– in the House of Commons at 5:13 pm on 14th March 2023.
I beg to move,
That this House
calls on the Government to lay before Parliament proposals for the seizure of Russian state assets with the purpose of using such assets to provide support for Ukraine, including the rectifying and rebuilding of war damage brought about by the Russian invasion of that country, and to facilitate the prosecution of war crimes and atrocities;
and further calls on the Government to provide progress reports on this policy to the House every six months.
Before my hon. Friend disappears from the Chamber, may I say that this is a very timely debate? So much of it is connected to the last debate, which I congratulate him on securing, because it feeds into this one: it is all about what has happened to people.
Just before Christmas, I was privileged to visit Ukraine along with Judith Cummins. It was an eye-opening trip and it was hugely relevant to today’s debate. It shed for me a more personal light on the desperate nature of what was happening to the Ukrainian people, which I was able to witness for myself. We were fortunate enough to go there under the auspices of Siobhan’s Trust, a charity based in Scotland and founded by a man called David Fox-Pitt. That allowed us to be close to the frontline, where the charity does its work. It feeds some 4,000 people a day on hot pizza, which they would never get normally and which bucks up their lives. However, most of them live in shelters and in terrible conditions.
All around we saw the devastation inflicted on the villages. Many mines had been scattered, leaving us unable to get off the paths, and in the villages lay dead bodies which, even by then, had not been collected because of the mines. These were people who had brought no harm to anyone—and, by the way, many of them were Russian speakers, which goes to show exactly how ghastly President Putin and his Administration really are. They have caused all these difficulties through the murderous nature of this terrible war brought on the heads of ordinary, normal Ukrainians; that is the state we are in.
Seeing all that devastation made me all the more certain that we must press on and do more to bring these criminals to justice, and make full reparation for the damage and destruction and loss of life that they have caused. I congratulate my own Government and, indeed, the whole House on coming together to do huge things in Ukraine with their support through arms and weapons and training, and I congratulate ordinary individuals outside the House on their generous contributions of money. The fact that we are united demonstrates a very strong sense of purpose to the rest of the world. However, there is more that we must do; we cannot sit back and say that we have done our bit. This is a progressive war and we will be tugged along with it, so it is time that we thought of getting ahead of some of these problems.
I believe that we are being visited today by three Ukrainian MPs: Mr Dmytro Natalukha, whom I met in Kyiv, Ms Maria Mezentseva, and Ms Olena Khomenko. I think they are somewhere in the Public Gallery, although I have not managed to see them yet.
I join the right hon. Gentleman in welcoming the Ukrainian MPs who are with us today. A letter has been sent by 45 Ukrainian MPs to our Prime Minister urging him to do precisely what we want, which is not to freeze assets but to seize them. Given that support from the Ukrainian Parliament, does he not agree that there is now an urgent need for the Government to be bold and to act?
I do agree with the right hon. Lady. We have a lot of Russian assets that are currently frozen, while Ukraine is screaming out for money and support to help all those devastated areas. We can bring the two together, and that is what today’s debate is all about.
I am sure the right hon. Member is also aware of allegations that a number of the people sanctioned have moved their money around into trusts to give to their children in order to avoid having their assets taken. Does he agree that the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill should be strengthened to require sanctioned individuals to disclose assets that were owned six months prior to their designation? That would prevent oligarchs such as Roman Abramovich from moving assets around and evading the sanctions.
I entirely agree. I was going to raise that point at the end of my speech, but never mind: this is a shared debate.
I fully back that proposal, which is one of the recommendations that we have to make so that the Government can jump ahead of this. Too often we have been slow and, in the six months that have elapsed, in some of those cases, people have shifted their money around into all sorts of areas. One particular individual—I was going to name him, but I will not do so now—has managed to buy flats through a Cyprus company. His name is not registered, but they own it and the money is lodged there. This sort of stuff is going on and we need to shut it down.
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising such an important issue. Of course, the largest amount of Russian frozen assets are those of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation. Yesterday, the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend Alicia Kearns, said that, if we do not have the right law in place to use those frozen Central Bank assets to pay for Ukraine’s reconstruction, we should change the law and test it in the courts. I agree with her; does my right hon. Friend?
My right hon. Friend is jumping ahead of me, so I will allow that point to stand for a minute.
I pay tribute to Sir Chris Bryant, whose ten-minute rule Bill was on exactly this subject. There was a lot of logic and sense in that Bill, and we should use it as a baseline for quite a lot of the stuff that needs to happen. As he pointed out when he made his speech on the Bill, in the last year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights recorded 18,358 civilian casualties. He went on to say that 7,031 people had been killed, that 11,327 had been injured, including 177 girls and 221 young boys, that some 12 million people had left Ukraine and 7 million had been displaced internally. When I was there, I saw many people who had had to move to Lviv internally because their homes were no longer habitable, and they were living in terrible conditions.
I want to make a bit of progress, just in case my right hon. Friend is about to tell me what I have got here in my speech. Forgive me if I just get ahead of it, because everyone else will probably do the same.
Let us have look at the costs of the war, which are really what this is all about. Ukraine’s death toll is 60,000 and it is rising every day. The cost of reconstruction is now estimated to be between $750 billion and $1 trillion and rising, and these might be conservative estimates because the damage is still not fully accounted for. Since the beginning of the invasion, the UK has provided £2.3 billion in military assistance and another £220 million in humanitarian aid. The UK has frozen billions of pounds in Russian assets under sanctions following the invasion of Ukraine. The Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation has reported that £18 billion of assets owned by individuals and entities associated with the regime have been frozen since the beginning of the war, but some estimates suggest that more than £40 billion could yet be frozen and this is the point we want to get to.
I, too, have just got back from Ukraine. I was there a couple of weeks ago and saw the immense devastation across the country, specifically in those areas that were Russian held. Importantly, this Government looked at plans to repurpose assets last July but they still have not done it. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is now imperative for the Government to look at repurposing those state assets in order to start rebuilding and restructuring the country and offering that important aid?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady.
I want to talk about what Russian state assets are frozen and what could be frozen. It is important to note that, in Congress right now, they are already discussing this—I spoke to someone there just 24 hours ago—and in Canada, they are seriously talking about it. European Parliaments are also discussing the matter. This is a moment for us to give a lead on this and help to shape the nature of it, as we have a conference coming up shortly and I wonder whether that might be the place to lead on this matter.
According to the Bank of Russia’s own 2021 annual report, £26 billion of Russian state reserves are in the United Kingdom and, on a wider level, western Governments have now frozen some $350 billion of Russian central bank reserves in response to the invasion. There is yet more that they could do. The combined value of frozen UK properties belonging to Russian oligarchs is at least £2 billion. Funds frozen under the UK sanctions regime are passive, and that is the problem. Those funds would enable us to finance the rebuilding of Ukraine and to show Russian dirty money the door. This is the key: we send the message and we help with reparations. Several countries, including Canada, as I said earlier, and the EU are already on to this process and I urge our Government to help to give a lead on this.
May I draw the right hon. Gentleman’s attention to the fact that the Canadians have gone even further? My understanding is that they have already started taking action by pursuing the forfeiture of US$26 million from Roman Abramovich’s holding in Granite Capital Holdings Ltd. If Canada can do it, surely we can, too.
I agree with the right hon. Lady. If countries do this individually, it will allow terrible regimes to dodge their money around from one financial centre to another, as some will not have done it. This has to be done in one go by all the developed world’s major centres, otherwise it will end up with disputes and problems. I applaud Canada for starting, but we need the City of London, New York, Zurich and all the other major centres to be serious about making sure this cannot happen and these assets will always be seized.
I can tell the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan, that we understand the underlying problem, but my point is that the issues are not insuperable.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent point, but I draw his attention to another source of funds. There are increasing stories that the Wagner Group may be using gold stolen from Sudan’s gold mines to fund part of its atrocious activities in Ukraine. The Wagner Group is obviously guilty of atrocities not only in Sudan but elsewhere in the Sahel and Africa. There are stories today that the Italian Defence Minister is directly linking the Wagner Group to the increase of small boat migrants in Europe. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as well as taking action on Russian assets, we should urgently proscribe the Wagner Group as a terrorist organisation?
Yes, of course. It is a disgusting organisation led by a disgusting individual carrying out disgusting atrocities in Russia. It is also using slave labour in some of these mines. Of course the Wagner Group must be proscribed, as should the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and other such organisations. We should be at the forefront of this, not lagging behind.
The Government’s general belief is that seizing these central bank reserves would violate Russia’s sovereign immunity and would therefore be a breach of international law. If we think about it, Putin has redefined international crime and is now hiding behind international law. It is time for us to come together to make the modifications. That is the key.
I thank my right hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Does he agree that there may be something to learn from the Iraq war? Iraqi assets under Saddam Hussein’s rule were used— there was a formal legal process under which people could apply for those assets to rebuild infrastructure that had been damaged in Kuwait and elsewhere. I wonder whether the Government, when they answer the debate today, would say whether they are considering a similar process—a formal legal process under which Russian assets could be used to finance construction work in Ukraine.
I would happily welcome that. It is a very good idea.
Ultimately, the war Putin initiated on Ukraine must now be punished in a variety of ways. It is unwarranted aggression against another country, and it therefore changes how international law should be applied. We should readjust and redefine international law to the new reality that Putin’s invasion has brought about. The old order is now broken, and we need to redefine it to make sure that the lesson for any other oligarch, future leader or demagogue is that they can never again hide behind these rules.
Although international law is always evolving, we need to recognise the exceptional nature of Russia’s aggression and conduct in Ukraine, as that is critical to what we do next. Russia’s aggression and invasion are breaches of the most fundamental principles of international law and order. Russia is aware of this breach but has not stopped its conduct, and it continues to threaten international security and peace. That unprecedented conduct creates a need for all Governments in the west to amend their laws together to deter other states. These amendments should use specific and limited criteria to preserve sovereign immunity in all cases. It is possible to do both without hiding behind the idea that sovereign immunity is an absolute that cannot be breached. Putin has breached it, and in future that should be the rule.
The Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill could and should be strengthened to enable the seizure of undisclosed assets—that is the key. We already have a vehicle. It is wholly possible to make that difference, and to make it quite quickly. I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that I hope she will give that serious consideration, as it is really important.
As we know, sanctions evasion is already an offence. Embedding a new “disclosure or lose it” principle would go a long way to ensuring that sanctioned oligarchs are no longer able to conceal their dirty money here with impunity. That would help us to clean up what became a bad reputation for the City of London, whereby much of that ill-gotten money was hiding here, in one of the leading nations of the free world, and we did little or nothing to stop that.
I get a bit frustrated when I keep hearing the Government talking about how many people we are sanctioning. There is no point in sanctioning people unless we enforce those sanctions. I find it difficult to comprehend that so far we have fined only two firms in this country. I am sure that there are many more sanctions busters in the UK than have thus far been revealed. It is important that that is not allowed to proceed with impunity, is it not?
Of course, I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman on that. Interestingly, if we manage to criminalise the failure to disclose sanctioned assets, we are halfway there on his point, because they cannot then escape. If we prove that sanctions evasion is taking place, this can be the basis for asset recovery in due course; we would then have a reason why we should be doing this, not just because of the criminal purpose, but for the fact that we would actually be able to gain funds.
The right hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. Is he as worried as I am about this new trick that the Treasury is performing called “general licences”? There are now whole categories of spending where the Treasury is basically issuing carte blanche to oligarchs to spend what they like and, worse, it is refusing to reveal that framework to us here in this House.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman; this is beginning to sound like one of those “golden visas”. It was golden in description, but dirty and leaden in reality, and I think this is where we are again. We are going to find us all in agreement—
Is the problem we have not shown, for example, in Abramovich’s allegedly shifting about £7 billion of assets out of the country the day before? What he did was perfectly legal, because I believe this was shifted to the United Arab Emirates or somewhere else in the middle east and his lawyers knew about it. In the United States, there is now talk about going after the law firms and the accountancy firms that help the oligarchs and that have helped these individuals to move their money around just before they have been sanctioned or to find ways around sanctions. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one way here is to go after these middlemen and women? We have not done that, but the problem is that what these people are doing is not necessarily illegal —they are shifting the money before it can be sanctioned, and money is a movable asset, unlike a house in Belgrave Square.
I agree. These individuals, Abramovich and others, may want this to be done, but somebody has to do it for them, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to follow the chain down, because we have to capture all the individuals down the chain, not just the one at the top. That is the key, because without those, this does not happen. He rightly says that, to avoid the sanctions, three weeks before the war began Abramovich was busy restructuring radically his assets. I believe that my hon. Friend is right to say that between £4 billion and £7 billion was squirreled away as a result, and we were not able to do anything about it. But we should have been ahead of the game on that one.
The right hon. Gentleman is making an excellent contribution. I want to say one thing: I do not think the Government are using their current powers as effectively as they could on this issue. Under section 11 of the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018, the powers can be used against somebody “associated with” the person sanctioned. If that is the case and I have read the legislation right, does he agree that the Government could have stopped Abramovich giving all this to his young children and could have sanctioned them because they were associated with Abramovich himself?
I am beginning to feel that I am making a collective speech, because the right hon. Lady’s point is down here in my notes. It is better made by her than me, but I fully agree with her as a result.
We could have got ahead of this—that is the point, as the example of Abramovich shows. Many others have drifted off, so the right hon. Lady is absolutely right: we needed to be quicker and more determined. Now, we have to sustain our determination to flush all this out while we have the opportunity. I always sense a little resistance. When we call it out, the Government say, “Ooh, we don’t know. We’ve got lots on our plate and we are doing lots of things,” but this is the time to act.
The right hon. Gentleman was kind enough to participate in my Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall the other day. This is not just about oligarchs; it is about companies that are sanctions busting. I am aware of a Belarusian company that imports goods through Russia in order to undermine and take customers from a business in my constituency. Does he agree that, whether it is an oligarch or a business, the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation and the Foreign Office should be adaptable and able to react to rogue actors, who will do everything possible to avoid the sanctions regime?
I must say, the hon. Lady’s debate was fascinating. She demonstrated that by our failure to follow this course, a UK company is essentially sanctioned because it is unable to get payment. The measures bounce back at us and honest, decent companies find themselves trapped by the failure to square the circle of the process and get everyone all along the chain. It was a brilliant debate, and I congratulate her on raising the subject on behalf of her constituents.
The Government should introduce new legislation to allow the seizure of already-frozen assets that are linked to criminality. The Russian Government have a huge amount of money of course, but many oligarchs are guilty of benefiting financially from war crimes and atrocities in Ukraine, so we should activate new legislation. Under such a mechanism, an enforcement authority such as the National Crime Agency could bring proceedings in a UK court to have property belonging to a sanctioned person involved in a gross violation of international human rights law or international humanitarian law confiscated without compensation, so that the frozen property can be used to fund reparations. That is the key.
That is a really important point. As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Ukraine, I know that Ukrainian parliamentarians, including those from the Rada who are in the Gallery, are desperate to repair and reconstruct their country. The air raid early warning system in Ukraine is broken—only 12% of the country is covered. They need reparations to be able to wage war and to reconstruct their country.
The hon. Gentleman is right, and I obviously completely agree.
If we did this, we could have tougher sanctions. A recent example involved Eugene Tenenbaum, a close associate of Roman Abramovich—I am told that “Abram-oh-vich” is the correct pronunciation—and former Chelsea football club director, who was given permission by the Treasury to sell his Surrey mansion for £16 million a month after the Government designated him for UK sanctions and froze all his assets. How did that happen? Why did that happen? Who is not talking to someone else to tell them what they are doing? We are letting stuff slip through because we are not being serious about implementing measures properly.
I could give plenty of other examples. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the boss of the Wagner Group, is deeply involved in another current row about aircraft leased by western companies to Russia that were seized after sanctions were imposed. The Russians are refusing to pay reparations or hand the aircraft back. Huge amounts of money are available to these people. I have a list, but will not go through all the names, because I realise that many others want to speak.
Putin’s brutal invasion has now entered its second year. The Government must amplify their efforts. They have done a great deal, and I congratulate them on much of it, but much more is needed. The Government need to get right down into this issue and make sure that we have a plan for reparation and rebuilding of Ukraine. Let us start with the dirty money—that is the key. We may yet have to give more money, and so may America, but let us start where the bill lands first: with those who are responsible for this brutal invasion of Ukraine. The Ukrainians are a peaceful and decent people whose lives have been turned upside down. Families have been destroyed or have had to flee, and many young men and women are now having to go to the frontline for the first time as soldiers and put their lives on the line, standing for the freedom of their country. We must seize those assets wherever appropriate and ensure that Russia is held to account. As I said earlier, there is much to say “Well done” to the Government for, but there is also much more that needs to be done.
I will leave hon. Members with this simple thought: as we come together across the House, let us also try to work out how we can bring all the other western Governments together in this action. To do it by ourselves will, I recognise, be a slight problem, but if we could get the US Congress, the Canadian Parliament and the European Union to engage on this, then we would have something that would frighten the Russians completely and give us the tools to finish this particular job.
As hon. Members have recognised, we are honoured to have been joined by colleagues from the Ukrainian Rada who are in the Gallery this afternoon. We welcome you; we salute you and the courage of your country in your fight for democracy.
I must just gently say to hon. Members that the winding-up speeches will start at 6.30 pm.
I welcome the speech by Sir Iain Duncan Smith, which I thought was excellent. I will supply three further thoughts and set the context for the scale of the task of Ukrainian reconstruction. I am glad the Government have offered to host the June conference for reconstruction finance, following on from a member of conferences in Lugano.
It is worth setting out for the House the sheer scale of the finance we need to mobilise, which is why the right hon. Gentleman is correct to say that we must start by seizing Russian assets now. Frankly, we will need to provide an enormous amount of money to our Ukrainian colleagues. Ukrainian GDP has been hit by about 45%; the World Bank thinks its budget deficit this year will be something like $38 billion. As many who have been there know, Ukraine has very high inflation and therefore very high interest rates; perhaps one third of businesses have stopped operations, 14 million people have left their homes, 6 million have gone abroad, there has been huge educational disruption for the next generation of Ukrainians and about half the energy infrastructure has been knocked out.
This has been a moment where the Bretton Woods institutions have really stepped up. Between the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, something like $27 billion has been supplied this year. Those Bretton Woods institutions offer us one of the most efficient and effective routes for providing what could be, on current estimates, a $750 billion bill to rebuild the great country of Ukraine. As chair of the parliamentary network on the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, I am delighted that we have just launched the Ukraine chapter of the network. I am also delighted that at our global parliamentary forum, at the beginning of the spring meetings in Washington in April, we will have a special session focused on reconstruction finance for Ukraine.
However, $750 billion is a big number. Capitalising those kinds of loans could take $150 billion-worth of equity. That is why seizing, let us say, $300 billion of Russian bank reserves frozen abroad will be incredibly important in helping to supply that money.
With the reconstruction conference taking place in London on 21 and
It is crucial that we do that, and the spring meetings in Washington should provide a springboard, but the most efficient way of surging the necessary money into Ukraine is through the Bretton Woods institutions that we set up in 1944 to finance post-war reconstruction. We did it before—let us try it again.
My second point, having set the stage and set out some of the numbers, follows on from the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green. We now have to identify the legal strategy for turning this idea into a reality. All of us in this House are frustrated that the Government—and, indeed, Governments around the world—are, we feel, dragging their feet when it comes to putting in place the necessary laws to move from freezing to seizing. There are probably three components that we need to shift into place: there needs to be action at the United Nations; there needs to be action to set up the tribunal to prosecute Russia for the crime of aggression; and then we need to implement the ten-minute rule Bill of my hon. Friend Sir Chris Bryant, which would create the legal framework for action.
I will say a word about each of those things after I have given way to the hon. Gentleman.
Does the right hon. Gentleman have a preferred option? Although it will be legally possible to seize Russian state assets—that has arguably been done before, so there is precedent—is he concerned about the seizure of private assets? I am tempted to say that those are legal. They are seized assets from a dirty period of Russian history, so I think one could say that they are not illegal, but how legal they are is another matter. If we are seizing oligarchs’ assets, how can we do so legally without setting a more tricky precedent?
I will come to that now. There are three things that we will need to do. It is not just about private wealth; it is about public wealth—the assets of the Russian central bank. We know that $300 billion was held abroad. We know where about $30 billion of it is, and that money has been frozen. To seize that money, we will need to do a couple of things.
First, we will need to bring the world together at the United Nations to pass a resolution that revokes the doctrine of immunity for central banks when there has been a clear violation of the United Nations charter. I am under no illusions; we will not get 100%, but by getting a significant number of nations to sign up to that resolution, we begin to change the parameters of international law. That means that domestic law, when we move it, will be in a much safer legal space. Indeed, many international lawyers would say that seizing those assets is a legitimate countermeasure, but if there is a UN resolution, we have begun to change the concept of what is protected by immunity—such as central bank assets—and what is not.
Secondly, we then have to ensure that we do not fall foul of the European convention on human rights, particularly the first protocol, which enshrines the right to the enjoyment of assets. We have to ensure that there is no way that the Russian Government can be considered a victim. The safest way we can do that is to move quickly, as President Zelensky has proposed, to begin prosecuting Russia for the crime of aggression. If we have a UN resolution that has begun to revoke the concept of immunity in the case of aggression, and a tribunal that is prosecuting Russia for the crime of aggression, we will have begun to change fundamentally the context of international law.
I know that the right hon. Gentleman is about the most expert person here when it comes to the workings of the international financial institutions and so on. Does he expect or think that we will be able to seize oligarch assets as part of that process? If so, do we have any idea how we will proceed down that route, or are we looking only at Russian state assets? At some point, all the oligarchs close to Putin will get their billions back.
I think that we can use the same tactics to seize private and public assets, but I am conscious that we have to change the context and parameters of international law first. That is how we maximise the safety of domestic legislation, which has to be the third step. We in this House are lucky that my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda has set out precisely how to do that in his ten-minute rule Bill.
Crucially, we need to ensure that the State Immunity Act 1978, which gives immunity to central banks, is revoked or at least conditioned in a way that allow laws to be presented here so that we in Parliament can order the seizure, forfeiture and repurposing of assets.
My final point is a little more short term, meaning now. If we are to maximise the assets that we seize and repurpose for the reconstruction of Ukraine, we have to get serious about sanctions enforcement. Right now, frankly, we are not. There will be a lot more money available if we stop the nonsense that is going on in the dark at the moment. The truth is that sanctions enforcement in this country today is the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
As the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said, we have been told that as of October 2022, £18.4 billion-worth of Russian assets have been frozen in this country. We then learned from the scandal exposed by openDemocracy that the Treasury has been issuing licences like confetti, even to warlords such as Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group—in his case, to fly English lawyers to St Petersburg to prosecute an English journalist in an English court in order to silence him because he was writing the stories that triggered the sanctions against Prigozhin in the first place. What a nonsense!
As I began to dig into this, much worse was revealed. In the last Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation report, it was revealed that the Treasury is no longer issuing licences to individuals one by one to authorise specific expenditure; it is now issuing general licences that authorise an entire category of spending. In fact, 33 general licences were issued last year, so I naturally asked what the value of those general licences totalled. I was told on
“The Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation (OFSI) does not disclose data from specific licences it has granted under UK sanctions regimes.”
When the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury came to the House on
“there is a delegated framework” and that these decisions
“are routinely taken by senior civil servants.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 726, c. 1014.]
I then asked what this delegated framework was and whether we in this House might have a look at it. I first tried a parliamentary question. The answer came back on
“There are currently no plans to publish the delegation framework.”
I then had to try a freedom of information request, and I have it here in my hand. It came back to me on
“we can confirm that HM Treasury does hold information within the scope of your request.
The information we have identified…we believe may engage the exemption provided for by section 35(1)(a)—formulation or development of Government policy.”
We now have a situation where Ministers are saying that it is the civil servants’ job, and the civil servants are saying that it is advice to Ministers. For that reason, we cannot get to what this delegated framework looks like.
I then asked whether they could at least tell us how many people we have busted for sanctions evasion. The Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation confessed that there were 147 reports of a breach last year, but when I asked the Minister for Security how many criminal investigations had resulted from that, he said that he could not answer
“For reasons of operational security”.
I went back to the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation report to double-check, and of 147 reports of a breach, there have been a grand total of two monetary fines, both to fintech companies.
So there we have it: £18 billion frozen and licences issued like confetti in a secret regime that Ministers say is down to civil servants and civil servants say is actually advice to Ministers. Despite this flagrant abuse—and we know the scale of it, because the Financial Times told us that $250 million has been laundered by the Wagner Group—we have just two fines that total £86,000. Well, £86,000 in fines is not going to do much to help us rebuild Ukraine. I ask the Minister on the Front Bench to explain to us how she is going to do an awful lot better than that.
Sanctions enforcement in this country stinks to high heaven, and what concerns me most is the culture of secrecy around it. Many of us in this House have been around long enough to know that such a culture is never a recipe for good public policy. We in this House have to be realistic about the scale of finance that is needed; maximise the use of our Bretton Woods institutions; and move internationally and domestically, together with our allies, to change the parameters of international law and maximise the safety and security of domestic legislation that we pass here. But let us move now to send a clear signal from the UK—the home of the rule of law—that this is not going to be a safe haven for sanctions evasion. We are going to send that clear message by getting tough, and getting tough now.
If we are going to get everybody in, we are going to have to have a self-denying ordinance of about six minutes.
I start by congratulating my right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who raises very important issues. The truth is that we probably will not be able to implement what we are discussing until the Russian invasion is defeated, but it is absolutely right that we start to plan now for when—I hope and pray—that happens. It is also a pleasure to follow Liam Byrne, who raises matters that are of great concern right across the House. He does a service by doing so.
In December 2018, I visited the city of Mariupol. At that time, it was under blockade from the sea due to Russian enforcement preventing sea traffic arriving into the Sea of Azov. Nevertheless, it was a thriving port city. It is estimated that 90% of that city was either damaged or razed to the ground in the course of the sustained bombardment by Russian forces. Across Ukraine, an estimated 144,000 houses have been destroyed, and that number is increasing every day that we speak.
As has been pointed out, the estimated cost of reconstruction in Ukraine last year was around $750 billion. That figure is probably going to reach $1 trillion, and possibly rise even further. That is for reconstruction; on top of that, we have the question of compensation for those who have lost loved ones, the loss of economic infrastructure and jobs, and the damage to education and health. Those are huge sums, and it is only right that those responsible—the Russian state—should be made to pay.
Work has been done on this question, and I pay tribute to the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy and, in particular, Dr Azeem Ibrahim, who in conjunction with other international experts has been developing a plan for how we should go about seeking reparations from the Russian state. There are some legal precedents. Two have been identified, the first being the 1946 Paris agreement on reparation, which provided for the seizure of German public and private property in the aftermath of the second world war. As my hon. Friend Bob Seely mentioned, a more recent precedent was the establishment of the Kuwait compensation fund under the UN compensation commission, which used the proceeds of the Iraqi oil industry to pay out compensation totalling something like $52 billion to 1.5 million claimants.
That was established with the agreement of the UN Security Council, and unless there is a change to the composition of the Security Council, it seems unlikely that it is going to agree in this case. However, we need to fashion international multilateral agreements, and as has already been demonstrated, there is a substantial majority in the United Nations General Assembly that would support not only condemnation of Russia for its aggression, but the payment of compensation in due course.
Legal processes are under way. The International Criminal Court is investigating war crimes and the individuals responsible, but as we know, the ICC is prevented from bringing prosecutions in absentia, and Heads of State enjoy immunity. We need a mechanism that will hold to account those ultimately responsible for this aggression: the Heads of the Government of the Russian Federation. For that reason, I am pleased that the UK Government are now working with others on the establishment of a special tribunal to bring a prosecution for the crime of aggression, and I join others in paying tribute to our friends, in particular Maria Mezentseva of the Rada, who have been touring around to persuade different supportive countries of the case for bringing a prosecution.
As has been pointed out, the funds available for the payment of reparation in the first instance belong to the Russian state; the estimated frozen funds of the Russian central bank total something like $300 billion. On top of that, the Russian state enjoys oil revenues, and it is possible to consider whether some kind of levy could be placed on that. There are then the assets of institutions associated with the Russian state, such as Gazprom, Rosneft and Rosatom, but things will need to go beyond that, and the debate so far has rightly focused on whether we can address those assets held by private individuals and oligarchs.
The right hon. Gentleman is just coming on to the point I was going to make. There is some contention about assets held by private individuals and about their getting caught up in a very long legal process, but that is not the case with state assets and the assets of state-owned companies that he has just talked about, which we can address now. He talked earlier about reconstruction, but we do not need to wait until the war is finished. Many liberated areas need reconstruction now, and many other projects need to be financed. That work needs to happen now, not after the war has finished.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I think the legal process for seizing the assets of Russian state institutions will be complicated, but it is certainly more feasible than addressing those of private individuals. That is not to say that we do not need to move to do so, but it will be legally much more complex.
Many of the oligarchs hold immense wealth and assets in western countries, and they do so at the behest of the Russian Government. No oligarch is able to hold enormous sums of wealth and maintain their position in Russia, unless it is with the agreement of the Russian Government. A number of them are known as wallets, which means they are simply taking care of the wealth of Mr Putin and others at the senior levels of the Russian Government. It is right that we should address that, but we have to accept that this country has a proud history of respect for property rights and the rule of law, and we have also seen the extent to which lawyers will pursue cases on behalf of those individuals. Liam Byrne mentioned strategic lawsuits against public participation, and we have already seen examples of that.
I do not in any way underestimate the complexity. This will be an unprecedented legal measure, but it is necessary because, as has already been said, the devastation wreaked in Ukraine has to be put right, and it is only proper that that should be done by those responsible, who are the Russian Government. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green that that will need international agreement. It cannot be done by us alone, but it is right that we start to look now at seeking that multilateral agreement among all the countries where these assets are held and to prepare for the day when we can start to make Russia pay for what it has done.
Billions of sanctioned Russian assets lie dormant. There is at least £26 billion of Russian bank reserves frozen in the UK. It is blood money that Putin has secured on the backs of the bodies of his own people, the people of Grozny and the people of Ukraine. For years, Putin was preparing for sanctions. He expected what we, along with our allies, have done, but there are many countries facilitating the evasion of sanctions.
Putin has been given ample time to back down—over a year, in fact—and he has chosen not to do so. This may not be a state of total war for Russia, but it is for Ukraine and its people. In reality, we must accept the truth that Putin will not back down, because doing so would be the end of his rule in Moscow. Simply, Ukraine must win, which is why this debate is important.
The Government have billions of pounds-worth of Russian assets at their disposal, which could be used to support Ukraine now. It is pointless to keep them frozen and perhaps use them to help to rebuild Ukraine in a few months or years, or perhaps even longer, if Ukraine no longer exists. The priority must be to help Ukraine now, not in a hypothetical future. There are reports that China is considering backing Russia with lethal aid, which would further prolong the conflict and make it even more difficult for the brave Ukrainians.
Since the start of the invasion, the UK has provided more than £2 billion in military assistance, which has made a huge difference, particularly at the beginning of the war. If £26 billion of Russian assets were repurposed for military and humanitarian assistance, that would make an even greater difference. The next set of assets are the private, undisclosed ones; it is likely that Russian oligarchs own billions of pounds-worth of hidden and undeclared assets here in the UK.
The Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, if amended correctly, will help authorities to track down those assets. A policy of “disclose it or lose it” would make oligarchs think again about using our country to hide their dirty money. For that to work, however, the Bill needs to be strengthened, because it is too easy for oligarchs to evade sanctions. Many had weeks to prepare and hide their assets, and authorities were already on the back foot due to the years, or even decades, that oligarchs had had to do as they please.
The Bill is long overdue and I urge the Government to seize the opportunity to get it right. It is not acceptable to leave loopholes in sanctions that have already been used to sue British journalists. The United States Congress has granted the Department of Justice the ability to transfer certain seized assets to Ukraine, and it successfully did so last month. Our Government need to do the same.
We all want and need to see Ukraine win this war, because it is fighting for our shared values. Freedom and democracy must win, and it is our duty to do our lot to help. That is why I support the motion before the House today. Let us seize Russian assets here to help Ukraine win.
After hearing the contribution of my right hon. Friend Liam Byrne, I simply say that it is about time that the Government got their act together. In local government, when powers are delegated, the framework is also delegated and people are held to account. If what is needed is not being delivered, the Government need to change something so that it is delivered. Are we in control? Who is running this country? We are certainly not doing our bit on this issue. We want to, but we are not achieving it, so the Government must get their act together—and soon.
This war must see Ukraine and its people emerge victorious—there are no plausible alternatives—but there is still a gap as to how to pay for Ukraine’s reconstruction in the short term and once the war is won. There is no doubt that the west will do its part when it comes to it, but a question of fairness, or the lack thereof, remains. It cannot be right for the burden of reconstruction to fall solely on the shoulders of western taxpayers, especially as estimates for it are astronomically high. As has been said, the suggestions on the ground in Ukraine are that it will cost around $750 billion, and that figure will only continue to grow as Russian armed forces and mercenaries continue their indiscriminate destruction.
The aggressor in this case—the Russian Federation—its political and military leadership, and, yes, its people must pay the price. They must pay the price for disregarding, and in fact smashing, the rules and norms of the post-1945 world order that had guaranteed the peace in Europe for so long. What Russia started by invading Georgia in 2008, it continued in Crimea, Donbas and then wider Ukraine, so there must be no more free passes for Russia to invade, brutalise and plunder. To appease Putin would only encourage him to greater brutality.
Our current freezing sanctions are robust, wide-ranging and necessary, but in the light of Russia’s barbarism, they do not go far enough. There remains some debate as to the quantity of assets frozen here in the UK—assets of the Russian state and of individuals, and we have had a discussion about that this evening—but regardless of the specific value of those frozen assets in the UK, it is clear that frozen assets worldwide could form the lion’s share of future support to Ukraine, including for the vital reconstruction of people’s homes and national infrastructure.
Seizure, however, requires both political courage and will, and that has been exhibited by our Canadian allies. I advise my right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith that the Canadians are doing more than talking about it; they are acting on it. In June last year, lawmakers in Ottawa empowered the relevant Canadian Ministers to approach their Attorney General to apply to the courts to forfeit assets—assets that had already been frozen—for the benefit of Ukraine. The legislation builds in important safeguards to protect rights to property, including that any person who appears to have an interest in the frozen assets may be heard by the court. None the less, seizures are now under way specifically in relation to an estimated $26 million held by Granite Capital Holdings, a company owned by the sanctioned oligarch Roman Abramovich. Discussions are, I understand, ongoing about how the proceeds should be used and distributed in Ukraine, be that directly through the Ukrainian state or by select non-governmental organisations, but the fact of seizure is now a legal reality in a friendly nation with a legal system similar to our own.
Conversations I have had with lawmakers in other allied nations, such as the US, indicate that they are also considering how to make seizures legally viable and feasible in their own jurisdictions, and media reports suggest that this is also the case in capitals across the EU, such as Tallinn. We should be doing likewise here in the UK as well. Not to do so, I believe, risks our finding ourselves in the morally dubious political situation of handing back frozen assets to Russia and to sanctioned individuals, or it could lead to individual national deals with sanctioned people that could put us out of lockstep with our allies.
One of the many lessons of the last year since the renewed invasion is how important it is to present a relentlessly united front to Russia. On the day that we were privileged to welcome President Zelensky here for his outstanding address, the Prime Minister made positive and welcome comments about the necessity of asset seizures, as I note did the Leader of the Opposition. Now is the time to follow that up with firm action. As of today, I am confident in predicting that such action would have the overwhelming support of this House, and I think we have seen the cross-party support here today. Where there is political will, there is always a way, as our fellow Canadian parliamentarians have demonstrated. I strongly welcome this debate, and I urge the Government to set out a practical and effective plan for frozen Russian assets to be seized and repurposed to Ukraine’s benefit.
I want to speak briefly very much in support of the ten-minute rule Bill of Sir Chris Bryant. It seems perfectly obvious to me that the money is there for winning the war. Money has been given in weapons, tanks and other methods, but we also need to invest strongly in building the peace, rebuilding Ukraine and making sure that people who have absolutely no blame in this conflict are not left living their lives in ruins.
“Bakhmut, Soledar, Maryinka, Kreminna. For a long time, there is no living place left on the land of these areas that have not been damaged by shells and fire”.
Investment must be put into rebuilding all of the cities in Ukraine that have been damaged—the bridges, the infrastructure and the things that make life possible. A significant investment is also required in demining and the removal of ordnance, without which none of the construction can safely go ahead. That will be a significant task that the Government must invest in. I am conscious that occasionally somewhere in Glasgow we unearth a world war two bomb, so given the intensity of shelling that has happened in Ukraine, there has to be significant investment in demining to allow things to go ahead.
This is logical when we recognise that so much of this money is right here; it is in bank accounts in this country. In some cases, assets have been frozen, but we must find a way of reclaiming that money, which does not belong to the oligarchs in the first place. This is money they have plundered and do not deserve, and it must be returned to the Ukrainian people to allow them to rebuild.
As I have said many times in this place, the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill requires strengthening. There are more things it could do to tackle many aspects of money laundering that allow that money to flow through the United Kingdom. Transparency International UK has mentioned several areas where it could be tightened. It could prevent UK companies from being used to provide a veneer of legitimacy for money launderers by ensuring transparency over shareholders, members and partners. That is still not the case in the Bill. It could improve the Companies House register of accuracy by enabling Companies House to verify and publish shareholder information. It could catch rogue operators by providing Companies House with powers to check the documentation of “know your customer” checks carried out by third-party agents. Many of those third-party agents are where the problem lies with verification. There must also be a credible deterrent to money laundering. We must resource agencies that have to do the important work of checking and interrogation to ensure that economic crimes do not continue to go unpunished, and to have a far more effective system to prevent the UK from being seen as the location for economic crime that it has sadly become.
I want to talk a little about Scottish limited partnerships, which have long been used to give many of these companies a veneer of respectability. They have been implicated in economic crime through the Panama papers, and many other scandals over the years, and they are still being used, not for the purposes for which they were originally set up 100 years ago, but for hiding wealth. The Ferret news agency in Scotland has found that, of the 631 SLPs created last year, only three were formed by residents of Scotland. That should set off an alarm bell. It says to me that they are not being used by people in Scotland for the purposes for which they were historically needed. Eighty per cent. of those SLPs were formed in just three addresses in central Edinburgh. These are not real companies carrying out real work; it is happening in plain sight.
The Ferret found that 38 firms registered with MYCO Works, one of the Edinburgh companies, name Matthew Bradley in their accounts. He was sanctioned by the United Nations after a fraud investigation into SLPs. He has links to Serhiy Kurchenko, a Ukrainian billionaire who fled to Russia after it was alleged that he failed to pay tax. He was sanctioned by the UK in 2020 and the UK Government alleged at that time that he
“facilitated the supply of oil from Russia companies to their Crimea-based subsidiaries in the first year of the Russian occupied Crimea, enabling the Russian companies to bypass EU sanctions.”
In April this year, the EU sanctioned Kurchenko for aiding Russia’s attacks on Ukraine and, in 2017, after he fled Ukraine, prosecutors moved to seize his company’s assets as part of the
“criminal group organised by Serhiy Kurchenko.”
Bradley was named as the ultimate beneficial owner of UMH Group, which was in the company’s structure documents. So a web of firms is being set up under SLPs by those means through the UK, which the UK Government could be doing a hell of a lot more to clamp down on. They are allowing that sanctions busting and veneer of respectability, and it is exploiting the people of Russia as well as the people of Ukraine. I urge the Government to take the issue much more seriously and to amend the Bill to shut down all those loopholes.
It is a great delight to take part in this debate. I feel as if I spend more time than I ever thought I would with Sir Iain Duncan Smith these days, and I have friends who are bit disturbed by it. But he probably has friends who are a bit disturbed by it as well. The important point is that, if the Russian ambassador, or for that matter the Ukrainian ambassador, were to look at this debate, they might think that there are not that many people in this Chamber, but that is not because of a lack of resolution by the whole membership of this House, which is determined to ensure that we will do everything in our power—we will make sure that the Government of this country and the whole of this country will do everything in their power—to ensure that Putin does not win this illegal, criminal war that he is engaged in and has been engaged, to my mind, since 2014, not just since last year.
I am going to talk about three things: sanctions, seizing assets and who pays. On sanctions, it is often said by Ministers—I am going to be nice to Ministers because I like this Minister, and because I want them to do something and sometimes being rude about them does not work—that we are doing more sanctioning than we have ever done before. I just gently say that that is not true. We had a more comprehensive sanctions regime over Iran—not at the moment, but formerly—than we presently do over Russia. So we have to consider further sanctioning, which has to happen. It is true we did not sanction any individuals in relation to Iran and we are doing more individuals in relation to Russia, but it is the whole Russian economy that we need to debilitate so it cannot win the war.
The Minister knows that I worry we are not sanctioning enough individuals. Sometimes it feels as if the Government feel that job is done. It is not. As several hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend Liam Byrne, have said, there is an issue about sanctions busting. I am certain, although I do not have proof, that sanctions busting is going on in the UK every single day of every week and has been ever since we started this process. For a start, we gave plenty of warning. People have referred to Roman Abramovich. I recall the then Prime Minister saying at Prime Minister’s questions that he had been sanctioned, but it turned out that he had not. That was a pretty good signal that he was about to be sanctioned. A couple of weeks later, because of stuff I was able to reveal about what the Home Office had been saying about Abramovich for several years, he was then sanctioned. By that time, however, yet more money had been siphoned off to another part of the world. It is true that the proceeds of the £2.3 billion sale of Chelsea football club, which happened in May last year, will eventually go Ukraine, but it has taken a very long time to put that in place. I know Mr Penrose is engaged in that and is eager to make that happen as fast as possible—incidentally, it will dwarf the contribution the UK has already made— but that contribution was not forced on Abramovich by law. In the end, he decided to agree to it. So that does not really quite count.
Treasury licences have been referred to. They are giving carte blanche to many individuals to circumvent the sanctions regime. There are undoubtedly enablers in the City of London, the same enablers we have known for years, who have enabled the dirty money to swirl around in the UK economy. There are the lawyers, the very posh law firms with very thick carpets and very thick marble walls that are doubtless refurbished every two years on the back of money that was stolen from the Russian people by people who should have been sanctioned. There are estate agents, banks and countless individuals who, without any thought to the morality of the situation, are still happy to enable sanctions busting. My worry is that there is hardly anybody in Government tracking down whether that is happening or not. Has anybody turned up to any estate agent office in Mayfair and said, “Are you checking whether any of these individuals you are buying and selling from are sanctioned individuals?” Has anybody done any investigations? I very much doubt it.
As ever, my hon. Friend is making a brilliant speech. I was shocked to hear that suspicious activity reports are not triggering enforcement actions for sanctions busting either. Is that not an argument for broadening the suspicious activity report regime, so that it does include people like estate agents? Surely, we should be using that as evidence to trigger prosecutions.
Absolutely. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend has ever tried to open a bank account in the last few years, but it is almost impossible for a British Member of Parliament. I suspect it is much easier for a Russian oligarch to do so than it would be for anybody else. I really hope the Minister will take away the view of the whole House that we have to get serious about cracking down on sanctions busting in the UK.
I like a Magnum when I go to the cinema. It still upsets me that Unilever thinks that Magnums are essential in Russia, which is why it is still doing business there. Unilever should be pulling out completely from Russia. The Russians should forgo their Magnums—or is it Magna? I do not know what the plural is. For that matter, Infosys should not be operating in Russia, either.
I worry that some of our allied countries are providing a very safe haven for sanctions busting, including the United Arab Emirates. In the last year, it has become a complete paradise for dirty Russian oligarch money. If countries such as the UAE want to remain allies with us, they need to think very carefully. They may say, “Oh, but it’s only money. We are only doing what you did for years.” I hope that we in the UK are now learning the lesson of what happens when we give out golden visas to people just because they have lots of money, and do not ask any questions. It ends up biting you on the backside.
On seizing assets, I am sick and tired of the pearl-clutchers. People say, “Oh, I know. It’s really, really important. We really have to do something, but you know, Mr Bryant, you don’t understand. It’s terribly, terribly hard.” I am sorry, but where there is a will, there is a way. People want to wave sovereign immunity around all over the place, but what about the sovereign immunity of Ukraine? That was guaranteed by Putin personally, and the UK and other countries when we all signed up to the Budapest accord. Several years later, it turned out that we did not mean it quite as categorically as we stated on that piece of paper. There must surely come a time when sovereign immunity has to be waived because otherwise there is complete impunity when one country invades another. In the end, that is simply inviting countries to invade other countries.
I understand that the seizure of oligarchs’ assets is not easy. Prigozhin’s mother has just managed to win an appeal, as I understand it. But it would be much easier if there were an amendment to the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, as several Members have mentioned already in this debate, to make it an offence for a sanctioned individual not to reveal all their assets. That would certainly make it easier for us to do that.
On state assets, I do not believe that sovereign immunity can be absolute. It is preposterous that we are sitting here, watching Canada and wondering how it will go there. When was it ever the British attitude to watch what is happening across the other side of the ocean? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill, said, it would be much easier for us to take legal action if, first, we had a United Nations resolution and, secondly, we set up a special war crimes tribunal to consider the matter of a war of aggression. Unfortunately, although the British delegation at the Nuremberg war trials said that a war of aggression was the ultimate war crime, that has not thus far been so determined. It would certainly assist us if we were able to get that. It would also assist us if we were to amend the State Immunity Act 1978.
I come to the fundamental point: everyone knows that Ukraine will have to be reconstructed. Cathedrals; schools; libraries; hospitals; people’s homes; hundreds and hundreds of apartment buildings have been completely destroyed; roads turned into craters; bridges destroyed—sometimes by the Ukrainians to prevent the Russians further invading; electricity pylons. The whole system is completely in need of reconstruction.
In the end, there are only three options for who will pay for that. The people of Ukraine cannot afford it, and it is immoral to say that they should pay. There are Ukraine’s allies, or rather their taxpayers around the world. I am absolutely certain that, as individuals, many people in the UK—including in my constituency—will want to make a personal contribution. The British taxpayer has already made contributions through the British Government. But in the end, we are talking about $1 trillion-worth of reconstruction costs already. To be honest, the £23 billion-worth of Russian state assets sitting in British banks at the moment will only touch the sides. However, if we add the €350 billion-worth sitting in European banks, along with the amounts in Canada, Australia, the USA and all the other countries in the world, we might just be able to make a dent.
Anybody from Ukraine who is watching this debate will know that we all stand four-square behind them. We want to do so not only in our words, but in our deeds. I beg, I implore the Government: you do not have to use my Bill. My Bill is completely irrelevant; it is just a way of teasing you along to do the right thing. I know you want to do the right thing—I mean the Government, not you, Mr Deputy Speaker, although you probably want to do the right thing as well. Whenever the Government are prepared to table the legislation, we all stand ready to vote it through as swiftly as we can.
It is a pleasure to wind up for the SNP in this very constructive debate. We support the motion. I commend Sir Iain Duncan Smith for moving it; I can hardly do anything but support it, because I called for the same thing from this spot on
The SNP has long been pushing for a Marshall fund to aid the reconstruction of Ukraine. We have also been pushing for greater financial transparency within the UK’s financial sector. That is a good thing in and of itself, but the crisis in Ukraine has brought an urgency to the need to deal with the UK’s long-standing problem of dirty money. We want to see action, so I hope the Minister is taking good note of the constructive pressure she is feeling today. We want to see more, better, faster and broader action than we have seen to date.
I appreciate that it is difficult. I am a financial services lawyer—if we go back far enough—so I know that we are dealing with some of the slippiest, best advised and best resourced people in the world, who are very able to exploit loopholes wherever they exist, but there is a unanimity here and there is a will. I implore the Minister to do better than we have seen to date.
The London laundromat has been a long-standing problem for national security. My predecessor in this role was Stephen Gethins, who is well known to many colleagues as the former Member for North East Fife and who is now a professor of international relations at the University of St Andrews. He has put it very well:
“For years we have turned a blind eye to Putin’s dirty money, propaganda and influence in our democracy. Those who called out the corruption were badged as anti-Russian when it was the Russians who were Putin’s first victims. It is a shame that many are only paying attention to his crimes after such grave events. I hope that real action will be taken. After years of inaction we owe the people of Ukraine and Putin’s other victims at least that.”
As we have heard in the many excellent speeches this afternoon, the scale of reconstruction required in Ukraine is vast. Estimates vary from €600 billion to upwards of €1 trillion, but who can calculate it while the conflict is ongoing? It is going to be a major financial exercise in reconstruction, but the wider moral principle is surely that it should be Russian dirty money that pays. If Russian dirty money is good enough to be sequestrated, it is good enough to be requisitioned for reconstruction.
This has been a constructive debate. Let me give some examples of how other states are dealing with the issue. Estonia’s Government have declared a blueprint for the legal seizure of frozen Russian assets. The Frozen Assets Repurposing Bill is working its way through the Canadian Parliament. There is a Swiss law on asset recovery. Today, the European Parliament is debating precisely how to tackle the issue. I associate myself with other hon. Members’ comments that we need an internationally co-ordinated effort, because any loopholes that are allowed to exist will be exploited. I particularly commend the actions of the Italian state: the Guardia di Finanza has made strong strides in seizing assets.
There is a wider lesson for us all. I very much appreciate the speech of my hon. Friend Alison Thewliss about properly resourcing the new financial transparency regime that is working its way through this House. The Guardia di Finanza proves that if there is a strong and properly resourced domestic enforcement mechanism, we will see better results; I strongly believe that the Government could take that on board. Likewise, the Dutch Parliament has already created a trust fund that will be funded by assets in due course, and is working out how it can legally seize them. There is a huge willingness to see the Government do more and do better.
Let me end with a couple of, I hope, constructive points. First, we want to see a wider coalition: we have already seen a coalition in support of Ukraine, but we also need to see a coalition in support of these legal measures. I should be grateful for an assurance from the Minister that the overseas territories will be very much part of the UK’s new regime in this regard, because we are seeing pretty significant evidence that they are being exploited through these loopholes. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I am glad to hear some support from the Conservative Benches.
My second point raises what is, perhaps, a broader issue. A number of the UK’s allies are actively engaged in assisting the Russian state and the oligarchs themselves to get around these systems, and they will be the source of the loopholes that will be exploited. Surely the UK is in a diplomatic position to put considerable pressure on those allies.
Having made those two points, and having referred to the unanimity we have seen today, I add my own salutations to our Ukrainian colleagues. There is a coalition of the willing in this House, and I hope the Government can rise to the opportunity that it presents.
I thank Sir Iain Duncan Smith for his role in securing the debate, and I thank Members on both sides of the House for their expert and powerful contributions. I refer not least to the expertise and campaigning of Members on our own side, including my hon. Friend Sir Chris Bryant—whose Bill I welcome—my right hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) and for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), and my hon. Friend Ms Rimmer.
Let me also welcome our friends from the Rada of Ukraine. We are delighted that they are here with us today, and I hope they have observed that while there is much political division across the House on many other issues, one issue on which the House and indeed the country are absolutely united is the need for us to stand four-square behind Ukraine and ensure that Putin loses this war. Indeed, there has been a great deal of unity on the matters discussed today. I, like others, saw with my own eyes the damage to infrastructure outside Kyiv last September—here I draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I saw the bridges that had been destroyed, and the devastation of residential buildings and key economic infrastructure. It was absolutely shocking, and it is clear that a huge amount needs to be done.
We in the Opposition have been consistent in our support for the Government in relation to expansion of the UK’s sanctions regime, and we have worked constructively with the Government and with Committees to ensure that it is as strong as possible. That said, we have serious concerns about the pace at which the Government continue to act, the glaring gaps in designations and enforcement, and the apparent reluctance on repurposing frozen Russian state assets. We have heard very clearly about the huge economic needs. The Kyiv School of Economics, working in conjunction with the National Bank of Ukraine, estimates that as of December the damage to residential and non-residential infrastructure amounted to $137.8 billion, while the vice-president of the World Bank suggested that the total reconstruction cost would be between $525 billion and $630 billion. In this year alone, Ukraine’s national budget has a $38 billion gap.
Moreover, before reconstruction can begin it will be necessary to clear the huge number of mines and unexploded ordnance that have been scattered across much of the country, including agricultural land. The other day I spoke to a representative of the HALO Trust, who told me that it would take more than a month for every day of fighting in Ukraine to clear the ground of unexploded ordnance and munitions. That means that if the war stopped today, it would take more than 30 years and billions of dollars to make many areas safe for habitation and economic activity to begin again.
We welcome what the Government have said about the reconstruction conference, and we will work across the House to ensure that it is a success. We also fully support the establishment of a legal process to provide for the seizure of Russian state assets and their repurposing to support the recovery and long-term reconstruction of Ukraine. As we have heard, at least £26 billion worth of Russian bank reserves are currently frozen In the UK. Imagine the good that that money could do if it were reappropriated for reconstruction.
We—indeed, many Members on both sides of the House —have been pressing the Government on this matter for the last year. I have been through a list of Government responses. In July last year, they told us that they were
“considering all options on assets that have been seized and whether they can contribute towards the reconstruction of Ukraine.”
In October, they told us that they were
“considering all options on the seizure of Russian-linked assets”.
In December, they told us that they were
“looking at legally robust mechanisms to seize assets to fund reconstruction.”
In February they signed the UK-Ukraine declaration of unity, which included the phrase
“We will pursue all lawful routes to ensure that Russian assets are made available in support of Ukraine’s reconstruction, in line with international law.”
We heard today in oral questions that the House should be assured that the Government were taking this seriously. I very much like the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, but the fact is that there has been no commensurate plan, no announcement and no clear action taken to move this forward over the last year. I hope that she can give us some reassurance today that there will be movement on this issue. She has heard the views of the House. As we have heard, the EU, the USA, Canada and other states are all moving in the right direction, so why aren’t we?
We have heard many different suggestions today, but I was confused to hear the Foreign Secretary say that there was no precedent for seizing assets. Of course, there is the precedent of the first Gulf war in Iraq, as Bob Seely said earlier. The UN Compensation Commission was established and took in $52.4 billion-worth of Iraqi oil revenues, after 1.5 million claims from Kuwait, to pay for reconstruction and reparations in relation to Kuwait. There is much legal advice out there about the potential to have temporary counter-measures, which would perhaps deal with some of the legal objections. There is a lot of scholarly thought out there about that. There is also the question of whether we could temporarily manage assets to provide resources for reconstruction. We also support the establishment of a special tribunal on the crime of aggression, and that could lead to further institutions and processes to allow for the seizure and repurposing of assets.
The UN General Assembly has already voted on this, adopting a resolution during the emergency special session on Ukraine in November 2022 that called for Russia to pay reparations for its action against Ukraine. We have heard what many countries are doing, including the United States. The US Administration presented six proposals in April last year that would allow for
“the forfeiture of property linked to Russian kleptocracy, allow the government to use the proceeds to support Ukraine, and further strengthen related law enforcement tools”.
We have heard about what the European Union is doing, with the directive on asset recovery and confiscation and the suggestion to add the violation of EU sanctions to the list of EU-wide crimes. We have heard about the debate going on in the European Parliament today. We have also heard much about Canada, whose Budget Implementation Act—Bill C-19—contained numerous provisions. Part 5 of that Act made amendments to the Special Economic Measures Act, the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act—the Magnitsky law there—and the Seized Property Management Act. So the United States, the European Union, Canada and others are moving forward, yet this Government have yet to set out a clear plan here.
It has also been pointed out today that our regime is failing and fraying in other ways. I have mentioned the UK-Ukraine declaration of unity, which states:
“We will also ensure, consistent with our legal systems, that Russia has no access to the assets we have frozen or immobilised until it ends, once and for all, its violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
But, given the very real concerns about the granting of licences that my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill has raised on a number of occasions, I want to ask the Minister whether that is still the case. If we are issuing general licences, with minimal ministerial oversight, that can allow assets to be quietly siphoned off with virtually no transparency on why they are being granted, is that consistent with the statement that the UK Government signed up to?
I have asked a series of questions on these issues as well, but scant information has been provided in response. What did become clear was that the FCDO appears to be playing no role in this. I shall quote the answer to one of the questions I had an answer to. It stated:
“While the FCDO works closely with other departments across government on sanctions, under sanctions regulations, the FCDO has no formal role in the issue of licences by the UK Government for (A) Russia and (B) Belarus. The FCDO does not maintain a central record of contacts from other departments on those issues.”
That is quite extraordinary. This is a serious issue that the Government need to look at urgently. Where is the oversight? Where is the enforcement? We would introduce proper ministerial oversight of issuing these licences and a joined-up approach across Government to ensure that every Department was working in lockstep on these issues to prevent those who seek to skirt our sanctions regime from doing so.
The question of enforcement has been raised a number of times. Across the UK’s full sanctions regime, which covers thousands of individuals and relates to countries including Iran, Belarus and Syria, only eight fines have been issued in the last four years, according to the publicly available figures from the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation. Despite the fact that 1,471 Russian individuals and 169 entities are subject to UK sanctions under the Russia regime, no monetary penalties have been issued against any individual or company for sanctions breaches under that regime since the start of the war in Ukraine. Indeed, since
We must contrast that with the United States, which has issued 17 penalties since the start of the war, with a value exceeding $43 million. Four of those penalties were specifically linked to the regime relating to Ukraine, with a value of over $25 million. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda said, people will clearly be abusing the regimes. How is it that the United States is finding people and we are not?
There are clearly areas on which we agree with the Government—we all want to see the most robust regime, and we stand united with them in support of Ukraine—but we must seize, not just freeze, these assets, we must close the loopholes in our regime, and we must ensure the tightest enforcement against all those who would seek to aid and abet Putin’s illegal and barbarous war in Ukraine.
I thank my right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith for securing this important debate. I am grateful to him and other hon. Members for the points they have raised, which I will do my best to address this evening. As ever, I will make sure that we write to Members if I am not able to pick up any specific points.
As we move into the second year of Putin’s illegal and brutal war, I am grateful for the ongoing unity shown by hon. Members on both sides of the House and for the shared determination to support President Zelensky and all Ukrainians until they prevail. It is an honour to have some of our Ukrainian friends in the Gallery today.
Before addressing the seizure of Russian assets, I underline the magnitude of the UK’s response to Putin’s invasion. Although I hear the challenge of Sir Chris Bryant on the quantum of sanctions to date, I will set out what we have done so far. The UK alone has sanctioned more than 1,500 individuals and entities with a net worth of $145 billion, and we have frozen more than £18 billion-worth of Russian assets—assets that Putin now cannot use to fund his war machine. We have also introduced an unprecedented number of trade measures, which have led to a 99% reduction in imports of goods from Russia and a 77% reduction in exports of UK goods to Russia. All those measures have been determined to restrict Putin’s ability to fund and sustain his illegal war. The measures represent the most severe sanctions ever imposed on Russia. The package of sanctions to date includes asset freezes on 23 major Russian banks, with global assets worth $960 billion—that is 80% of Russia’s banking sector—the prohibition of Sberbank from clearing and the removal of 10 banks from SWIFT.
I remind the House that we have sanctioned the Wagner Group in its entirety, and its leader, Prigozhin. My right hon. Friend Vicky Ford will know that, although I cannot comment on whether an organisation is or is not under consideration for proscription, her comments have been noted.
The Financial Times has revealed that the Wagner Group has channelled $250 million into its organisation through sanctions evasion. Is that not evidence that the sanctions implemented against the Wagner Group are not working? What information can the Minister supply to persuade the House that the enforcement regime is actually effective?
I will come back to that in a moment.
The right hon. Gentleman also set out, with his usual articulateness, a very clear pathway through which the UN and the international community might work together to seize Russian state assets. I hope I can reassure him that we will continue to work at the UN with all like-minded countries to address the asset seizure challenge.
The latest package of internationally co-ordinated sanctions and trade sanctions was introduced to mark the anniversary of the invasion on
As Members have highlighted in the debate, the reconstruction of Ukraine is absolutely at the top of the international agenda, while we continue to support Ukraine to defend its country. In September, the World Bank estimated a cost of $349 billion to rebuild Ukraine—a figure that has been rising every day since. Indeed, colleagues have highlighted recent assessments with figures of about $750 billion. Those are monumental sums to consider in respect of the reparations that will be needed.
The UK Government will continue to take a leading role in determining how to assist in this long-term reconstruction challenge. In June, we will be co-hosting the 2023 Ukraine recovery conference in London, alongside the Ukrainian Government. Together, we will mobilise public and private funds to ensure that Ukraine gets the reconstruction investment it needs.
We also remain committed to continuing our direct support for Ukraine. To date, we have helped more than 13 million Ukrainians affected by the war, providing them with £220 million of vital humanitarian assistance, delivered through the United Nations, the Red Cross and other non-governmental organisations. We will continue to work alongside our Ukrainian friends in support of their military defence for as long as they need us to do so.
The key issue of seizing Russian assets to fund Ukrainian reconstruction is one that the Government are extremely focused on, and we are in close discussions with friends and allies. The Government remain clear that Russia must be made to pay for the harm it has caused in its illegal war in Ukraine, in line with international law. The Prime Minister made that clear in the London declaration he signed with President Zelensky during his recent visit to the UK and in the G7 leaders’ statement on
We have a motion before us on the Order Paper, and I hope that the Government will not oppose it and that we will not have a Division at the end of the debate. The Government will therefore be agreeing the following:
“That this House
calls on the Government to lay before Parliament proposals for the seizure of Russian state assets with the purpose of using such assets to provide support for Ukraine”.
So it is a legitimate question to ask: when will the Government be introducing the proposals that they are calling on themselves to introduce?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. If I may, I will continue with my speech before I run out of time. I hope to give him some assurance on his question.
We are continuing to engage with think-tanks, lawyers and Members of the House, and those they are working with, to ensure that we test every available option in detail. I reiterate that I am genuinely grateful to all colleagues for their interventions and proposals to help us work on these challenges, and we are meeting them regularly.
I want to be clear that the Government believe that we should develop the power for frozen assets to be used to rebuild Ukraine, to ensure that we can achieve that practically and lawfully. Given that Ukraine is fighting for its future and the principles of the UN charter and international law, it would be an own goal for Ukraine’s allies to risk being seen to act inconsistently with domestic and international law in their approach to seizing Russian assets.
Is there not also a concern that if we do not act with our allies to move ahead on this principle, and we all start doing our own deals on releasing assets, that would be very damaging for the wall of sanctions? Indeed, the Ukrainians have said that they would be very much against individual deals.
I thank my hon. Friend for setting out one of the important issues that we are making sure we work on as effectively as possible. We are working very closely with our allies on the handling of seized Russian assets, and we will continue to do so. Let us be clear: our international partners face the same challenge. No country has yet found a legally tested solution. Dame Margaret Hodge highlighted that Canada is testing the first seizure proposals and we are watching closely. I reassure the House that as progress is made by individual international partners, we will be right alongside them in considering how the UK can find solutions here too. Of course, as has been set out by colleagues, many proposals need UN leadership, and we will keep on driving that coalition.
In the meantime, we have made it clear that, consistent with our legal systems, Russia will have no access to the assets we have frozen or immobilised until it ends, once and for all, its violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Russia will not get a single euro, dollar or pound back until that is realised.
Colleagues have raised questions about the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill. It will sit alongside the National Security Bill, the Online Safety Bill and the forthcoming economic crime and fraud strategy. It will bear down on criminals who abuse our open economy by reforming Companies House to prevent abuses of limited partnerships; there will also be reforms to target more effectively information sharing to tackle money laundering. The right hon. Member for Barking is right about the effectiveness of section 11 of the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018, and it is used regularly.
I know that right hon. and hon. Members will be disappointed that I cannot speak more fully about sanctions enforcement and OFSI, as these are matters for His Majesty’s Treasury, but I know they will continue to raise their concerns directly and I have heard them today.
I have to press the Minister on this point. Will she and the Treasury together publish a list of the people who have been granted licences and exemptions under the sanctions regime, how many enforcement actions have been taken, and what those actions have delivered in terms of monetary value?
I will take note of that request and make sure that Treasury officials get back to the hon. Gentleman.
I draw the House’s attention to the economic deterrence initiative, which was set out yesterday in the integrated review refresh. Funded with £50 million over two years, it will improve our sanctions implementation and enforcement. That will ensure that we can maximise the impact of all our sanctions, including by cracking down on sanctions evasion.
My right hon. Friend Sir John Whittingdale highlighted the oil price cap, which was brought in at the start of the year at $60. We know it is already having an effect, but the Price Cap Coalition is committed to reviewing shortly whether it is both diminishing Russian revenues and supporting energy market stability as effectively as it can.
The package of sanctions we have co-ordinated with our allies has inflicted a severe cost on Putin for his aggressive ambition and serves as a warning to all would-be aggressors. During President Zelensky’s recent visit to the UK, he and the Prime Minister made it clear that Ukraine and the UK remain the closest of friends. They committed to uphold Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, to defeat Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion, and to pursue all lawful routes to ensure that Russian assets are made available to support Ukraine’s reconstruction, and that is what we will do.
I am grateful to all who took part in the debate. What we have shown here, including to all our Ukrainian friends, is the unity across the House on this issue, and that we will remain united until the invasion is over and Ukraine has received the money it needs.
A summary of what Members have said today, for my right hon. Friend the Minister, is this: we have to do more. We have to do more to implement existing sanctions, and then we have to do more to start the process of enabling ourselves to seize those assets—first Government assets, then private assets—and work in concert with our friends.
I end with a simple message to our friends in Ukraine and those who are here today—it is a huge privilege for us to have them here. We will stay with them until this is over. It will be over when the reparations have been paid, when Ukraine is rebuilt and restructured, and when the Ukrainians have their freedom again. Slava Ukraini, heroyam slava!
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
calls on the Government to lay before Parliament proposals for the seizure of Russian state assets with the purpose of using such assets to provide support for Ukraine, including the rectifying and rebuilding of war damage brought about by the Russian invasion of that country, and to facilitate the prosecution of war crimes and atrocities;
and further calls on the Government to provide progress reports on this policy to the House every six months.