Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:07 pm on 27th June 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Stern Baroness Stern Crossbench 6:07 pm, 27th June 2017

My Lords, I am very glad indeed to see the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, in her place and with the same responsibilities. Working with her on what became the Criminal Finances Act 2017 was very rewarding. That Act received Royal Assent on 27 April—absolutely in the nick of time—and is now on the statute book, thanks almost entirely to her hard work and determination. It is the implications of that Act that I will address in my brief remarks.

The Act is about exposing money laundering, attacking corruption, trying to ensure that less of the world’s wealth finds its way illegitimately into the offshore anonymous bank accounts of highly placed persons who have misappropriated it or evaded taxes on it and instead ensuring that more of the world’s wealth goes to enabling millions of people to live healthy and fulfilling lives. The Act is a substantial step in that direction, but there is still much to do to ensure that the Act lives up to its promise and to take further the previous Government’s excellent anti-corruption work. I fear that much of the impetus will be lost as Brexit swallows up many of our ambitions.

The Conservative manifesto promised that the Government would,

“strengthen Britain’s response to white collar crime”,

which was a welcome statement. Less welcome was the manifesto promise to incorporate the Serious Fraud Office into the National Crime Agency. This is not mentioned in the gracious Speech; it is perhaps a good thing if it does not surface again. It was widely opposed and, just this week, the Serious Fraud Office has taken action against a major British bank for fraud and unlawful financial assistance. It has charged the bank itself, a former boss of Barclays Bank and three ex-directors. This is the first time that a UK bank has faced criminal charges directly related to the financial crisis of 2008. The Serious Fraud Office will, I hope, be left to carry on with its important work.

I turn to the Criminal Finances Act and its potential impact. Unexplained wealth orders brought in by the Act are a new mechanism for dealing with individuals who it is suspected have acquired their assets illicitly. Their introduction was warmly welcomed by all those concerned to see more powers to deal with the huge amount of illicit money finding its way to the UK. These orders now need to be well used. A draft code of practice in relation to them was produced at the very end of the previous Session. Can the Minister tell us when the public consultation on this code is likely to take place and when we can expect to see the first unexplained wealth order made?

Much useful discussion took place about the need for more transparency in the British Overseas Territories and Crown dependencies and about the companies that are registered there. So it is gratifying to see that, on 30 June, the Beneficial Ownership Secure Search System Act will come into force in the British Virgin Islands. This will allow the sharing of information about the ownership of the 417,000 companies registered there. I hope that the Minister can give some assurances that this matter remains on the Government’s agenda.

Finally, I come to the question of what the noble Baroness called the clear abuse of the London property market and high-value properties across the country. She said:

“We must not allow this city”— that is, London—

“to be a haven for kleptocrats hiding their ill-gotten gains”.—[Official Report, 25/4/17; col. 1333.]

Many people would agree with her. In April, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy published a call for evidence about a public register of beneficial ownership of foreign companies that own property in the UK. The House was told on 25 April that, subject to the outcome of the general election, it remained the Government’s intention to introduce the legislation to create such a register. This was not, however, in the gracious Speech. Can the Minister tell us whether this remains the Government’s intention and, if so, when there is likely to be progress in producing one?