New Clause 27 - Money laundering offences: electronic money institutions, payment institutions and deposit-taking bodies

Part of Financial Services Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 13th January 2021.

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Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Labour, Barking 4:45 pm, 13th January 2021

I will speak about new clause 4, which is in my name and those of others from across the House. I start by thanking Sue Hawley and Spotlight on Corruption for their support in our work.

Historically, Britain has prided itself on offering honesty and integrity, particularly in financial services, but, tragically, the Government’s actions and inactions have helped to breed an environment where fraud and corruption flourish. Today Britain is the jurisdiction of choice for too many villains and kleptocrats. The National Crime Agency estimates that £100 billion is laundered through Britain annually. The recent FinCEN leaks named 3,267 UK-incorporated shell companies and nearly £70 billion flowed from Russia into the UK’s overseas territories. The banks and those who run them often get away scot-free if they turn a blind eye to dirty money or engage in fraud.

New clause 4 would provide law enforcement agencies with a powerful tool in their fight against money laundering and fraud. A new criminal offence would hold individuals, corporations and their directors to account for either facilitating or failing to prevent economic crime. The argument is overwhelming; everyone agrees that the existing powers are weak and ineffectual. We need criminal as well as regulatory powers.

A new offence would provide both an effective deterrent and stronger consequences.

We are way behind our international competitors. We pursue small businesses and let the big banks and well-heeled bankers off the hook. The British public hate feeling that there is one law for the powerful institutions and their leaders and another for the rest of us. As we build Britain outside Europe, it is foolish and wrong to think that we can create a sustainable and strong finance sector on the back of dirty money and fraud. Losing our reputation for integrity will over time damage our prosperity, so we have to clean up our act, and clean it up now, not promise to do so some time in the future.

It is shameful to find that America is more effective at pursuing corporations and their directors than we are. Let us consider Standard Chartered, a British-headquartered bank. In 2019, it was fined for money laundering failures and breaching sanctions—£102 million in the UK, but £842 million in the USA. In both the LIBOR scandal and the subsequent rigging of foreign exchange rates, most of the outrageous behaviour took place here in the UK, but most of the fines were imposed in the US. In 2019, the US dished out £1.67 billion-worth of money laundering fines. We took less than £300 million. The Government may want to promote outsourcing, but does that really mean we want to outsource enforcement to the Americans?

That is why the director of the Serious Fraud Office has called for corporate liability reform. Last October, she said:

“So, what would be on my wish list for the SFO, if I had a magic wand?

Unsurprisingly, a ‘failure to prevent’ offence still tops it.”

I agree, and I agree with the Financial Times comment, after the Barclays fraud case failed, that,

“the bank could not be held accountable for the actions of the chief executive, but neither could the chief executive be accountable for the actions of Barclays.”

Is that really what the Government want? Jeremy Wright described the LIBOR scandal as demonstrating,

“weaknesses in our current law”,

and noted the

“clear implications for the reputation of our justice system.”

The Minister is wrong: when the Government called for evidence on a new corporate liability offence, three quarters of respondents urged the Government to toughen up the regime with criminal sanctions, and most of those were private companies and law firms. Why are the Government reluctant to act? They promised action in their 2015 manifesto. They took forever to complete a consultation and now they are parking the proposal with the Law Commission. Why? The House should not need to divide on this issue. Most people strongly agree with our proposal. If Ministers kick the proposal into the long grass, they will anger the public, damage the long-term integrity and reputation of our financial services sector, and fail to build a better Britain. I urge support for our new clause.