Failure to Prevent an Economic Criminal Offence

Part of Criminal Finances Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:15 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley 3:15 pm, 21st February 2017

I agree with my right hon. Friend’s point. It is interesting that the United States seems to favour prosecuting large banks and large companies that are internationally owned rather than US-owned. I am sure that the Foreign Office is trying to work out whether that is an unfair, anti-competitive move by the US. He is right that we should not try to read too much across from the US system into ours, but I was trying to make the point that people are confused about why people are prosecuted in the US but not over here.

That takes me back to the point that it seems unfair that while we can prosecute directors of small businesses, we cannot prosecute when we see much more serious offences in large businesses. That is why I support extending the model of the failure to prevent that we already have in place for bribery and that we are adding for tax evasion. We are talking about other very serious economic crimes, and it is hard to make a distinction as to why we would rank some of these offences as less important or serious such that we do not take the power to prosecute so that we prevent serious fraud, for instance.

I welcome the Government’s consultation on those issues, and it is right that it would be somewhat premature to legislate before we get the outcome of the consultation, as that might make a mockery of the idea of consulting. It is a real pity that although this Bill is the ideal vehicle in which to act, we cannot, because of the timing, make the change that want. We will be relying on another relevant Bill being introduced later in this Parliament so that we can finally make the change. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough said, it would be helpful if the Minister would make some encouraging noises about how seriously the Government take such matters and when we might expect to see some progress following the consultation, if the Government were minded to proceed with legislation.

I will take a bit of a leap from that topic to the subject of new clause 6—our grouping is interesting. For quite a long while, I thought that I was supporting Government policy by encouraging our overseas territories and Crown dependencies to adopt the same transparency regarding beneficial ownership that we are putting in place for the UK through the Bill. The previous Prime Minister was absolutely right to make efforts to get those territories and dependencies to agree to having transparent registers. I think that we all welcome the fact that the territories have moved a fair way in agreeing to have registers and reliable information on the beneficial owners of companies operating there. We all congratulate them on that, and look forward to that being in place; we all recognise that it will be a great step forward for various law enforcement authorities to be able to get that information relatively speedily to help prosecutions here. However, that does not go far enough, and we recognise that by saying in new clause 6 that we want a transparent register.

In our debate on the first group of amendments, the Minister strongly made the case that what attracted businesses to the UK was the rule of law and our favourable tax regime. I suspect that those are the main advantages that all our overseas territories have—people go there and establish various companies, trusts and so on because they recognise that they have a strong rule of law, which is based on our rule of law, and can get the favourable tax treatment that they want. What we are trying to say in new clause 6 is that those territories can rightly market themselves as advantageous places from which to do business, because they have a stable rule of law and the right tax treatment, but that we do not want them to market themselves as, or to be used as, ways of hiding dirty money and being a way around the rules that we are putting in place, and that other countries around the world have.

We want those territories to have the same transparency as us. When they lobby us and say, “We don’t need to do that, and if we did it before Delaware, Panama or wherever, it would move all these people elsewhere and that would make our business model inviable,” they always seem to add, “We don’t want dirty, corrupt or criminal money in our territory. We take action if we spot that.” I can never quite get the reason why they are so opposed to having a transparent register. If people are not operating in those territories but using entities in them, why are the territories so concerned about having a transparent register that would show that and allow us all to see it? It just leaves a suspicion that they might be getting a bit of money coming through that perhaps ought not to be going there. It would be greatly to the advantage of the reputation of those territories, and that of the UK as a whole, if this transparency were in place. That is why I support the efforts of Dame Margaret Hodge to draft the new clause and get it in order.

It clearly would not be right for this House to legislate for all those territories—those days passed a few decades ago—but it is clearly right for us to send out a strong message that although there are many advantages to being one of our Crown dependencies or overseas territories, those advantages come with obligations, one of which is that we want those places to be beacons of the right way of doing business and investing, and of attracting the right kind of money. We are saying, “Over the next couple of years, we want you to get these transparent registers. We don’t want to destroy your business model or national income, but we want it to be clear that you are taking clean, legitimate money. There is no reason for those who are operating like that to want to hide.” If any of the territories are acting as a conduit to get money into the UK, we will know who the beneficial owner is, because that will be published here, so one of the main advantages that they have is probably no argument against the new clause.

I feel strongly about this because we are affected when there are stories about money being hidden in these territories. I was in Tajikistan on a parliamentary visit, where a very effective toll road has been built between the two main cities. The only problem is that the revenue from the tolls end up in a British Virgin Islands company. Nobody quite knows who owns it, but let us just say that it is owned in such a way that it is unlikely that the Tajik authorities will be scrutinising it too hard. People say, “It’s you; the UK is allowing our toll money, which we pay, to be stolen and siphoned off to one of these strange territories.” That may or may not be true.