This group of new clauses contains a fair few of ours, so I shall take a bit longer than I did last time. I want to speak to new clauses 6, 16 and 17 and I want to press new clause 17 to a vote.
Tax evasion was big news in 2016 following the publication of the Panama papers, which threw light on certain opaque offshore companies. Following the leaking of those papers, the overwhelming sentiment was that something needed to be done, and this Bill is that something—or rather, it introduces a set of somethings to deal with the problem. It introduces new corporate offences that will no longer be reliant on the defunct guiding mind principle, it creates unexplained wealth orders and it contains some other eye-catching stuff including the failure to prevent offences under the category of a politically exposed person. It also makes necessary amendments to our pre-existing anti-terrorist legislation. The Minister has pointed out that the Bill builds on a raft of Labour-initiated legislation, including the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, the Bribery Act 2010 and the Terrorism Acts of 2000 and 2006. On the whole, we support the Bill, and all this stuff is not to be sniffed at.
I also want to mention the new additional monitoring, which the Minister announced on the spot a little earlier, relating to the human rights abuses mentioned in our debate on the first group of new clauses.
As the Bill has progressed, however, it has become apparent that there are chinks in the armoury for fighting money laundering. We welcome what is in it, but concerns are being expressed not only in my party but by a range of charities and non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International, Christian Aid, Traidcraft, Transparency International, CAFOD and the ONE Campaign. They are concerned about what the Bill does not contain, and the elephant in the room is the issue of beneficial ownership and the UK’s inaction in tackling the financially secretive companies and practices that lie at the heart of the economies of many of our overseas territories and Crown dependencies. Beneficial ownership is entirely not present in the Bill. It is conspicuous by its absence. In other words, I am referring to our “tax havens.” The silence seems bizarre given that we are talking about money laundering, tax evasion and terrorist financing. Whether the Government like it or not, the matter must be addressed. The issue falls within the Bill’s remit because overseas territories are facilitating, aiding and abetting financial crime. The last time I was at the Dispatch Box I said that the UK, along with its overseas territories and Crown dependencies, is the biggest secretive financial jurisdiction in the world, so we have a special responsibility to act and to lead on this agenda, not to be slightly less bad than everyone else. The UK is facilitating some of the largest and most well-known tax havens, so we should be leading not following.
When the Government have been told that they need to “get real” not just by me in Committee but by the court of public opinion after the scandalous events of last year, they need to toughen up and get a grip on overseas territories and Crown dependencies because they facilitate illicit financial activity on a global scale, but the same excuses follow and have been trotted out today: the UK does not have the constitutional legitimacy for the overseas territories and Crown dependencies; and the territories are supposedly adhering to international standards anyway, so making them adopt public registers of beneficial ownership is not necessary. We are also told that the Government do want the territories and dependencies to adopt such registers, that they are working towards that, and that in the light of the progress made the threat of an Order in Council is unnecessary.
The Government say that the time will be right when the rest of world follows the UK’s lead and that they will set a global benchmark for financial territories. At the sixth sitting of the Bill Committee, the Minister told us that only when the time is right and only when there is an international standard for public registers of beneficial ownership will it be imperative for our overseas territories and Crown dependencies to follow suit. He actually claimed that the Crown dependencies and overseas territories with financial centres are already way ahead of “most jurisdictions”, including most G20 nations, on tax transparency. We were told that they are doing enough and that now was not the time to upset the applecart with public registers, particularly when they have agreed to adopt centralised registers. The Minister may recognise his own words from Committee in response to an amendment of mine that was pretty much identical to new clause 6:
“I certainly think that these places”— the overseas territories and Crown dependencies—
“have come 90% of the way, and we should see whether that works for us. We all have the intention”— to adopt public registers—
“and the United Kingdom is leading by example.”
In response to our threat of an Order in Council, he said:
“The new clause is a very strong measure. We should not impose our will on the overseas territories and Crown dependencies when they have come so far.”
This is the interesting bit:
“It is important to recognise that we have got where we have through cajoling, working together and peer group pressure, which…makes a real difference.”––[Official Report, Criminal Finance Public Bill Committee,
That already seems slightly contradictory.
On the one hand, we hear that we cannot legislate for the dependencies. In fact, I remember the Minister calling me—someone whose parents suffered the worst excesses of the British empire—a neo-imperialist. It was certainly the first time that anyone has called me a neo-colonialist or whatever it was. At the same time, however, we clearly are able to do something and have the option to stop turning a blind eye and to turn inactivity into activity. The Minister himself insisted that the proposal was a “strong measure” that is less preferable to his own formula of cajoling and behind-the-scenes pressure.