Failure to Prevent an Economic Criminal Offence

Part of Criminal Finances Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:45 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Conservative, Sutton Coldfield 3:45 pm, 21st February 2017

New clause 6 is an important probing amendment. I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister says before I decide whether to vote for it. One of the most important aspects of the Bill is tackling corruption and standing up for openness and transparency. The Government deserve enormous praise for the work that they have done—landmark work, really—not only here but in the G20, in trying to tackle corruption. That is what this new clause is about.

Conservative Members join Caroline Flint, who spoke to the new clause very eloquently, in saying how much we regret that Dame Margaret Hodge cannot be here today. Given the reason for that, I hope that she will send the right hon. Lady the House’s best wishes. I should correct her on one point. She said that Back Benchers signing this new clause might have been leant on by the Government or were signing it in spite of being leant on. I am happy to confirm to the House that no one has tried to lean on me in this respect.

I think that the Minister will have to do a little better than in his response to my hon. Friend Nigel Mills on his Tajikistan bridge example, because my hon. Friend was absolutely correct. The Administration of Tajikistan may well be colluding with the owners of the bridge, but that is not the point—the point is to enable civic society to hold the powerful to account. That is why we support transparency. That is why, when I had the privilege of being Secretary of State for International Development, we introduced the transparency initiative. We put everything we possibly could into the public domain. It is why we should all support a free press. Although it may be rumbustious and unruly from time to time, a free press is nevertheless a bastion of our liberties. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. A lot of the stuff that is the subject of this new clause leaks out anyway in the back pages of Private Eye or whatever. It is much better to put the whole thing on a formal setting and have it made public. The Government, particularly the former Prime Minister and the former Chancellor, my right hon. Friend Mr Osborne, and my right hon. Friend Sir Eric Pickles in his capacity as the anti-corruption tsar, have made huge progress on this.

Will the Minister give us the flavour of the Government’s thinking on the slightly differing treatment of the overseas territories and the Crown dependencies? It would be helpful for the House to understand that. During the run-up to the tabling of this new clause, I was visited by officials of no fewer than five of the dependent territories, supported by the Falkland Islands, although I think that that was a matter of solidarity rather than direct interest. They made some very important points, which no doubt we will hear about from my hon. Friend Sir Henry Bellingham, who chairs the all-party British Virgin Islands group. First, they say that if they have an open public register, they will suffer a competitive disadvantage—and that is true. Their answer is that if they are going to do it—they do not have an objection in principle to doing so—they think that everyone else should do it as well. They point out that the potential effect on their income, which could reduce quite substantially, might well push them back into dependency. That is a fair point. The Government’s answer should be to try at all times to narrow the footprint of the areas that can hide behind secrecy.

Certainly, it is a step forward to have a register, albeit not a public one, but we need to hear from the Government how long they intend to allow the register to remain private and whether they expect the dependent territories and the Crown dependencies to make the register public in due course. If the register remains private, although it may be accessible to law enforcement agencies—that is, obviously, right—crime fighters will be confronting corruption with one hand behind their back. Under British law, we completely accept the argument that allowing law enforcement agencies to see all the entries makes the fight against crime and corruption much easier. That is why in the UK we have a public register. I hope that the Minister will explain to the House how he thinks progress will be made towards a public register, and whether he is saying that the Crown dependencies want more time—a point that their representatives made when they came to see me—or whether he takes a different view.

Finally, the Africa Progress Panel looked recently at the extent of the siphoning off of revenue from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is a rich irony that in the DRC some of the poorest people in the world live on top of some of the richest real estate. The Africa Progress Panel identified nearly £1.5 billion of lost revenue—more than the country’s total health and education budgets during the period in question—in the area at which it looked. According to credible studies by the World Bank, the extent of the money stolen or concealed as unpaid tax in Africa each year dwarfs the totality of the flows of international aid and development money. The House today has the opportunity to go with the grain of the Bill, and with the grain of British leadership internationally, on transparency and openness. Unless the Minister has a very strong argument —he is the sort of Minister who may well have—the effect of our saying that we will not impose the same standards on dependent territories, with all the advantages that they gain from that status, will be to damage our credibility on these matters not only here in Britain but internationally.