is the punitive legal action designed to shut people up and designed to stop the brave investigative journalists whom we should be thanking for the work they have done in exposing what is happening.
The Prime Minister’s defence yesterday was to accuse those of us who question many of these actions of Russophobia, and indeed the Minister repeated that today in her opening remarks. Does she, and does he, really think that the CVs of those involved in this are those of ordinary Russians? Russia is a country where the vast majority of the wealth is owned by about 500 people. We should not confuse those who live off Russia’s wealth with the sweat and toil of the Russian people who created the wealth in the first place. That is no defence for the funding of the Conservative party, and it is no defence for the actions of oligarchs. How does the Prime Minister think they made their wealth in the first place? They did it with the support and backing of the Russian regime. It is the wealth of the Russian people that is being laundered, not the proceeds of exceptional talent or enterprise or creativity or ingenuity.
We stand at a dangerous moment, one that requires not only unity between allies but resolve, for weakness here will be noticed by those elsewhere in the world who are looking for territorial gains. This is not just a matter of finance; it is a matter of national security, and that means the maximum package of actions. It means sticking to the red lines that we have set. That is what we urge the Government to do, and it is action that today’s Labour party will support.
I welcome this important debate. I thank the Opposition for securing it, and I am grateful for the manner in which the shadow Foreign Secretary opened it, the manner in which the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury closed it, and the tone in which it has largely, if not quite completely, been conducted.
Of course Government must be scrutinised and must be held to account. In our oppositional parliamentary liberal democracy, that is what we do, and I think it is what this House does rather well. But is also a great strength of this House that we can come together to show the unity of our ultimate purpose—the defence of freedom and democracy at home and abroad—and I believe that, collectively, we have done that today.
In his statement yesterday, the Prime Minister was clear. In recognising the supposed independence of the so-called people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, President Putin has flagrantly violated international law. Ukraine is a sovereign country, and has a right to choose its own security arrangements. It is clear that the deployment of Russian forces in sovereign Ukrainian territory amounts to a renewed invasion of the country. The Prime Minister referred yesterday to “our valiant Ukrainian friends”, and added:
“We will keep faith with them in the critical days that lie ahead, and whatever happens, Britain will not waver in our resolve.”—[Official Report, 22 February 2022; Vol. 709, c. 175.]
The United Kingdom also has an absolute commitment to defend our NATO allies. We have already doubled the size of our deployment in Estonia, where the British Army leads the NATO battlegroup.
Yesterday the UK, in co-ordination with international partners, announced a first wave of targeted sanctions. I say a first wave, but in fact more than 270 individuals are already sanctioned under previous programmes. Yesterday’s measures placed banks worth £37 billion under sanctions, in addition to more oligarchs, and there is more to come. My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) rightly mentioned the importance of calibration. It is also vital that after this first barrage we continue to work in lockstep with our friends and allies around the world, as my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) rightly pointed out. These measures will hit more oligarchs and banks close to the Kremlin, sending a clear message that the UK will use our economic heft to inflict pain on the Putin regime and degrade its strategic interests.
The UK will also sanction those members of the Duma and the Federation Council who voted to recognise the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, violating Ukraine’s territory. We will extend the territorial sanctions imposed on Crimea to non-Government controlled territory in the so-called breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and we are ready to go much further if Russia does not pull back from the brink. In the event of further aggressive acts against Ukraine from Russia, we have an unprecedented package of further sanctions ready to go. I will not, from the Dispatch Box, go into future designations or who we will target and with what measure, but Moscow should be clear that we will use these powers to maximum effect if Russia further invades Ukraine.
Corruption and illicit finance are the lifeblood of the kleptocratic Russian Government, and individuals associated with the Russian state can try to further their influence through investment. This Government are strongly committed to tackling—and we continue to act against—the threat from illicit finance. Through the economic crime plan launched in 2019, we are overhauling our suspicious activity reports framework against money laundering, including from Russia. We are increasing the number of financial investigators in the National Crime Agency, and we are substantially increasing funding for our economic crime response, with an additional £400 million over the next three years, funded in part by a new economic crime levy.
I want to clarify one point. The Minister seemed to imply that further sanctions would be contingent on a further roll-forward of Russian troops, but that is not what the Minister for Europe and North America, the right hon. Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) said to the House yesterday. He said that there would be further sanctions regardless of whether there was any further advance. Can the Minister clarify that point?
We will work together in lockstep with our friends and allies around the world. I will not go into detail now about what future designations might be or the precise nature of them, but as I said earlier, Moscow should know that we will use these measures to their full effect.
Unfortunately we are overrunning, and I will not get through responding to the points made in the debate if I take a lot of interventions. I can do either, but I think it is important that I respond to the points made in the debate.
Specifically in relation to Russian illicit finance, the National Crime Agency has increased the number of investigations into corrupt elites. Some of that response will be visible through law enforcement, policy and international engagement. Other options are less visible but that does not mean they are not impactful. We are going further. It is vital in the fight against dirty money that we increase transparency in order to know who ultimately controls and owns a company or property, and the Prime Minister is committed to bringing forward new legislation to include reforms to Companies House and to limited partnerships, and to introducing the register of overseas entities beneficial ownership Bill.
Last week the Home Secretary announced the closure of the tier 1 investor visa scheme—
Just a moment.
We want innovators to invest in Britain, and the replacement visa programme will be about creating a positive economic impact, not just volume of cash. I was about to come on to responding to the points that the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) made about the Intelligence and Security Committee report, but I will wait to hear what she has to say now.
I am not making an announcement today on the programme of debates and legislation in this House. We are committed to these measures, and I will say a little more about them.
The hon. Lady and others spoke about the ISC report. Since the Salisbury attack, we have made real progress in disrupting malign influence in the UK. At that time, as hon. Members will recall, 23 Russian intelligence officers in diplomatic roles were expelled from this country. The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 strengthened the powers of our police to stop, question, detain and search individuals travelling through UK ports to determine whether they are involved in hostile-state activity, and we have strengthened our scrutiny of inward investment through the National Security and Investment Act 2021.
We are looking to bring forward legislation to strengthen our powers to counter threats from foreign states and to update our counter-espionage laws. This will provide the security services and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to tackle the wide range of future threats and evolving tactics of other states.
My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) brings particular expertise to this debate, and he spoke about the range of ways in which other states may seek to harm us. I reassure him of our intent to bring forward legislation on precisely that range of state threats.
My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay spoke about the wider forces of history, the need to defend and nurture democracy and the twin role of defence and soft power, and I absolutely agree. I reassure the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who speaks for the Scottish National party, that the Government remain committed to reforming limited partnership law and recognise the important role of limited partnerships.
My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes spoke of the financial system’s critical role and the possible leverage effect. I reassure him that nothing is off the table. The hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) asked about the report on tier 1 visas issued between 2008 and 2015, and I confirm that we will publish that report. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) asked, among other things, about the economic crime plan. Thirty-four of 52 actions are now complete, with good progress having been made on the remaining 18.
We take illicit finance very seriously. The UK is an open economy, it is an attractive place to live and it has one of the world’s leading financial centres. That combination attracts many legitimate investors, but I do not underestimate the extent of the illegitimate, nor do I understate the imperative to clamp down on it.
We have the global human rights sanctions and the anti-corruption sanctions. Building on the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, the Criminal Finances Act 2017 brought in account freezing and unexplained wealth orders. We reformed and have now ended tier 1 visas. We created the National Economic Crime Centre and set out the economic crime plan, and we are going further by increasing investment in law enforcement, reforming anti-money laundering alerts and embarking on a major reform of Companies House.
We already have a register of beneficial ownership and will introduce a register specific to real estate, and we will further strengthen unexplained wealth orders. Those key economic crime measures are an urgent priority for this Government, as we recognise the collective threat that serious criminals, kleptocrats and corrupt elites present to our financial system and national security. Dirty money and kleptocracy are at the heart of the Putin regime, and they are not welcome. This Government will use all the powers at our disposal against individuals and entities that seek to harm our democracy and our people.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House expresses solidarity with the people of Ukraine, and supports their sovereignty and Ukraine’s territorial integrity; condemns Russian aggression and emphasises the UK’s commitment to NATO; resolves to end illicit finance that rewards and sustains the Putin regime in Russia; calls on the Government to introduce an Economic Crime Bill, an Overseas Entities Bill and a register of beneficial ownership by the end of March 2022; and further calls on the Foreign Secretary to make a statement to this House on the implementation of the recommendations of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia Report, HC 632, published on 21 July 2020.