Britain is a notorious haven for dirty money

Lucy Nash

Today, this government will have an unprecedented opportunity to end Britain’s role as a hub for kleptocrats and criminals who want to launder their cash. The long-awaited economic crime and corporate transparency bill returns to the House of Commons, where MPs will vote on a slew of amendments from the Lords that seek to close gaping loopholes.
The role of the UK and its offshore territories in pandering to wealthy foreigners was thrown into sharp focus by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February last year. Those closest to Vladimir Putin and his war machine – many of whom have long used “Londongrad” as a playground – were slapped with sanctions, and their known assets frozen. The government hastily passed its Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act 2022, making it easier, among other measures, to prosecute anyone involved in busting sanctions.
But how to freeze assets if we don’t know where they are? There are 93,537 properties in England and Wales owned through opaque offshore companies, from luxury Knightsbridge penthouses to mansions in Surrey. Though the 2022 act brought in the new Register of Overseas Entities, where beneficial owners must be logged, there are still legal ways round this; and figures released by Transparency International in February suggest the owners of more than 50,000 offshore-held properties remain anonymous. Take Kensington Palace Gardens. It’s one of the most expensive streets in London to buy a home, a stone’s throw from Kensington Palace – Prince William’s official residence. The Land Registry lists the owner of one of the future king’s neighbours as “A. Corp Trustees”. No beneficial owner is logged with Companies House. In fact, the mansion is reported to have been owned by the now-sanctioned former Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich by journalists who delved into his affairs; but you can’t see a trace of whether he was, or is, still involved. Similarly, over in Lennox Gardens, an exclusive square near Harrods including properties worth £40m, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) identified two properties whose owners appear to have gone out of their way to stay hidden. They’re both owned by overseas companies. Their owners could include sanctioned oligarchs, drug barons or kleptocrats, or just very private individuals – we simply don’t know.
An amendment to the new bill proposed by the Conservative peer Lord Agnew could help fight pervasive secrecy in UK property ownership by closing one of the loopholes that allow for such opacity. It would require Companies House to collect and publish information about the beneficial owners of trusts, a type of legal arrangement historically used as a kind of ultimate secrecy tool. The Treasury has so far blocked this move, arguing that further consultation is needed. A further potential tool in the fight against oligarchs and fraudsters comes in the form of another amendment proposed by the crossbench peer Lord Vaux. It would require nominee shareholders to declare themselves and, if passed, would mean journalists and other investigators could establish the beneficial owner of any UK-registered company. This would not only improve transparency in property ownership but also help expose scammers. An investigation by TBIJ earlier this year revealed dozens of companies being used in a scam known as “pig butchering”. They were all registered to one address in south Croydon, which is also supposedly the headquarters of more than 10,000 other firms. The new amendment would mean the real owners could be easily revealed by journalists or law enforcement.
Another problem facing those in the UK tasked with tackling high-powered criminals is the sheer cost. During debates on the bill, Andy Slaughter MP, the shadow solicitor general for England and Wales, lamented that law enforcement agencies “go after the small fry rather than the bigger fish” because ultra-wealthy individuals and firms take them to court, costing hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money. One proposed amendment to the bill would cap the costs to law enforcement bodies, allowing them to pursue asset recovery more aggressively. These amendments, among several others aimed at robustly tackling economic crime, could be a big opportunity for this government to crack down on dirty money. If the Tories don’t seize the moment, their majority in the lower chamber means it’s unlikely the amendments will pass. The likeliest scenario may be a ping-pong situation, with the bill bouncing back and forth between the two houses before reaching a compromise. The need to be tough on kleptocrats, dictators and those looking to hide their ill-gotten gains is not purely economic. The democratic world is facing a series of grave threats: the war in Ukraine, the climate emergency and a rise in illiberal dictatorships. The UK needs the money it is owed in taxes to counteract such perils and reestablish order. If MPs do grasp this opportunity to pass the amendments, it could help to end our role in facilitating those who seek to avoid accountability for wrongdoing – and clean up the UK’s financial act.
The Guardian